Anti-terror policemen stand guard following a bomb blast at police office in Surabaya, Indonesia May 14, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Anti-terror policemen stand guard following a bomb blast at police office in Surabaya, Indonesia May 14, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

With President Joko Widodo and his security chiefs leaning impatiently over its shoulder, Indonesia’s House of Representatives on Friday rushed through a revision to the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law which gives police sharp new teeth to deal with a new surge in Islamic State-inspired attacks across the country.

It took barely a fortnight, a record for the notoriously sluggish Parliament, to approve a range of amendments which among other things will give police a longer time to hold terrorist suspects without charge to carry out their investigations.

Shocked by a prison uprising and wave of suicide bombings and attacks in Jakarta, Surabaya and Sumatra, Widodo had warned legislators that unless they approved the revised law in short order he would introduce the necessary changes through a presidential regulation in lieu of law.

Much of the public debate focused on the definition of terrorism and the way it would give the Indonesian Armed Forces’ (TNI) direct involvement in counterterrorism, something it has been pushing for over the past decade.

In the end, however, the actual extent of the TNI’s future role was left to a presidential decree, with Widodo needing no reminder that it is a particularly sensitive subject in a country with a 32-year history of military-backed authoritarian rule.

President Joko Widodo at an Indonesian army military exercise in Baturaja, southern Sumatra island in 2016. Photo: AFP/Presidential Palace/Rusman

More important for investigators is a new article extending the period of detention for anyone suspected of planning a terrorist attack from the current seven days, hardly enough time to build an indictment, to a maximum of 30 days.

The new legislation also extends definitive detention for a suspected terrorist from an all-inclusive 180 days to a maximum of 510 days – 300 days for investigation and 210 days for prosecution, including two extensions that must be approved by the courts.

Although the details are not spelled out, individuals believed to be plotting terrorist acts can be placed in “certain places which remain under the jurisdiction of investigators and prosecutors for up to a maximum of six months.”

Despite the controversy surrounding the issue, the military’s role at this stage is defined in the law as “by any means to provide reinforcement to the police,” making it clear that the police retain the lead role in counterterrorism efforts.

Under the current law, terrorism is defined as any action using violence or threats of violence that causes widespread terror and leads to mass casualties and destruction, or the destruction of vital strategic objects.

Police stand guard at the site of a bomb blast at the Pentecost Church Central Surabaya, East Java, May 13, 2018. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Moch Asim

Most of the parties on the parliamentary special committee reviewing the revision agreed that rather than characterizing terrorism as a national threat, it should be defined as “any action that has political and ideological motives or has the intention of destabilizing security.”

As a national threat, albeit an internal one, it might have fitted too easily into the TNI’s constitutionally mandated role of external defense, which became the military’s singular mission after it separated from the police in 1999 soon after the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime.

Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) and two other members of the governing coalition, Golkar and National Awakening (PKB), were the only parties to oppose the new definition, arguing that the limits of the military’s role were already clear.

The opposition Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) and the centrist Democrat parties, led by retired generals Prabowo Subianto and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, see terrorism as an extraordinary threat and therefore different from a crime usually handled by police.

Certainly, the mission of the paramilitary Detachment 88 counterterrorism force is a lot different from that of a normal police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit, which is rarely confronted with suicidal militants ready to die for a cause.

Anti-terror policemen stand guard near coffins at a police hospital in Surabaya, Indonesia May 15, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

So far, it has had enough training to tackle most tasks, but any plane hijack or a mass hostage-taking would almost certainly call for the intervention of army special forces’ (Kopassus) elite Detachment 81 unit and its counterparts in the navy (Denjaka) and air force (Bravo 90).

Embedded in local folklore is Operation Woyla in 1981, when a Kopassus team flew to Bangkok to take down a commandeered Garuda Airlines jetliner, killing all five Islamic militants who had hijacked the plane on an internal Indonesia flight and forced it to land in Thailand.

Then military intelligence chief Benny Moerdani worked with the Thai government and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to mount the pre-dawn assault, which took place at the exact time as the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.

While deploying the military in crisis situations would not be any different from Western countries, legislating its use in any domestic context will always be regarded by Indonesian human rights groups as the thin end of the wedge.

This week the House of Representatives endorsed the reactivation of the Joint Special Operations Command, which TNI commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto has said will lead the military’s counterterrorism efforts – and not just in times of crisis.

President Joko Widodo (R) inaugurates Air Force Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto (L) as military chief, Jakarta, December 8, 2017. Photo: AFP/Gagah Adhaputra

“The TNI’s counterterrorism role is a full package, from monitoring, early prevention and enforcement to mitigation, all of which will be carried out under the scope of military operations other than war,” he told a parliamentary hearing.

While the army has made significant strides in improving its human rights record, its approach will always be different from a civilian police force. Says one retired police officer: “If you get the army involved, it will want to take control.”

In some ways, a compromise may have already been reached. Police and military officials make up the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), formed in 2010 and always led by a policeman, including previously by current police chief Tito Karnavian.

They have also operated together in the field. For instance, the Army Strategic Reserve and a specialized Police Mobile Brigade unit joined forces to track down and kill Islamic insurgent leader Abu Wardah Santoso in the jungles of Central Sulawesi in July 2016.

A policeman asks a woman a question at the gate of a police office that was hit by a bomb blast, Surabaya, Indonesia May 15, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

But Defense Ministry director for strategic policy Brigadier General Muhammad Nakir did nothing to allay fears of a wider military influence when he told an audience in 2016 that the dominant threat to the country was non-military, “which enters softly but can suddenly destroy our defenses.”

While Nakir referred to land conflicts, drugs, technology and even overlapping by-laws, the then-TNI chief, General Gatot Nurmantyo, who still has presidential ambitions, often claimed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were working for foreign interests as part of a so-called “proxy war.”

Retired General Agus Widjoyo, head of the National Defense Institute and among the country’s leading military reformers, is strongly opposed to the TNI’s still-pervasive territorial structure being given any role in counterterrorism intelligence gathering.

“Absolutely not,” he told Asia Times. “The military has no authority to venture outside its mission. Everything relating to deployments of TNI elements has to be in accordance with the (constitutional) principle of civilian political supremacy.”