A recent suicide bombing in Poso has sparked concerns among locals, who worry that terrorists and radical fundamentalists may be trying to build up a presence in the potentially volatile region.
On June 3rd, a man drove a motorcycle into a Poso police compound, located near a mosque, and detonated explosives strapped to his body. The bomber was later identified as Zainul Arifin, and authorities say they have evidence he was linked to a newly-emerging terror group.
Although no one except the bomber died in the blast, local resident Safuad Hasan says the incident has made people anxious – especially given Poso's long history of intercommunal tensions.
"Actually, we are very nervous about the situation in Poso," he told Khabar Southeast Asia "One, we have to struggle with a religious conflict, which can flare at any time. Secondly, we are struggling with terrorism in the region."
The identity of the attacker has raised fears that groups from outside the area may be trying to set up shop in Poso ahead of the upcoming national elections.
"You know that Zainul Arifin was not from Poso; he was from Java," Safuad said.
"When the country is approaching the election in 2014, I am sure Poso will be more alert. I am afraid if religion will be used by irresponsible people. That could create instability here," he said.
Suspected terrorists at large
While Indonesian authorities say it would be premature to talk of Poso becoming a terrorist recruitment base, Central Sulawesi Police Chief Brigadier General Ari Dono Sukmanto confirms that Islamic hardliners are trying to expand their operations in the region.
"There are many new names [on the police list of suspected terrorists]," he told Khabar over the phone. "We will continue our investigation."
Earlier this year, Poso police circulated a "wanted" list of 24 suspected terrorists. Only a few have been arrested or killed.
Additionally, Poso Police Chief Susnadi told Khabar that radical militants have many weapons and explosive devices imported from militants in the southern Philippines.
"They have a lot of ammunition and bombs. They also have capacity to recycle them," he said.
Religious tolerance crucial
Santoso, the hardline leader in Poso, is still at large.
"People like Santoso and other militants will not stop until they get what they want. Only God knows what they want! However, keeping religious tolerance is the key for Poso to secure the region," said Mafuad Syariffuddin, known as Fuad, an Islamic cleric in Poso.
Residents fear that radical Muslims from other parts of Indonesia may fashion themselves as jihadists in Poso, as they did in Ambon, Fuad said.
"I guess people in Poso – both Muslims and Christians – have understood that religious division is the key for radical Muslims to divide the region. We need to do two important campaigns: to stop recruitment by militants and to increase religious tolerance."
Resident Airlangga Husni told Khabar that Poso could very likely be a terrorist recruiting ground, due to its difficult geography, low education levels, and the presence of migrants from Java, whose influence could be positive or negative.
To prevent the spread of radical ideology, he said, "religious education is very important for Poso society, because ours is a conflict area with many terrorists."
Samsul Rizal Panggabean, a researcher at Gadjah Mada University's Centre for the Study of Security and Peace, said many hardliners in Poso are not natives of the area.
"My three suggestions: first, the Poso government must act firmly against anyone who is involved in recruitment. Second, Poso authorities must conduct weapons raids. Third, security must be increased so that groups planning revenge attacks have no opportunity to carry them out," he said.
"The government and the Muslim and Christian communities in Poso must solidly reject violence," he added.
Poso was the site of a bloody Muslim-Christian conflict from 1998 to 2001. As many as 1,000 people died in the fighting, which ended with the signing of the Malino Accords in 2001 and 2002. Since then conflict has occasionally flared, and the region has remained a magnet for Muslim extremists.