Terror cells in Indonesia continue to recruit and plot attacks amid COVID-19: Senior counterterrorism official
JAKARTA: As Indonesia grapples with the impact of COVID-19, terrorism cells in the country continue to spread radical messages, actively seeking new recruits and plotting their next attacks, a senior counterterrorism official said.
In an exclusive interview with CNA, the National Counter Terrorism Agency's (BNPT) director for enforcement, Eddy Hartono said although there has been no major terrorist attack during the pandemic, terrorism cells in Indonesia "are not sitting back and relaxing.”
“They are actively recruiting, spreading their ideology, raising funds and conducting training,” the Brigadier General said, adding that the only thing that has slowed during the pandemic is the sending of militants to join the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The police’s counterterrorism unit Densus 88 arrested a total of 232 people last year for alleged involvement in terrorism activities.
“They are indeed planning attacks on security officials, state institutions, military and the police,” Mr Hartono said. “Thank goodness we have been able to prevent (these attacks) from happening.”
Among those who were arrested last year were two of Indonesia’s most wanted terrorists Zulkarnaen and Upik Lawanga who have evaded capture for 19 and 14 years respectively.
Zulkarnaen, who goes by one name, was believed to be behind at least three terror attacks, including the 2002 Bali Bombings while Upik Lawanga was suspected of aiding a series of terror attacks between 2004 and 2006. Zulkarnaen was arrested in December and Lawanga was arrested in November.
In 2019, authorities arrested a total of 275 terrorism suspects.
Mr Hartono said during the pandemic, authorities have discovered the presence of bunkers to stash firearms and villas used to train recruits.
Terrorism cells have also raised funds directly from the public through thousands of charity boxes on the pretext of donations for natural disasters, social aid as well as COVID-19 relief efforts.
“The threat (of a terrorism attack) is omnipresent with or without the pandemic,” he said.
The pandemic has seen people avoiding large crowds, public spaces closed and monitored, while houses of worship are greatly reducing their capacity. This may have lowered the possibility of militants targeting them.
Mr Hartono said from some of the suspects arrested, authorities learned that terrorists have been shifting their targets, plotting attacks against security and government officials instead of ordinary civilians.
“As soon as they conducted the planning, we detected them and contained the threat,” he said.
BUILDING A COUNTER NARRATIVE
The pandemic has caused millions of Indonesians to lose their jobs or see a sharp decline in their earnings and terrorist organisations are exploiting people's angst and desperation, Mr Hartono warned.
“There will be more people prone to radicalisation,” he said.
“We counter this by building a counter narrative. We have been engaging religious and community leaders and dispelling the narratives used by radicals. We promote values of nationalism, tolerance and togetherness.”
The BNPT director said with public sermons limited during the pandemic, terrorism cells have relied mostly on social media to spread their ideologies.
“We are intensifying our online monitoring. We have worked together with the BIN (Indonesian Intelligence Agency), police and Kominfo (Ministry for Information Technology and Communications) and set up a task force specifically to monitor content containing intolerance and terrorism,” he said.
“We are actively taking down such content when we find them. They are aggressively spreading such content. We have to be even more aggressive. We cannot afford to lose.”
Mr Hartono said Indonesia has not only blocked calls to violence or commit acts of terrorism, but also curtailed messages of intolerance from hardline and conservative groups.
“If we don’t stop them early on, (the hardliners) might progress into terrorism groups,” he said, adding that the recent ban on the notorious hardline group, the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) is a part of this strategy.
The FPI is known as an anti-vice group that often uses intimidation and physical violence in their tactics to get bars and nightclubs to close during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
According to the government, at least 35 members of the FPI have gone on to commit acts of terrorism.
INCREASED DERADICALISATION CHALLENGE DUE TO MORE COVID-19 CLUSTERS IN PRISONS
BNPT is also tasked with deradicalising inmates and other people who might be exposed to radical ideologies such as those who are intercepted for trying to go to the Middle East to join the Islamic State as well as terrorists’ wives and children.
During the pandemic, the results have been "less than optimal" Mr Hartono said, particularly with more COVID-19 clusters emerging in prisons.
“This programme was not easy (before the pandemic) and the pandemic is further limiting our capacity. The programme is not as intense and as optimal as before the pandemic. But we have to do it continuously,” he said.
Due to health protocol considerations, the BNPT is limiting the number of people participating in a given deradicalisation session to three. Previously, sessions can involve dozens of participants. This has made the process slower and more difficult.
“To circumvent this, we intensify our social media monitoring. We also limit the number of visitors (inmates can receive). We monitor their communications,” Mr Hartono said.
Even before the pandemic, officials have put terrorist leaders, preachers, recruiters and those who can influence others in solitary confinement or maximum-security prisons. This practice, he said, has been intensified during the pandemic.
The year started with the release of Abu Bakar Bashir, the co-founder and spiritual leader of Jamaah Islamiyah, a group which is believed to have been behind some of Indonesia’s deadliest terrorism attacks.
Bashir did not participate in any deradicalisation programme, because he was imprisoned before the programme became a requirement for terrorism inmates seeking remissions and paroles.
The cleric was arrested in 2010 for his role in a terrorist paramilitary training camp in Sumatra. Participation in deradicalisaion sessions is only compulsory for those imprisoned after 2012.
Mr Hartono said this is why Bashir was able to receive a total of 56 months cut from his 15 year-sentence, despite not participating in the deradicalisation programme. He also refused to pledge allegiance to the state of Indonesia, another requirement for those seeking remissions and paroles.
“We will continue to monitor him. We hope he will promote peace in his sermons. But if we catch him promoting or influencing others to commit violence, we will arrest him again,” Mr Hartono stated.