The Indonesian fight against terrorism after the elections
Analysis Security & Defence

The Indonesian fight against terrorism after the elections

22 May 2019 - 10:02
Photo: Memorial site to commemorate the terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002. ©Dennis Sylvester Hurd/Flickr
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Indonesia continues to highlight the importance of international cooperation in implementing a ‘soft approach’ in the global fight against 'terrorism, radicalisation and extremism': problems that top Indonesia’s domestic agenda as well. In his second term as president, Joko Widodo has the chance to further the country’s standing as a key actor in advancing such measures among security practitioners. However, significant shortcomings in the implementation of Indonesia’s measures against the use of political violence domestically, could compromise these objectives.

Last April, approximately 187 million Indonesian citizens voted for a president, vice-president and four different tiers of administration from the district level up to the Indonesian Senate in the largest single-day vote in the country’s history. After quick counts predicted a win for the incumbent president Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, the General Election Commission (KPU) confirmed his victory over his counterpart Prabowo Subianto on the 21st of May. On the 21st of September this year, the president will be re-inaugurated.

In Jokowi’s second term in office, Indonesia continues to fill a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) up until 2020. One of Indonesia's priorities while campaigning for this membership was to strengthen global cooperation against ‘terrorism, radicalism and extremism’. 1

Two polling booth attendants seal a ballot box full of votes. ©Flickr/Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Australia
Two Indonesian polling booth attendants seal a ballot box full of votes. ©Flickr/Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Australia

High expectations     
Thus far, Indonesia has delivered on its campaign commitment by co-sponsoring Resolution 2462 (2019), which aims to ‘prevent and counter the financing of terrorism’.
 However, being the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, Indonesia’s membership raised expectations among some members of the UNSC’s Counter Terrorism Committee (CTC) that it could improve counterterrorism strategies by sharing its experiences of promoting and strengthening ‘moderate’ Islamic values.3             

Such expectations echo the core assumptions of ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ (CVE), a decade-old policy invention that complements government-led ‘hard’ with so-called ‘soft’ approaches to address perceived drivers of the broader phenomenon of ‘violent extremism’. Following growing discontent over the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’, CVE gained prominence within UN security circles by moving away from reactionary counterterrorism methods, driven primarily by military, law enforcement and intelligence efforts, to an essentially preventive take on combating terrorism.4

Governments and sometimes non-governmental actors construct the dichotomy of ‘moderate’ versus ‘radical’ Muslims in order to play them off against one another

A core method of many of these policies has been ideological intervention targeted at individuals or communities. Notably, religious ideology was the focus in the majority of cases. Because governments often lack the legitimacy to speak about religion, they seek to cooperate with religious authorities at the community level. In this constellation, governments and sometimes non-governmental actors construct the dichotomy of ‘moderate’ versus ‘radical’ Muslims in order to play them off against one another in a horizontal ‘battle of ideas’. However, these constructs have proven to be unhelpful; they only lead to increased polarisation.     

Nevertheless, after the UN shifted its focus towards CVE-based prevention strategies - or ‘Prevent Violent Extremism’ (PVE) - in 2014, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review (2016) called for all UN member states to draw up and implement their own national plans of action for PVE.

Picking up on Prevention  
Even though Indonesia is not specifically using the vocabulary of CVE or PVE, it showcases a number of CVE-styled counterterrorism measures. In 2010, the country institutionalised its terrorism prevention policies through the establishment of the National Agency for Combating Terrorism (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme, BNPT). This state agency was tasked to develop a comprehensive national counterterrorism strategy with a focus on preventive methods and to take over the coordination of existing deradicalisation campaigns.
 The BNPT applies a broad range of strategies, from countering the enticement of ‘extremist’ narratives and promoting peace among young people, to reintegrating former convicts into society.6

Since 2012, the agency’s main initiative has been the establishment of regional Terrorism Prevention Coordination Forums (Forum Koordinasi Pencegahan Terorisme, FKPT) all over Indonesia. These FKPTs are aimed at gathering the support of communities and local governments in implementing terrorism prevention efforts.7 By mid-2017, the BNPT had set up FKPTs in 32 of Indonesia’s 34 provinces, involving presentations and dialogue sessions between government officials, former police officers, academics and religious authorities. However, these FKPTs have been criticised by nongovernmental stakeholders for merely involving regional elites in discussions rather than reaching persons that have a high risk of turning to violence.8

No scaling back on the ‘hard’ approach
Indonesia has a long history of dealing with religiously-charged political violence. Since its independence, the nation has dealt with militant movements such as the insurgent Darul Islam in the 1940s and 50s and the Komando Jihad in the 1980s. Moreover, it has been struggling to root out the transnational terrorist group Jema’ah Islamiyah since 1993, infamous for the 2002 Bali bombings, and the Daesh-inspired Jema’ah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) since 2008.

There are still many independent ‘jihad' cells in Indonesia that support the ideas of Daesh

Last year, the JAD took credit for terrorist attacks on several churches in Surabaya and Riau. These days, the JAD is considered one of the most troubling threats to Indonesia’s domestic security. Furthermore, a recent report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict reports that there are still many independent ‘jihad' cells in Indonesia that support the ideas of Daesh. According to the report, it is likely that, sooner or later, one of them will copy attacks committed by Daesh in the past. As long as these cells subscribe to the Daesh ideology, they remain a serious concern for Indonesian authorities.9 This month alone, 30 terrorist suspects believed to work under the JAD were arrested. Allegedly, these suspects were planning an attack on a crowd on the 22nd of May.10    

In Indonesia, counterterrorism efforts were initially the responsibility of the Indonesian National Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI). With the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime in May 1998, these responsibilities shifted towards the country’s National Police force, the POLRI. Furthermore, the 2002 Bali-bombings marked a crucial turning point in Indonesia’s stance towards combating terrorism, leading to the passing of its first Anti-Terrorism Law in 2003.

The law enabled swift investigations, prosecutions and convictions of terrorist suspects by law enforcement. That same year, the POLRI established a new counterterrorism police unit: the Australian-US-trained Densus 88. Densus 88 reached a high investigative success rate and effectively disrupted terrorist cells in the country. However, accusations of human rights violations by Densus 88 have surfaced over the years.

Jokowi’s counterterrorism-legacy
Indeed, human rights abuses in anti-terrorism operations became a focal point during the first round of presidential debates prior to this year's elections. Although both Jokowi and Prabowo emphasised the importance of abiding to human rights, their statements were not convincing to human rights advocates. The latter consider the debate a ‘missed opportunity’ to show commitment to addressing past cases of human rights violations.11While such pitfalls of the ‘hard’ approach against terrorism are concerning, researchers indicated various shortcomings in Indonesia’s implementation of ‘soft’ measures as well. These ought not to be overlooked, as Jokowi promised to prioritise prevention efforts by applying 'counter-radicalisation' measures during the first rounds of debates.    

Joko Widodo in Jakarta, shortly after winning the 2014 elections. ©Flickr/Uyeah
Joko Widodo in Jakarta, shortly after winning the 2014 elections. ©Flickr/Uyeah

When Jokowi took office in late 2014, he entered a strained security climate. At the time, the impact of the conflict in Syria and Iraq was felt increasingly in Indonesia, and Daesh launched efforts to recruit Indonesian Muslims into their ranks. Several hundred Indonesians eventually joined their cause. That same year, next to several arrests in response to this mobilisation of foreign fighters, the BNPT’s Terrorism Prevention Blueprint was enacted. It was the first official guide to clarify the paradigms, strategies and approaches for implementing a National Terrorism Prevention Program (Program Nasional Pencegahan Terorisme, PNPT).

The blueprint seeks closer coordination among governmental and non-governmental agencies and highlights deradicalisation and counter-radicalisation as main strategies. This synergy was considered essential, as radical terrorism movements allegedly shifted their focus from physical targets to targeting ‘the mindset of society’.12 Consequently, the BNPT considers cooperation with mass civil society organisations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Persyarikatan Muhammadiyah as particularly important.

Whereas the NU and the Muhammadiyah are often mentioned in unison, their vertical cooperation with the state has had varying results. Representatives of both organisations consulted with the BNPT during coordination meetings for the PNPT in 2014. Nevertheless, only some NU-affiliated institutions became active participants in the PNPT, while the Muhammadiyah was not represented. Moreover, the BNPT’s cooperation with mass civil society organisations reached a stalemate in 2015 and 2016.

In response, the BNPT invested in compiling databases and surveys that could better allocate targets for its future programmes and measure the awareness of the perceived danger of ‘radicalism’ within society more precisely. However, according to Indonesian scholar Saefudin Zuhri, diverging opinions on conceptualising the BNPT’s core strategies and perceived inhumane conduct by law enforcement agencies against terror suspects hamper the engagement of the Muhammadiyah in the government program. Zuhri accordingly concludes that it is not a question of whether mass civil society organisations are invited by the BNPT to cooperate, but whether the ideas of such agencies are accommodated within the BNPT’s strategies. This would determine their true level of engagement.13

In fact, early studies of the BNPT’s CVE efforts have voiced concerns about the lack of sufficient engagement with all sectors of society.14 A disconnect between ‘grass-root’ and government initiatives have caused the latter to appear ‘top-down, fragmented and lacking consistent commitment’.15 It suggests that Indonesia has not reached its optimum in its ‘soft’ approach against political violence. While civil society engagement is desirable, its derivation from empirically-found, inclusive debates could increase the likelihood of finding common grounds on what exactly should be the aim of a national prevention program.

In May 2018, only a few days after the Surabaya/Riau bombings, Indonesia passed a revised anti-terrorism law

A re-focus towards the ‘hard’ approach?
However, some elements in Indonesia lean towards a backward development in counterterrorism. In May 2018, only a few days after the Surabaya/Riau bombings, Indonesia passed a revised anti-terrorism law. This revision was pushed after the 2016 Jakarta bombings, but failed to pass through parliament because of concerns regarding human rights and objections to a role for the TNI in counterterrorism.16

After the 2018 bombings, Jokowi threatened to impose the changes by special decree if his parliament would not rapidly approve them.17 The revised law re-emphasises deploying the TNI in counterterrorism efforts in cases where this is requested by the POLRI. Many civil society groups fear an increasing impunity for both agencies, or that the TNI could use this position to regain influence over civilian-led institutions.18 Last year, the TNI already grasped the opportunity to request over a 100 million US dollars for establishing its own anti-terror Special Operations Command, Koopsus.19

Meeting expectations
It remains to be seen whether such developments, in combination with the problems the country is facing in employing an inclusive ‘soft’ approach, could mean a stronger focus on ‘hard’ power domestically. Jokowi should be careful of leaning towards the latter, as this undermines Indonesia’s credibility in advocating a ‘soft’ approach focused on international cooperation within the UNSC.            

Instead, Indonesia should tackle the pitfalls of its ‘soft’ approach domestically. Jokowi’s re-election is a chance for him to improve the state’s cooperation with civil society organisations in terrorism prevention, but it could also be a risk if the military´s role therein continues to increase.


Emma Keizer
Research assistant at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies
Fynn-Niklas Franke
Research assistant at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV)