New Indonesian counter-terrorism measures deserve scrutiny

New Indonesian counter-terrorism measures deserve scrutiny

New measures to combat extremism have been tabled in Indonesia. Although at first glance they seem logical given the growing regional militant threat – particularly from the ongoing armed conflict in Marawi – upon closer inspection they come attached with broader risks.

As concern grows that Islamic State’s (IS) influence is spreading across Southeast Asia, Indonesia has revealed plans to tighten its counterterrorism legislation. Relative to Indonesia’s massive population, IS sympathisers are only thought to number in the thousands, with several hundred having left to fight in Iraq and Syria.

Nevertheless, the spectre of terrorism looms large, particularly given the ongoing conflict in Marawi (less than 400km from Indonesia’s northernmost island of Miangas, North Sulawesi). Over 40 Indonesian fighters are thought to have fought in Marawi, reflecting deep and enduring cooperation between regional militant groups. Tightened legislation should prevent battle-hardened Indonesian youths from orchestrating future attacks on home territory. But this article will examine the negative implications this could have for Indonesia going forward.

The proposed changes

Indonesia is to introduce a new law to enable authorities to imprison returning fighters for up to 15 years. Law enforcement agencies will be given the ability to detain terror suspects without trial, and the definition of terrorism will be broadened to incorporate those propagating hate speech; partaking in paramilitary training; or who are members of a banned extremist group.

At a cabinet meeting in May, Jokowi expressed support for a greater role for the Indonesian military (TNI) in counterterrorism operations. That meeting fell several days after a suicide bombing in East Jakarta that killed three policemen. As discussed below, if implemented this measure could prove highly problematic.

The Security Affairs ministry also seeks to ban two Islamist groups: Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) – which played a controversial role in the Jakarta gubernatorial election.

Tackling IS activity

These measures come at an important time in Indonesia. Despite Jokowi’s drive for economic liberalism and democracy, the Jakarta gubernatorial election showed that Indonesia’s democratic and liberal progress mustn’t be taken for granted. In contrast, illiberal, hardline Islamist forces are gaining traction. Orthodox Sunni Islamic teachings have become increasingly dominant over recent years, providing fertile ground for IS-friendly views for growing and prospering.

In Indonesia, a lack of specific legislation has stifled law enforcement authorities from detaining returning fighters. Arsla Jawaid does note that most known documented returnees were those who had not actually managed to enter the Middle East anyway. However, the case of Marawi is a different question altogether.

Marawi represents the first cohesive, coordinated and sustained attack by IS-linked militants in Southeast Asia, and has changed the narrative regarding the regional terror threat. As IS loses ground in Syria and Iraq, and seeks to consolidate a ‘caliphate’ in the Southern Philippines, similar attacks in Southeast Asia are likely. Nevertheless, according to Jawaid it will still be hard for authorities to prove that certain citizens partook in fighting abroad.

Enhanced police powers should prove useful for tackling the operations of Katibah Nusantara, the South-east Asian wing of IS that spreads propaganda and conducts recruitment and training operations. But combined, those measures will not work as effectively as they do in Malaysia and Singapore, whose smaller populations can be better monitored and contained. Executing these powers across such a complex geographical entity, in terms of logistics, manpower and infrastructure will prove difficult to manage. The case is made more complex when considering the conservative Islamic region of Aceh which is semi-autonomous.

The military’s role

Delegating more responsibility to the army could enhance Indonesia’s terrorism prevention capabilities. Utilising the TNI’s manpower would mean having more boots on the ground. Last year the TNI was lauded for the killing of Santoso – Indonesia’s most-wanted militant – in Poso, Central Sulawesi. According to Francis Chan, that incident was pivotal to strengthening the case for them to play a greater counterterrorism role.

However, a military with enhanced domestic power could lead to abuses of power, infringing upon democracy and civil society. The military became notorious for committing atrocities during the Suharto era. Despite sweeping reforms introduced after the fall of Suharto, specifically designed to keep the military in check, this reputation has never been fully eradicated – as the allegations of atrocities in West Papua suggest. Such involvement would thus likely serve as a ‘last resort’.

Nevertheless, Jokowi’s proposal was endorsed by the Gerindra Party, the party led by Prabowo Subianto, formerly a general under the Suharto regime. Prabowo was Jokowi’s main opponent in the 2014 presidential election and is seeking to challenge him again in 2019. If Gerindra regains power and implements Jokowi’s proposal, this could set back the country’s progress.

As it is, Indonesia already has an effective counterterrorism unit. Detachment 88 was formed with the aid of the US and Australia after the 2002 Bali bombings. It has successfully targeted and dismantled terror cells ever since, foiling numerous potential attacks. Jawaid observes that last year alone, Detachment 88 purportedly arrested 137 alleged terror suspects. That year it foiled 15 attacks, including the Batam Island plot involving Singapore.

Softer measures neglected

It is important that, in targeting harder counterterrorism measures, softer measures are not neglected. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, deradicalisation programmes have had ‘limited success’.

Deradicalisation programmes are allegedly abused by some detainees in order to reduce their sentence. Consequently, repeat offences are common. The perpetrator behind the January 2016 Jakarta attack, Bahrun Naim, was already a convicted terrorist but was somehow released and subsequently went on to mastermind that attack.

The problem of prison recruitment remains critical. As J.C. Liow states, ‘corruption, incompetence, poor monitoring, and poor supervision of visits’ have contributed to the ease with which radical ideologies spread and consolidate within prison institutions. Effective monitoring of released convicts has also been neglected. This surprises Jawaid, considering the likelihood that a lack of economic opportunities and limited skill-sets will push convicts back to jihadism.

Immediate risks remain

Pushing through new anti-terror legislation quickly and efficiently requires immense political will, but it is likely to be approved. The legislation will only come into effect in September, though some officials are hoping that it is implemented sooner. This is certainly in the national interest; over the coming months, Indonesian militants will likely return from Marawi, battle-hardened and with combat experience. This is a time for authorities to be extra-vigilant.

Admittedly, for a country of its size, Indonesia has done remarkably well to prevent extremist violence planned by large militant groups. But it is vulnerable to occasional small-scale ‘lone wolf’ attacks – any one of which has the potential to cause mass casualties.

According to Jonathan Tepperman, Indonesia’s counterterrorism programme has worked ‘through luck as much as skill and improvisation as much as strategy’. It remains to be seen whether the proposed changes will improve upon this already successful formula.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Alexander Macleod

Alex is a Manchester-based Analyst specializing in Southeast Asian political and security risk. He holds a PhD in Politics and Geography from the University of Newcastle, where he examined the role that online media play in promoting and sustaining Malaysia's racialized political landscape during general elections. Alex also freelances as a social media manager for a digital marketing consultancy. He blogs at