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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South East Asia > Indonesia > TNI and Counter-Terrorism: Not a Good Mix

TNI and Counter-Terrorism: Not a Good Mix

Sidney Jones, Strategic Review  |   9 Jan 2012

Since 2009, there has been a concerted effort by the Indonesian government to give the Indonesian military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI) a larger role in counter-terrorism. This is not a good idea. However logical it may seem on the surface, the TNI is now almost 10 years out of date in understanding the nature of the terrorist threat. It prides itself on operational readiness, but it is readiness to confront a theoretical enemy. Without specialized knowledge of how extremist groups function in Indonesia today, the TNI’s involvement will bring no added value to the fight against terrorism: it is more likely to bring confusion, competition and duplication of effort.

Three developments have spurred the recent push for a TNI role, in addition to long-standing military resentment over access by the police to the flood of counter-terrorism funding that became available after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The first was the discovery of a plot to kill President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono by the same men who carried out the July 2009 bombings of the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels in Jakarta. Suddenly the perception of terrorism shifted from a crime aimed at foreigners or local Christians to a major threat against state security, and the president himself wanted all hands on deck.

Second was the debacle in Temanggung, Solo, Central Java provinc in August 2009 when hundreds of police were deployed against a lone suspect hiding in a farmhouse who was believed to be the region’s most wanted terrorist, Noordin M. Top. After a 17- hour siege carried live on Indonesian television and thousands of rounds of ammunition fired in haphazard shooting at the house, the man in question was brought out dead -- and turned out to be a terrorist involved in the hotel bombings, but not Noordin. The military’s contempt was palpable. One TNI officer said disparagingly: “We could have done it with six men and a dog – and brought him out alive.” The Temanggung siege was not the police’s finest hour, and more than any other incident, it reinforced a conviction among many in the military that they could do better.

The third development was the proliferation of terrorist incidents since 2009. Between 2002 and 2005, the world’s perception was that Indonesia suffered one major terrorist incident a year: the Bali bombing in 2002, the first Marriott Hotel bombing in 2003, the Australian embassy bombing in 2004 and the second Bali bombings in 2005, which except for the first were all the work of Top. But these were only attacks against foreign targets. In reality there were always more: the year 2005 alone, in addition to the restaurant bombings in Bali, saw the May 2005 bombing of the Tentena market in Central Sulawesi Province that killed 22; the attack on a police post in West Ceram, Maluku province that killed five paramilitary police and their cook; and the beheading of three schoolgirls in the Central Sulawesi town of Poso.

In 2010 and 2011, however, the number of plots seemed to skyrocket, and this was taken as evidence that the police were falling down on the job. Seven separate groups were uncovered in 2011: a group of high school bombers from Klaten, Central Java, discovered in January; the men who delivered book bombs to several public figures in March and were arrested after a Good Friday plot against a church in Serpong, West Java province; the network responsible for the suicide bombings that killed only the bombers themselves at a police mosque in Cirebon, also in West Java, in April and an evangelical church in Solo in September; a group that killed two police in Palu, Central Sulawesi in May; a group in Jakarta plotting in June to poison police with cyanide; a radical network in Bima, Sumbawa Island whose members killed one policeman and were planning other attacks; and a group caught in July smuggling in firearms from the Mindanao region in the southern Philippines. On top of it all, Umar Patek, one of the original Bali bombers, was arrested in Abbottabad, Pakistan in January 2011 and turned out to have been living undetected in Indonesia for more than a year after secretly returning from the Philippines in June 2010.

An examination of these groups – wholly homegrown and for the most part, poorly trained – underscores why it would be a mistake to bring the military in. All evidence suggests that no one in the TNI has done his the necessary homework on what kind of threat Indonesia faces.  Senior TNI officers have said that terrorism is a threat to the integrity of the nation; that in itself would be reason enough for military involvement. But even the first Bali bombings, terrible as they were, posed no threat to Indonesian political stability, let alone territorial integrity, and the more recent incidents -- drive-by shootings of police, poorly made explosive vests that barely killed the bombers, high school students trying to make bombs from cow dung – have hardly been threats to the nation.

The total number of deaths from terrorist crimes in 2010 was 10, all of them police officers, and in 2011, three, again all police. This is not to downplay the danger of the ideology that produces these actions or dismisses the possibility that a more virulent strain of terrorism with international links could emerge. It is merely to note the gulf between the TNI’s image of terrorism and the reality of recent crimes.

The TNI touts the capacity of the specialized anti-terror forces of the Army, Navy and Air Force, arguing that these are assets lying idle that could be better used in the fight. It is thinking in terms of a Mumbai-style attack where if an amphibious interdiction effort failed, trained commandos could rappel onto rooftops from a state-of-the-art helicopter. But the culprits these days tend to be radicalized youth whose ambitions exceed their skills. It is fine to prepare for contingencies, but no act of terrorism in Indonesia in the last decade has been beyond police capacity to handle. There is no reason for activating these “idle assets.” Even if the Temanggung siege could have been better handled (including by not permitting the media turn it into a live reality show broadcast), it does not follow that it should have been a military rather than a law enforcement operation.

