Changing terror threat spurs new role for military

A new accord between the Indonesian counterterrorism agency and the armed forces has raised eyebrows in a country that only recently embraced democracy. But supporters say Indonesia requires new strategies to deal with the shadowy jihadist threat.

By Andhika Bhakti for Khabar Southeast Asia in Jakarta

September 20, 2013
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Although Indonesia has been largely successful in breaking up notorious terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, extremist movements have adapted by forming smaller cells that operate in obscurity and are harder to trace.

  • Anti-terror troops enter a building during a counterterrorism exercise at the Indonesia Peace and Security Center (IPSC) in Sentul, Bogor, on September 13th. The military is set to take a more active role in combating terrorism in Indonesia. [Bay Ismoyo/AFP]

    Anti-terror troops enter a building during a counterterrorism exercise at the Indonesia Peace and Security Center (IPSC) in Sentul, Bogor, on September 13th. The military is set to take a more active role in combating terrorism in Indonesia. [Bay Ismoyo/AFP]

Reining in these shadowy, decentralised groups – which often have links to the criminal underworld -- requires greater vigilance among all stakeholders in society, Indonesian authorities say. As part of its effort to meet the ever-evolving threat, the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) took a dramatic – and controversial – step this month, signing a deal with the armed forces to allow the military a greater role in the fight against violent extremists.

"The Army holds a territorial function that reaches even to the furthest village," BNPT Deputy Director Agus Surya Bakti said after a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed on September 5th. "There is an assumption that the BNPT and the National Police are solely responsible for terrorism prevention. The truth, however, is that we are all obliged to play a part."

Under the agreement, district-level military personnel known as Babinsa (Bintara Pembina Desa sor village development officers) will keep an eye out for suspicious activities, working together with local police as well as leaders of neighbourhood and community associations -- Rukun Tentangga (RT) and Rukun Warga (RW), respectively.

"Until now, terrorists have planned their actions from houses in village areas. How can the RT chief not know?" Agus said.

Under the new arrangement, Babinsa will coach local people in securing the region and tracking for suspicious activities, including monitoring infrastructure facilities in the countryside and new residents entering the community.

"If there is a newcomer, RW or RT will inform Babinsa," Meris said.

Plans to involve the military have raised eyebrows. It was only 15 years ago, in 1998, that Indonesia shook off decades of military rule and embraced democracy. As a result, many are hesitant about expanding the role of the armed forces or blurring the lines between civilian and military institutions.

Concerns over military power

Ridwan Pambudi, a 54-year-old resident of West Java, expressed reservations about the move.

"I respect the decision. However, there are some concerns about providing more power to the military," he told Khabar Southeast Asia. "I hope we will not be stepping back to the New Order era when the military had enormous power, including the ability to spy on our society."

But Krisna Dwiyanto, a student at the University of Indonesia focusing on security studies, said the expanded military role was good news.

"As we know, the style of terrorism in Indonesia is now changing. Many of them are breaking out into smaller organisations, but are still devoted to the various networks, such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), and other hardline groups. The involvement of TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia) will aid in the tracking of terrorism efforts," he said.

"The TNI has strong structure in society, and therefore, they will be able to monitor the situation accurately from a grassroots level," he added.

Experts on terrorism and security, however, agree that fighting terrorism is becoming a more complex task.

"Terrorist networks in Indonesia have splintered into small groups and multiple cells. They will continue to plan attacks at any time," Ansyaad Mbai, the head of the BNPT, told Khabar in a phone interview.

Smaller cells, greater danger

Terrorist movements are no longer concentrated in one training camp, Ansyaad said. Rather, militants are using houses to assemble bombs and other weapons. In Poso and West Java, terrorists have even rented houses from local people for months.

Despite their small scale, these groups have the potential to be more dangerous than ever because they may be able to deploy liquid and chemical explosives, Ansyaad indicated.

"Each time we arrest somebody, it does not mean we are done with our duty. We capture one and others escape, or we have to release them because we do not have enough evidence. They are trying to fight by creating fear in our society. Therefore, an active co-operation from TNI and society will certainly help," he said.

The change also follows inauguration of a new TNI Commander, General Moeldoko, who has signalled his intention to see the military more involved in fighting terrorism.

TNI is planning to form a specialised anti-terror unit, similar to the National Police's Detachment 88. The proposed Special Operation Command (Komando Operasi Khusus TNI) will combine all three branches of the military.

"There are times when the police cannot carry out counterterrorism alone, when the difficulty is beyond the police's ability," Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro told The Jakarta Post.

Reader Comments
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    • Helena
      September 19, 2013 @ 11:09:08PM
    • In a time without war, it is only fitting that the TNI continues to contribute in a real sense by combating terrorism because if they don't, their use would come into question. The armed forces receive salaries from the taxpayers, they train everyday, so there should be tangible benefits: their service to society. The concern that the TNI will once again gain power as they did during the new order era is understandable. Therefore, what is important is to create laws that would prevent the abuse of power by the TNI from developing. The police will remain at the front line of civil defense, TNI would give support where needed. Let us avoid institutional ego for the sake of prestige.
    • max
      November 14, 2013 @ 07:11:12AM
    • It is time that the TNI resume their role in fighting terrorism such as it is written in the law concerning the TNI.

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