A Muslim man wears a headband showing the Islamic State group's symbol during a protest in the eastern Indonesian city of Surabaya in a 2014 file photo. Photo: Facebook

JAKARTA – With battered Islamic State (ISIS) urging its followers to take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic’s disruption and launch renewed attacks around the world, Indonesian counter-terrorism police have seized a startling amount of ammunition in raids at opposite ends of Java.

Terrorism experts say the 2,300 rounds of ammunition, all of it for assault rifles and other service weapons used by the police and military, is the most Indonesian militants are known to have had in their possession in almost two decades.

Three suspects allegedly belonging to the ISIS-linked Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) were arrested on April 26 by the Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit in the Surabaya suburb of Sidoarjo, along with 288 rounds of 5.56 mm and 9 mm ammunition.

Also seized in the raid was a camouflaged Pindad-made SSI-V4 sniper rifle, normally carried by specialized elements of Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) raider battalions, and two 9 mm Browning automatic pistols.

A day later, following a trail left by employees of a Surabaya-based courier company, police captured three more militants and reportedly found an additional 2,000 rounds of ammunition near the Banten province capital of Serang, west of Jakarta.

The second arms seizure has received little media coverage, which suggests official sensitivity over a possible leakage from Pindad itself, or from a unit within the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI).  A former air force servicemen is among the detainees.

In an unrelated incident in southern Central Kalimantan, a new sanctuary for fugitive militants, local police arrested a man who was tracked by street cameras after planting a home-made bomb in a mosque.

A government worker removes ISIS flags painted on walls near Veteran Street in Surakarta City, Indonesia, in a file photo. Photo: AFP Forum/Agoes Rudianto

Police are saying little about what might have been planned for the weaponry, but as one security source told Asia Times: “It’s very disturbing. They have to get to the bottom of it. It’s not that easy to get ammunition in that quantity without someone missing it.”

The only clear sign of Indonesian militants heeding the ISIS call to arms is in Central Sulawesi, where Mujahideen of Eastern Indonesia (MIT) extremists have recently lost five followers in jungle clashes with security forces around Poso, the provincial capital.

“The arrival of the virus gave MIT new hope that victory was near,” said Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) director Sidney Jones, pointing to new recruits joining the small, rag-tag band that can still call on some local support.

Otherwise, the level of terrorist activity has been generally low. Jones noted in a recent briefing paper that some ISIS supporters are less focused on jihad operations and more on how the virus may be yet another sign that the end of the world is near, a strange new preoccupation with Indonesian extremists.

Mainstream Islamists have showed little inclination to exploit social unrest associated with sharp increases in unemployment, and an up-tick in anti-Chinese rhetoric among hardliners on social media has not been matched by any trouble on the streets. 

Still, past experience has shown that terrorists strike when they are least expected to and, in the past, have often have only been thwarted at the last minute by Detachment 88 operatives.

Last June, police arrested 34 suspects in Central Kalimantan for allegedly planning a suicide bombing in Jakarta. Some were members of JAD who fled Java in 2018 after trying to establish a training camp on the jungled slopes of Mount Salak, 90 kilometers south of Jakarta.

Indonesian anti-terror police from Detachment 88 stand guard near explosive materials and other evidence confiscated in raids on suspected militants in a 2016 file photo. Image: Facebook

Detachment 88 has only recently been taken over by Major General Marthinus Hukom, 48, one of the original 2002 Bali bombing investigators and a member of the counterterrorism unit since it was formed in the wake of the country’s worst terrorist outrage.

Hukom was previously part of the unit’s intelligence arm and is reputed to have a highly tuned understanding of how JAD and other home-grown terrorist networks operate, mostly communicating through different groups on social media.

One of those arrested in the Banten operation was reportedly related to Serang-born Imam Samudra, executed along with two other militants on the prison island of Nusa Kambangan in November 2008 for his leading role in the Bali bombing.

The scene of the Banten operation was the bustling, devoutly-Islamic market town of Pandeglang, where former chief security minister Wiranto was stabbed in the stomach by a knife-wielding militant last October as he arrived for an official function.

Wiranto survived, but it was the first attack on a Cabinet minister in recent memory and raised concerns that JAD might be targeting senior figures in President Joko Widodo’s administration. The recent arms seizures have renewed those worries.

Banten was previously part of West Java, the country’s most populous province and the cradle of the Darul Islam movement which fought an abortive low-level insurgency in the 1950s to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state.

Currently the bastion of the Islamic-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), the only opposition party in Parliament, western Java has handed Widodo crushing defeats in two successive elections, although he regained much of that ground in Central and East Java.

Indonesian ISIS members in Syria. Photo: Facebook

JAD was responsible for the 2016 bomb and gun attack in downtown Jakarta that left eight people dead, as well as the May 2018 suicide bombing of three churches and a police station in Surabaya which killed 15 bystanders and 13 of the bombers.

Up to now, the organization is not known to have any expertise in the use of automatic weapons. A group of militants was meant to have received training on the southern Philippines island of Basilan in 2016, but it was cut short by a military operation.

After that, ISIS fighters were too busy preparing for the armed occupation of Marawi city further north in Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province, which erupted in May 2017 and raged on for five months, killing 978 militants and 168 Philippine government soldiers.

Since then, IPAC’s Jones says a chapter of misfortunes has stymied repeated efforts by JAD to import thirty M-16 and AK-47 rifles from southern Mindanao, which the organization has already paid for and are reportedly being kept in Zamboanga.

One of the earlier attempts to move the weaponry was through the Indonesian island of Kalimantan, across the Sulu Sea from’ Zamboangaon the south end of Mindanao. But the firebombing of a church in the East Kalimantan capital of Samarinda, which killed a small child, gave authorities cause to roll up the local ISIS network.