Indonesia Should Prudently Weigh New Counter-terrorism Policy & Laws

By Zachary Abuza

Police station damaged by a suicide bombing on January 14, 2016 in Central Jakarta. Source: Wikimedia' user Gunawan Kartapranata, used under a creative commons license.

Police station damaged by a suicide bombing on January 14, 2016 in Central Jakarta. Source: Wikimedia’ user Gunawan Kartapranata, used under a creative commons license.

The dust had not even settled in Jakarta, after a barricade-style attack on a Starbucks on January 14, left eight dead and 26 wounded, before top Indonesian security officials called for the passage of laws to enhance policing powers, allow for preventative detention and criminalize overseas jihadis.

Indonesian security forces have done a very good job dismantling terrorist networks since the 2002 Bali bombing. Over 800 members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) were arrested, and by 2010 it was crippled as a coherent organization. In the process, Indonesia’s police apparatus built up an enormous institutional knowledge of jihadist organizational and social networks. No Internal Security-style act with indefinite and preventative detention was necessary; all suspects were put through a court of law. Indonesia is a unique country in that it not only enhanced its security against the threat of terrorism since 2001, but did so while strengthening the rule of law.

What, then, is behind the calls to increase policing powers? The spread and success of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has revitalized terrorism networks in Southeast Asia. There is a company of Southeast Asians, Katibah Nusantara, fighting for ISIL in Syria and Iraq, including some 14 Malaysian and Indonesian suicide bombers. This unit serves as the of ISIL’s attempt to unify the disparate jihadist community in Southeast Asia.

Recruitment into ISIL is swift and growing. ISIL’s embrace of social media has condensed the rate of recruitment, indoctrination, and incitement to action. The primary reason more Southeast Asians have not traveled to join ISIL in Syria and Iraq is that proactive policing has created a logistical log jam. Few fighters have returned, and the region is going to face a new challenge when a critical mass does return. However, as was the case in Jakarta, those overseas are still able to incite and organize attacks. And with low barriers to entry, including resources, technical skills, and training, the barricade-style attack is likely to be used more frequently.

The threat is real. In December 2015, authorities arrested 11 people plotting to target Christian churches and Shia communities, and in March a returnee from Syria attempted to detonate a chlorine bomb in a Jakarta mall. Indonesia’s current counter-terrorism law dates to 2003 and in many ways is reflective of the then-recent overthrow of the New Order regime, fear of state coercion, and the growth of political Islam. As a result, there have been constant calls to amend the law including:

    • The head of National Police has called for a law to criminalize the act of going overseas for training, or fighting alongside groups such as ISIL or Al Nusrah. These returnees pose a clear and present danger. Some sort of amended law or presidential degree (Perpus) to that effect is likely to be passed. But such a law creates some problems of its own, as not all fighters will return and commit violence in Indonesia. It also creates a potential loss. This law does not reflect that some who go overseas and fight with groups like ISIL become disaffected, and there is no better counter to ISIL ideology than these individuals.


    • To date, the government has resisted calls to strip the citizenship of individuals who fight alongside terrorist organizations. While this may be emotionally satisfying, it accomplishes little. It creates a class of itinerant jihadis, who, again, have no “off ramp” to deradicalization. More importantly, it does not limit the capabilities of those already overseas.


    • The head of the civilian state intelligence agency, Sutiyoso, has called for the power to preemptively detain terrorism suspects. Malaysia and Singapore have historically relied on preventative powers, yet this is politically unfeasible in Indonesia.



    • There have been calls for longer sentences for Indonesian terrorism suspects. This would be welcomed by foreign governments, long dismayed that foreigners with small amounts of cannabis have had far lengthier prison terms than mass murderers.


  • The Indonesian military (TNI) has been pushing for a greater role in counterterrorism since a March 2015 “training mission.” This is part of an alarming attempt by the TNI leadership to wrest back influence and powers lost to civilian agencies since 1998. While there are some situations where the TNI does have a role to play, such as in the hunt for Mujahideen Indonesian Centara (MIT) cell members in the remote jungles of Central Sulawesi, these should be the exception, not the rule. And any attempt to weaken the preeminent role of the elite counter-terrorism police force should be rejected.

In addition to building up a strong civilian-led counterterrorism police force, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s government should focus on improving or enhancing counter-terrorism capabilities in the following areas:

First is Indonesia’s improving financial intelligence capability, an under-appreciated tool which has played a crucial role in hampering the growth of organizational capacity and recruitment. A major terrorist financier and recruiter was taken down in the summer of 2015, and the hurdles for aspiring foreign fighters to travel are very high. The Indonesian Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center froze $205,000 in 2015 from overseas accounts. The financial side is important for another reason. Indonesian authorities have long been reluctant to shut down madrassas, mosques, or charities, even when there is a clear and compelling connection to terrorist cells and acts of violence. If the government is not going to shut the social networks that support terrorism down, it can at least try to dry up their funding and limit the scope of their operations.

Second, Indonesia’s biggest counter-terrorism failing to date has been in its prisons. Indonesia has put terror suspects on trial, but the sentencing is, in general, very lenient. Unlike Malaysian or Singaporean law which permits their government to hold suspects indefinitely, almost all get released eventually in Indonesia., Indonesia, not surprisingly, has high rates of recidivism. Its most important ISIL-linked clerics, such as Abdurrahman Aman and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, are both behind bars but still able to deliver sermons, recruit, and indoctrinate.

Indonesian security officials continue to discuss establishing a single prison in order to keep its terrorism convicts out of the general prisoner population, though President Widodo has been against the program. Such a program is essential, as prisons have been key recruitment grounds.

And due to the high rates of recidivism, Indonesia must also increase resources for post-release monitoring and counseling. Its disengagement program remains woefully underfunded.

Third, Indonesia’s limited resources mean it is all the more important that the administration end the turf wars amongst its security forces. The National Counter-terrorism Agency (BNPT) is supposed to coordinate policy, but with a budget of only US$23.8 million, it has few resources or tools at its disposal to force the different agencies to coordinate and cooperate with one another.

Finally, there needs to be far more intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation with regional counterparts, as well as with countries like Turkey. The ISIL threat in Southeast Asia is not confined to Indonesia. Katibah Nusantara members include Malaysians and other Southeast Asians, not just Indonesians. Indonesian Bahrun Naim and Malaysian Muhammad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi are certainly able to recruit and lead operations in each other’s country. This is a regional threat that demands a corresponding regional response.

It is unfair to describe the January 14 attack as an intelligence failure. It is clear that with a growing threat, Indonesian authorities will need some new tools and more resources. Yet the government of President Widodo should move prudently, cognizant of the unintended consequences of hasty policy.

Dr. Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College where he focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues. Follow him on twitter @ZachAbuza.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *