Indonesia anti-terror police take a part in a counter terrorism exercise at Benoa harbour in Denpasar on Bali island on March 8, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / SONNY TUMBELAKA

Last week, an Indonesian sympathizer of the Islamic State terrorist group was found guilty of plotting bombings and sentenced to life in prison. The problem is such cases are not atypical. According to a 2020 outlook report released by a Singapore-based think-tank, more terror attacks are to be expected in Indonesia this year.

Over the past 20 years, terrorism and religious extremism have become major challenges for the national security of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. Indonesia has been home to terrorist networks and training camps connected to al-Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS) and Jemaah Islamiyah. The third one is a militant Islamist group that promotes the establishment of an Islamic state in the region. Last but not least, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom notes that Indonesian religious hardliners take advantage of deep connections they have to “the highest levels of government.”

More than four dozen terrorist attacks have been carried out in Indonesia since 2000, mainly by supporters of ISIS and Jemaah Islamiyah. The perpetrators targeted police stations, religious institutions and foreign tourists. The most high-profile attack was the bombings on the island of Bali in 2002, which left 202 people from 21 countries dead.

Crackdown on terrorism

In 2010, in the aftermath of the 2009 Jakarta hotel bombings, Indonesian authorities established the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT). This government department is charged with developing programs aimed at preventing terrorism and coordinating other government departments in this field. But it is Densus 88 – Indonesia’s counterterrorism squad – that has received much media attention.

The squad has carried out multiple raids on military networks, having foiled numerous terrorist attacks. Perhaps one of the most significant achievements of this elite unit was disrupting the activities of jihadist cells linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, with most of its top terrorists being arrested or killed. Most of the squad’s success is due to effective intelligence gathering and analysis as well as high-level training of snipers. Now, Densus 88 is considered one of the world’s best counterterrorism organizations.

However, there is the flip side to this success story. The revisions to the counterterrorism law passed by Indonesia’s House of Representatives in 2018 sparked fears that freedom of expression could be restricted. For example, Amnesty International voiced concerns about the increasing role of the military in counterterrorism operations. Human Rights Watch sent a letter to President Joko Widodo, saying that the amended law contained an overly broad and ambiguous definition of terrorism. Also, HRW was worried about the extended detention period of terrorism suspects without charge, to up to 21 days.

How to deal with overseas fighters?

A separate problem is the repatriation of Indonesians fighting overseas. Last month, the government announced it was planning to bring home 660 fighters from Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey. This is quite a challenging task since the authorities fear that the repatriation may have a negative social impact and affect tourism. Let’s take a look at how the European Union tackles this issue.

Mihai Sebastian Chihaia, security and defense expert with the think-tank Strategikon, shared the European experience in this field.

“Generally, we can observe a reluctance among the EU countries to repatriate their citizens who became ISIS foreign fighters. This stems from a dilemma decision-makers face: on one hand, the public opinion is naturally against taking the ISIS foreign fighters back given the potential threat they pose; on the other hand, repatriating and prosecuting foreign fighters, and on longer term keeping them under watch coupled with investing in deradicalization programs seems to be an effective course of action,” Chihaia told this writer.

“A few alternative measures have been supported such as withdrawing the citizenship of the foreign fighters or supporting the idea of prosecuting and convicting them in Iraq, for instance. The effect of these strategies on the longer term is far from the best. The US has also voiced support for repatriation followed by prosecution of the foreign fighters as the most efficient measure from a counterterrorism point of view,” the expert added.

More focus on prevention needed

Nevertheless, Indonesia’s focus on harsh counterterrorism measures can be effective only in the short term. To root out radicalization, a more comprehensive and socially oriented approach should be taken. Once again, it is worth investigating the European experience. Commenting for this article, Dr Claudio Matera, assistant professor at the University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands, highlighted a multifaceted nature of the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

“Whilst immediate means of cooperation and response to the threats of international terrorism were put into place after the terrorist attacks in New York, the EU adopted a comprehensive strategy on countering terrorism at the end of 2005. The EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy is built upon four pillars: the prevention of terrorist attacks, the protection of citizens and infrastructures, the prosecution of terrorist organizations and their members and, finally, a common response in the event of a terrorist attack,” Matera said.

The expert noted that the creation of an internal strategy was coupled with external action: “The EU promotes the fight against terrorism at the global level by cooperating directly with third countries and international organizations in a plurality of ways: by promoting anti money-laundering standards and norms, by training police and military officials of partner countries, and by promoting the adoption of international norms against terrorism and terrorist organizations in international fora.”

Indeed, the EU and Indonesia have the potential for closer cooperation on security matters. In November, the fourth session of the European Union-Indonesia Political Dialogue was held in Brussels. The parties discussed the development of closer relations in various areas, including counterterrorism. If Indonesia learns more from the European experience, there is a greater chance that it will stake more on deradicalization and prevention measures, something that will certainly have a longer-term impact.

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Tatiana Kanunnikova

Russian journalist Tatiana Kanunnikova is a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs.

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