[27 June 2023] Violent Islamists in Poso, Central Sulawesi, are weak but still active. Although government leaders have declared this former conflict area “secure”, it is vulnerable to re-radicalisation for several reasons.
Extremist networks, some of which go back decades, are still strong. The two best-known groups, Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia (Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, MIT) and Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) have deep roots in the community, even though both have been decimated by arrests over the last five years. The police and military operations in the area for the last seven years have resulted in many deaths and arrests, creating potential new recruits from angry family members. The district (kabupaten) of Poso has one of the largest concentration of released terrorism offenders in the country and more will be released from prison in 2023 and 2024. Some of the deradicalisation programs have created new grievances.
The latest report from IPAC, “Militants in Poso: Down But Not Out” examines the current status of violent extremism in an area that in 2000-2001 was the site of deadly communal conflict between Christians and Muslims and a stronghold of Islamist extremists thereafter. It became the only territorially-based Islamist insurgency in Indonesia and as such attracted fighters from around the country. MIT, founded in 2012, became one of the first groups in Indonesia to declare allegiance to ISIS – not so much because of ideological affinity but because its leader, Santoso, believed he might be able to secure more funds and fighters by doing so.
The report examines how the security forces changed tactics, not only in response to MIT attacks on police and Christians that included beheadings but also to an order from Indonesian President Jokowi in late 2015 to end the violence in Poso once and for all. Police, backed by the military, moved to a shoot-to-kill policy, and both this change in procedure, as well as a refusal to let the bodies of anyone killed be buried in their home villages for fear of mass protests, alienated local families.
At the same time, the Poso branch of Jamaah Islamiyah, which had been decimated after a wave of arrests in 2007, began to rebuild from 2009 onward, and particularly after the release from prison of its leader, Hasanudin, in 2016. Even as Hasanudin was being lauded as an example of successful deradicalization, he was serving as JI’s coordinator for Poso and Palu, systematically recruiting new members and encouraging the spread of JI teachings. He also reactivated military training for members. He was rearrested in August 2021 and later sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The new IPAC report also looks at potential sources of new extremist activity in Poso. They include high-risk former prisoners who were released or will soon be released after serving their full term, without ever asking for sentence reductions or conditional release (because to do so would acknowledge the legitimacy of a non-Islamic legal system). Top of the list is Ust. Awaludin, scheduled for release in 2023, who prior to his arrest in 2019 for planning a bomb attack was a teacher at the pesantren Darul Anshor Putri in Kayamanya, Poso that served as a major support center for MIT.
That pesantren itself, now renamed Iman Nafian Qur’anic Memorization School, is under the watchful eye of the police but the possibility that teachers there will continue to disseminate extremist teachings is high.
It is also critical that local government and civil society continue to work on reducing the communal tensions that lie just below the surface in Poso. They can also quickly erupt, triggered by minor incidents like brawls between youths of segregated neighborhoods. Only if more work is done to bridge the Christian and Muslim communities and the police are quick to act if an incident occurs will more serious violence be avoided.
Finally, the government needs to understand and correct the flaws in its deradicalization programs, which include lack of careful evaluation of needs, clear criteria for beneficiaries, or independent assessment of results, including auditing of expenditures. In some cases, the weaknesses of these programs, particularly those run by the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme, BNPT) are becoming a new source of resentment against the government.
The report concludes that militant groups remain a threat, even though severely weakened by law enforcement operation. Poso has a chance to leave violent extremism behind, but it will require more targeted interventions and willingness to make corrections and improvements in ongoing programs to ensure that the gains made by law enforcement are sustained.