If the police have been faulted for the dozens killed in anti-terrorist operations, it should be remembered that the one time the military was sent on a counter-terrorism mission to rescue passengers in a 1981 hijacking of a Garuda Indonesia flight, all of the terrorists ended up dead, with some almost certainly executed. There is no reason to think that military operations would be more “surgical”.

One of the military’s main arguments for a bigger role in counter-terrorism is that in its territorial command structure down to the village-level babinsa, it possesses an underused intelligence capacity that is better than anything the police have to offer.  The specialized forces of Detachment 88, the police counter-terrorism unit, number only 400 men; there is no way, the rationale goes, that they can have their collective ears to the ground in the same way. If the essence of counter-terrorism is good intelligence, then the military should have a more formal role. (There are already counter-terrorism desks in most district commands but they largely exist in name only.)

The problem here is twofold. First, encouraging the TNI to collect intelligence at a village level is to assert an internal security role for the Armed Forces that in democratic Indonesia has been systematically and successfully scaled back. Second, the more the TNI intelligence network is strengthened and funded, the more it will see itself as a competitor, not an ally of the police. No one should underestimate the depth of interagency hostility or assume that more cooks in the kitchen will automatically foster cooperation. Even within the police assigned to counter-terrorism there have been instances of counterproductive rivalries that have threatened to expose informants and weaken the overall effort; the incentive to undercut rivals rises exponentially once it involves the police and military on the same turf.

Of course it would be good if there were a mechanism whereby information collected from babinsa or anyone else could automatically be conveyed to those who have the best capacity for analysis – in this case, Detachment 88.  But giving the military -- or for that matter, the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) -- additional resources for intelligence-gathering is no guarantee of improved analysis. Legislators from the national parliament pushed for a major increase in BIN’s budget after the suicide attack on a Solo church in September 2011, saying with a larger budget there would be no excuse for not detecting terrorist threats. But it is folly to think that more money will buy better intelligence if the experience and capacity to understand the essence of the problem are lacking.  That capacity comes from the grunt work of interrogating hundreds of suspects from one end of Indonesia to the other and understanding how one group links to another.  It is not something that can be brought about by a budget increase or a presidential decree.

A case in point is the National Anti-Terrorism Agency (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme), or BNPT, created in September 2010 to coordinate everything from intelligence-gathering to prevention efforts.  Long in gestation, it was fast-tracked after the 2009 Jakarta hotel bombings and became the instrument for bringing the TNI more formally into counter-terrorism activities. There are many parts of the BNPT that are not working smoothly but the most disappointing is the prevention directorate – which is led by a respected TNI officer. No one in the section has any experience with radical movements, let alone with prevention strategies. They talk about the enormity of trying to mount a counter-radicalization effort with 800,000 mosques and 30,000 Islamic schools across the country. But if they did a basic mapping exercise, based on available knowledge culled from testimonies of arrested jihadis, of where radical recruitment has taken place, they would realize that a much more targeted effort is possible. Instead, there is going to be a huge amount of wasted money, with no better protection. There is another problem with the military getting involved in terrorism. Indonesia has prided itself on treating terrorism as crime, to be addressed by civilian law enforcement agencies, rather than a war, to be fought by the military. It has been scrupulous about arresting suspects and bringing them to trial, seeing them as criminals with the potential for rehabilitation rather than enemies to be eliminated. Granted, some of those deemed rehabilitated turned out to be recidivists who rejoined their old networks on release, but that should not discredit the assumption that the individuals concerned are redeemable – particularly when one looks at their ages.  If anything, it should lead to an intensified effort at prison reform.

No one is suggesting that the TNI replace the police in its counter-terrorism role, only that it should be providing a more active support role. The problem is that once this is backed by increased budgets and positions such as those within the BNPT, it will likely bring a greater role in shaping counter-terrorism policy – and for all the reasons stated above, this will not necessarily produce better results. Any effective counter-terrorism program requires a hard look at how the extremist movement is changing, including evidence of new alliances being forged between jihadi ideologues and moralist thugs with a history of violence against places of vice and Christian and Ahmadiyah property. More than ever before, terrorism is blurring into violent acts of religious intolerance. Indonesian jihadis are recruiting from hardline groups, without any lengthy period of indoctrination; the moralist thugs are learning how to make bombs.  This means there is an urgent need to improve the skills (and reduce the corruption) of the ordinary police, not just rely on the skills of Detachment 88, and to put as much effort into punishing vandals as prosecuting terrorists. Recruitment is also changing. Today it is as likely to take place in state high schools as Islamic boarding schools, meaning a community outreach effort is needed that reaches parents, teachers and school principals. It is not a role for the police, but if other ministries are involved, they will need to draw on those with knowledge of radical networks, including the increasing number of young Indonesian academics studying extremist movements. Inevitably they will run into resistance from those who fear that counter-radicalization programs will stigmatize Islam. Tact, subtlety and expertise are needed, and any programs not built on a solid knowledge base are bound to fail. Since 2009, the key question from the president on down seems to have been: how do we find a role for the TNI? But if the question instead is, “How do we construct an effective program to counter extremism?”, it is not at all clear that bringing in the military is the answer.

Sidney Jones is a Senior Adviser for Indonesia at the International Crisis Group.

Strategic Review

 
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