Indonesia’s military has been fighting a guerrilla war with Muslim radicals in Sulawesi for years. Officials claim to be closing in on the group’s leader.
What most people know about Sulawesi is that the island has breathtaking sights and a host of natural wonders. What they’re less likely to know is that the island is also the setting of a long-standing guerrilla war between the Indonesian military and a group of Muslim radicals.
Skirmishes involving shootings, bombings and kidnappings have been going on for more than five years in the Poso region of Sulawesi.
Now at the centre of the fight is a man named Santoso, Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist fugitive, and the country’s most high-profile supporter of the Islamic State (IS) movement.
“He is important, symbolically, as the only ‘commander’ who is actively engaged in a jihad on Indonesian soil,” says Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, in an interview with Indonesia Expat. “He managed to provide rudimentary military training to more than 100 would-be terrorists between 2011 and 2014.”
Santoso calls himself the “head of the army of IS in Indonesia”, as he was one of the first Indonesians to declare allegiance to the caliphate in early July 2014. However, his interest in ISIS is less ideological than instrumental. Santoso reportedly believes the link to the IS movement will get him more men and funds for his home-grown terrorist group, Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT), which has become something of an umbrella group for most local militants to rally behind in Indonesia.
The group is believed to be behind several attacks on police officers in Poso and other parts of Central Sulawesi in recent years. While terrorism experts say MIT is still some time away from becoming an organized group, its connections and Santoso’s extremist aspirations are troubling to authorities, with the number of casualties increasing.
“The number of people he or his men have killed in this period is probably about 20, most of them police,” says Jones.
Realizing the potential threat of MIT, the US targeted the group with sanctions last September over its alleged links to the IS. Last Tuesday, the US State Department added Santoso to its list of specially designated global terrorists, freezing any US assets he may have had, and barring any American citizen from becoming affiliated with him.
“As a result of this designation, all property subject to US jurisdiction in which Santoso has any interest is blocked, and US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with Santoso,” the US government said in a statement.
The inclusion of Santoso on the list allows American law enforcement officials to take action if needed, and thereby team-up with their Indonesian counterparts to disrupt Santoso’s operation. The US says the designation enables “coordinated action across the US government and with our international partners to disrupt the activities of terrorists, including by denying them access to the US financial system, and enabling US law enforcement actions.”
In response to Washington’s move, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir says the US is entitled to its appraisal of the Poso terrorist, signalling the archipelago’s own interest in seeing Santoso brought to justice.
“Our National Police have been serious in their pursuit and detention of terrorist suspects in Indonesia; the hunt [for terrorists] commenced long before [the label] and will continue to be pursued,” Nasir told the media.
Nasir adds that Jakarta will still need to verify the US State Department’s mechanisms for labelling Santoso a global threat, but he was sure that the decision was sound.
The manhunt for Santoso and his followers is still ongoing, with at least 2,500 military and National Police personnel deployed since January. National Police chief Gen. Badrodin Haiti claims the target, believed to be in hiding in forests of Poso, is within their reach.
“His arrest is only a matter of time,” Haiti recently told The Jakarta Post, adding that the number of soldiers is sufficient, and their strategies are appropriate to confront Santoso’s guerrilla group. However, the police chief says the difficulty in arresting Santoso sits in geographical challenges. He said, “We have also been hampered by the weather as it rains every day there.”
He added that the manhunt is also a race against time, as Santoso could gain more followers in the near future. Currently, the National Police estimates Santoso has only around 38 followers. Haiti claims that several recent arrests might lead the group to bring on new people. “Many Santoso followers have been arrested,” he said. “It is likely that the group will recruit new members.”
According to Jones, Santoso had been able to recruit several Uighurs (indigenous Muslim people from Northwest China) to support his movement. “The most interesting thing about his operation is the fact that several Uighurs have joined him; the result of an agreement between Indonesians fighting with ISIS in Syria and Uighurs, whom they apparently met there. The agreement was to try and divert some of the thousands of Uighurs fleeing Xinjiang through Southeast Asia (they all want to get to Turkey from Malaysia) to Poso to strengthen Santoso’s personnel,” says Jones.
So far, six ethnic Uighurs have joined Santoso. Two of them, Mus’ab and Faruq Magalasi, were killed during a shootout in Poso in mid-March. The police recently put four more Chinese Uighurs on their latest most-wanted list after determining they had joined the MIT.
Central Sulawesi Police chief Brig. Gen. Rudy Sufahriadi says that the manhunt has succeeded in cornering Santoso and his group. He claims the group is down in numbers after the military killed and arrested several of its key members. Reports also suggest the group is running out of supplies.
Sufahriadi says the joint operation has intensified its search for the group’s hideout in Poso forests, focusing the search on Napu Valley, a location around three hours from the provincial capital of Palu. During the manhunt that began in January, officials searched Torire Mountain in the Lore Peore sub-district and Talabose Mountain in the Central Lore sub-district.
While Santoso and his group’s arrest may indeed only be a matter of time, Jones believes the MIT group poses no greater threat to Indonesia than other militant groups.
“The guerrillas pose no [immediate] threat to Indonesia [in general], and if the police managed to arrest Santoso tomorrow, it would not greatly lower the risk of terrorism,” says Jones. According to her, people should be more concerned with other local ISIS leaders.
She adds, “More terrorist attacks in Indonesia are likely, as local ISIS leaders compete at home and abroad to establish their supremacy. In particular, a trio of Indonesians based with ISIS in Syria – Bahrumsyah (alias Abu Ibrahim), Salim Mubarok (alias Abu Jandal), and Bahrun Naim – are competing with each other to encourage their contacts in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to undertake attacks against enemies of the self-declared caliphate.”