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Indonesian Military’s Role Enlargement in Counter-Terrorism

Bilveer Singh, Dept of Political Science, National University of Singapore; Research Fellow, Dept of International Relations, Australian National University and formerly, Visiting Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), India
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  • June 24, 2015

    Modern Indonesia’s nationhood coincided with the threat of terrorism posed by the Darul Islam, a radical Islamist group bent of establishing an Islamic state in Indonesia (1948-62). In order to combat Darul Islam’s low level insurgency and terrorism, the Indonesian Army established the KOPASSUS or Special Forces Command. The Command was critical in putting down various rebellions, including acts of terrorism such as the hijacking of a Garuda plane in March 1981.

    Suharto’s fall and the Marginalization of the Military’s Domestic Security Role

    A people’s power revolution brought down the 32-year regime of Suharto in May 1998. A major consequence of this power shift was the ‘back to barracks’ policy of a democratising Indonesia. Mainly for political rather than operational considerations, the Indonesian military’s counter-terrorism role was terminated. The military was also accused of various human rights violations during the Suharto era. The liberal narrative, that a country in transition to democracy should allow civilians to undertake tasks of maintaining law and order with the military concentrating on protecting the state from external threats, also took dominance. This gave the police the sole responsibility for counter-terrorism operations.

    This praxis became a reality when Indonesia was threatened by the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group which claimed responsibility for five major bombings. This included the first Bali bombings in October 2002, the August 2003 suicide bombing of the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, the September 2004 bombing outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the second Bali bombings in October 2005 and the July 2009 twin bombings of J.W. Marriott Hotel and Ritz Carlton Hotel in Jakarta. Additionally, there have been more than thirty minor bombings in Indonesia since 2000. As the police gained prominence in counter-terrorism, the Indonesian military, despite much expertise and experience, watched from the sidelines.

    Police-led Counter-Terrorism Policy

    Following the first Bali bombings, the Indonesian government established various institutions and passed laws to deal with the threat. What developed was a police-led counter-terrorism regime that has remained in place. In 2002, a Coordinating Desk of Counter-Terrorism in the Coordinating Ministry of Politics and Security was established. In June 2003, Special Detachment 88, a specialised counter-terrorism unit from the Indonesian National Police, was tasked to neutralise the rising danger posed by Islamist terrorism. In September 2010, BNPT or the National Counter-Terrorism Agency was established. Generally, the police-dominated counter-terrorism regime did good work in countering the threat of terrorism and, by 2015, it had succeeded in killing and detaining more than 100 and 1000 terrorists, respectively.

    The Military’s Role Enlargement in Counter-Terrorism

    Despite this, mainly due to various shortcomings of the police and the rising legitimacy of the military, the latter has successfully reclaimed part of its counter-terrorism role. While the military argued that it was well-endowed to play a counter-terrorism role, political sentiment militated against such a role expansion. Still, the military succeeded in justifying its role expansion on grounds of the need to assist the police in enhancing national security from the rising threat of terrorism. The first major breakthrough in this regard was the placement of a senior military officer in the BNPT in September 2010.

    Since then, there has been a steady suction of the military into the national counter-terrorism regime. In September 2013, the Army was allowed to assist in counter-terrorism by collecting information on terrorist activities domestically. In March 2015, military personnel began undertaking counter-terrorism training with the police. On 9 June 2015, the military’s Joint Special Operations Command was launched, breaking through what had hitherto been a police monopoly in counter-terrorism since 2002.

    Comprising initially of 90 personnel, the military-led Command brought together elite Special Forces of the army, navy and air force to undertake counter-terrorist operations nationwide. This represented a game changer in Indonesia’s counter-terrorism policy, brought about primarily by the rising threat posed by the Islamic State.

    Pressures for Military’s Role Expansion in Counter-Terrorism

    While the police-led counter-terrorism policies were effective in countering the Jemaah Islamiyah, new threats called into question past policies, especially one predicated on a police-driven counter-terrorism approach. The approach failed to detect and anticipate the emergence of the Islamic State’s threat in Indonesia. This failure played a key role in the re-emergence of the military’s role in counter-terrorism.

    The police was also criticised for many failures, including the ability of leading terrorists such as Abu Dujana to return undetected from the Philippines, the negative image that Detachment 88 acquired as a killing machine and the inability of the police to protect its own officers, where nearly 40 of them have been gunned down by terrorists.

    The improving image of the military, in contrast to the police, which has been tainted with massive corruption scandals, also hurt the police-led counter-terrorism policy. The growth of home-grown terrorists and where the targets are Indonesians rather than foreigners also propelled the military to the forefront of counter-terrorism in view of its strengths on the intelligence front. The military’s territorial structure, right down to the remotest village, provides it with a resource that no other agency has.

    The military’s all-round strength in counter-terrorism in the past and its possession of well-trained combat units, supported by good intelligence, are strong factors that make it natural for it to be deployed for counter-terrorism duties. Also, the next phase of counter-terrorism in Indonesia is expected to be more demanding and dangerous with the Islamic State and its supporters possessing well-trained combat units. This is evident from the establishment of the Katibah Nusantara in Syria, a Malay-based combat unit made up mainly of Malaysians and Indonesians. Partly in anticipation of a more robust military attack from the terrorists, both home-grown self-radicalised and Katibah units, the military’ involvement in counter-terrorism is something to be welcomed. Already, beginning in 2015, under the leadership of a charismatic defence minister, Ryamizard, the military launched a six-month military operation in Sulawesi province in eastern Indonesia. This was to terminate the threat posed by the Eastern Indonesian Mujahidin led by Santoso that is affiliated with the Islamic State, and where the police had failed to dislodge the group in the last two to three years.


    Despite various reservations, the military’s increasing role in counter-terrorism will enhance Indonesia’s counter-terrorism capacity. What is being undertaken is not the displacement of the police counter-terrorism tasks but supplementing it. This is all the more necessary as counter-terrorism also involves many non-military tasks such as de-radicalisation and counter-radicalism in various segments of society and where the military does not have access, such as in mosques, schools, prisons and mass media. In view of this, a joint police-military approach to counter-terrorism will go a long way in ensuring that the threat posed by the Islamic State would remain manageable.

    Bilveer Singh is currently a Visiting Fellow at the IDSA. He teaches at the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore, is an Adjunct Senior Fellow, Centre of Excellence for National Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and President, Political Science Association, Singapore.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India