Over the last decade, many people in the international community have reportedly asked how Indonesia, a country with the largest population of Muslims (255 million in 2016), has successfully dealt with terrorism relative to other countries in the Muslim world. Although South East Asia and Indonesia in particular, have been in the grip of terrorist attacks, nevertheless, such violence has not reached the scale or persistence of terrorist violence in the Middle East and North Africa. As the international community grapples with the problem of religion-inspired terrorism, experts, academics, and pundits have identified Indonesia as a country from which the world can learn lessons about how to defeat terrorists and build a true democracy.
Some analysts have opined that the success story and giant strides of Indonesia can be attributed to a deliberate government action, restraint, resilience and existing social, economic, and political factors that have relentlessly coalesced to stem the tide of radicalism that leads to terrorism.
Whereas, others have underscored the importance of Islam’s unique evolution in Indonesia, Islam Nusantara (“Islam of the Archipelago”), and secular ideology such as pancasila, which have served as bulwarks against radicalization and terrorism. According reports, these factors each play a pivotal role in militating against terrorism. However, the wave of deadly attacks in Java and Sumatra in May this year, which left a total of 53 people dead, including 15 civilians, seven police and 31 attackers or suspected militants has continued baffle the world. A further 50 people were injured, many seriously. It was reportedly the highest death toll from terrorist attacks in Indonesia since the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. The attacks are reported to have caught many Indonesians by surprise, including the elite counter-terrorism squad known as Detachment 88 (or Densus 88). Formed in the wake of the Bali bombings in June 2003, and building to full operational status two years later, Detachment 88 has established itself as one of the world’s best counter-terrorism units, exceeding all expectations given its unpromising origins.
The success of Detachment 88 has been the result of excellent intelligence work, but no agency has perfect intelligence. And just like every counter-terrorism team in the age of ISIS, Detachment 88 is also dealing with a ten-fold increase in “persons of concern”, making its work even more challenging. During the three decades of the Suharto regime, the Indonesian National Police (Polri) were considered the poor cousins of Indonesia’s armed forces (then ABRI, now TNI). In the wake of Suharto’s resignation in 1998, Polri became independent from the military, but remained poorly funded, equipped and trained, and as a result, ill-disciplined and corrupt. Following the shock of the Bali gruesome attack, perpetrated by the al-Qaeda-linked militant group, Jemaah Islamiyah, Australia, United States and the Southeast Asian economic powerhouse intensified partnership in the area of counter-terrorism capacity building, police reform and training in Indonesia.
As part of this effort, a bilateral initiative involving the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Polri led to the establishment of a specialist centre for providing counter-terrorism training to police and government officials from across Southeast Asia; the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC). This initiative worked in parallel with the development f Detachment 88.
Commentators have posited that nearly 15 years later, JCLEC has grown into one of the most robust counter-terrorism training facilities in the world, delivering training to more than 20,000 officials from 70 nations. And Detachment 88 has recently doubled in size to more than 1,300 officers, with plans to increase its operational presence from 16 of Indonesia’s provinces to all 34.
The public is by now familiar with Detachment 88’s black-clad tactical response teams, equipped with standard-issue, American-supplied counter-terrorism weapons, such as M4A1 carbines, AR-10 rifles, MP5 submachine guns, Glock 17 pistols and Remington shotguns. The force includes specially-trained snipers and breach squad teams.
Less well-known are Detachment 88’s technical experts, such as specialists in explosives and post-blast forensics. Much of the training and support has come via the US Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Services and Anti-Terrorism Assistance program, as well as similar Australian programs, including substantial involvement initially from the AFP.
Detachment 88 forces are now trained in a dedicated facility south of Jakarta staffed by former US and Australian Special Forces trainers, together with experts from the CIA, FBI, US Secret Service and the AFP.