Ethno-nationalism in the crosshairs of anti-terrorism force

Ethno-nationalism in the crosshairs of anti-terrorism force

The Straits Times (Singapore), 3 July 2010
By John McBeth

Readying for a protracted struggle against Islamic militants, the Indonesian government plans a restructuring of the US-trained Detachment 88 counter-terrorism force.

The changes will turn the unit into a separate directorate but they will also, worryingly, make 'ethno-nationalism' a secondary target.

While the police will retain control of anti-terrorist operations and assume leadership of a 100-man National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT), a formal mechanism is also being put in place to involve specialised military units if the Cabinet deems it necessary.

Western nations, particularly the United States and Australia, are likely to be uncomfortable working with the newly restructured Corps 88 if its operational scope encompasses the Free Papua Movement (OPM) and other separatist groups.

Analysts believe broadening the scope of the unit's operations stems from pressure applied by conservative elements in the government and the security community to define terrorism in a way that targets not only Muslims.

In the past, the authorities had made a point of going after Christian militants in Central Sulawesi and followers of the tiny non-violent Republic of South Maluku Movement just to create the appearance of being more religiously even-handed.

A briefing paper on the pending restructuring does stress that radical Islamic networks are still the country's most serious security threat because of their military capability and the fact that they have fought to establish an Islamic state for decades.

'The radical ideological factor is the engine that gives them the impetus to launch attacks,' the paper goes on to say. 'It is clear these networks will continue to be a threat because of their resilience and their ability to regenerate.'

But in a separate section devoted to the unit's second mission, the lengthy paper noted that 'ethno-nationalist/separatist groups, such as the OPM', are still launching so-called 'terrorist attacks' across Papua.

'GAM (Free Aceh Movement) has ceased its activities since the 2005 peace accord,' the paper acknowledges.

'Nevertheless, the potential for terrorist attacks by ex-GAM elements should always be considered because their activities are dependent on the political dynamics of Aceh.'

In the initial concept, the BNPT's main task was de-radicalisation and rehabilitation. But President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told a March 5 Cabinet session that the new policy-making and coordinating body should have a greater operational role.

He also said he wanted elements of the army, navy and air force special forces to be designated to assist Corps 88 in situations that are beyond the capabilities of the police - presumably including plane hijacks and embassy takeovers.

Under the new set-up, units such as the army special forces Detachment 81 (sic) can be called into action only with the specific approval of the Cabinet, where the police and armed forces commanders have a permanent seat.

'The military's involvement in the counter-terrorism fight is now a given,' says one security official.

'After that meeting there was no more debate, but the political decision rests with the Cabinet to decide what unit is to be deployed.'

In recent months, heavily armed Detachment 88 raiders have come under mounting criticism for killing militants in siege situations, rather than trying to capture them for their intelligence value.

Some analysts believe international support for anti-terror campaigns has now led to the logical assumption that support will come for any campaign waged against any group officially labelled as 'terrorists'.

'I have always worried about this, but naturally it is about trade-offs,' says one regional conciliator. 'You can't have people running around blowing up innocents in the name of religious extremism, but neither can you justify killing those who demand ethnic and religious rights.'

The US Supreme Court recently contributed to this blurring of the line by upholding a broad-ranging law allowing Americans who offer advice to banned organisations, including legal assistance, to be prosecuted as terrorists.

Taken at face value, that would include a lawyer representing a banned group or human rights advocates and conflict resolution experts helping a proscribed organisation to petition international bodies to bring an end to a violent conflict.

What is most worrying in Indonesia's case is that in making the OPM a terrorist target, Jakarta appears to be ignoring calls for dialogue as an avenue out of the sputtering conflict in Papua.

Under the new structure, Corps 88 will be moved from the Criminal Investigation Department of the police force and placed under the direct authority of the national police chief.

The expanded 750-strong directorate will be headed by a two-star general and comprise 150 intelligence and investigation staff and 430 paramilitary personnel grouped into 10 crisis response teams covering North and South Sumatra, Jakarta-Banten, West, Central and East Java, Bali-Nusa Tenggara, Kalimantan, Sulawesi-Maluku and Papua.

Papua has never had an incident involving Islamic terrorism, but there has been a recent upsurge in violent incidents, particularly in the Central Highlands district of Puncak Jaya, where OPM gunmen have killed three road workers and two policemen this year.

Detachment 88 was brought in last year after a succession of armed attacks on vehicles using the vital road linking the southern coastal town of Timika with Freeport's giant copper and gold mine in the Central Highlands.

Papua regional police chief Bekto Suprapto, a former Detachment 88 commander, directed the operation that led to the fatal shooting of longstanding OPM leader Kelly Kwalik in Timika last December.

There has been only one ambush since Kwalik's death, but that may have been due to the fact that the gunmen were shocked at being tracked down by overseas-trained war dogs. They escaped only after soldiers ran out of ammunition.

Some analysts believe international support for anti-terror campaigns has now led to the logical assumption that support will come for any campaign waged against any group officially labelled as 'terrorists'.