How Indonesia’s elite cops turned the tide on terror

Since its formation in 2002, the unit has put a premium on clandestine intelligence gathering. Now much of that work is done online, by infiltrating and monitoring chat rooms, social media and apps popular with militants  

Tom Allard and Kanupriya Kapoor –

As the world battles a spike in assaults and plots by militants, Indonesia’s anti-terrorism unit is drawing praise for stemming a wave of bloody attacks. Indonesia has foiled at least 14 attacks this year alone and made more than 150 arrests, disrupting plots ranging from suicide attacks in Jakarta to a rocket attack from Indonesia’s Batam island targeting Singapore.
Going back to 2010, a Reuters analysis of data shows the elite unit, Special Detachment 88 (Densus 88), has prevented at last 54 plots or attacks in the nation of 250 million people, the world’s fourth largest. “Densus 88 has become better than pretty well any other counter-terrorism group in the world,” said Greg Barton, a terrorism export and research professor in Global Islamic Politics at Alfred Deakin Institute in Melbourne. “They have had an incredible workload and they have become remarkably good at what they do.” In the last six years, there has been only one major attack in Indonesia that caused civilian deaths, when assailants hit a Jakarta mall and police post with gunfire and bombs, resulting in the deaths of three Indonesians and a dual Algerian-Canadian national.
All four attackers were also killed in the January 2016 attack. Between 2002 and 2009, there were nine major attacks by militants, leaving 295 dead and hundreds of others wounded.
Since its formation in 2002, the unit has put a premium on clandestine intelligence gathering.
Now much of that intelligence work is done online, by infiltrating and monitoring chat rooms, social media and messaging apps popular with militants.
Few details about Densus 88 are publicly available.
Created in the aftermath of the deadly 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people, Densus 88 has about 400 to 500 members, state-of-the-art weaponry and training, said another official. It has received more than $200 million of funding from Australia and the US.
The black clad, heavily armed members of Densus 88 sometimes seen during raids on suspected militant hideouts make up a small proportion of the unit, officials say.
Far more personnel are dedicated to gathering intelligence in the field and monitoring communications and online activity.
There is also a large team of investigators analysing that intelligence and forensically examining explosives and other evidence.
Sidney Jones, the director of Institute for Policy Aanalysis of Conflict (IPAC), said the key to Densus 88’s success lies in its intelligence gathering.
Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission has identified 121 terrorism suspects who have died in custody since 2007 but the police routinely deny using torture or inappropriate force in interrogation.
Amnesty International said earlier this year there was an “endemic culture of impunity” in Indonesia’s police service and a need for an investigation into the “torture” of suspects by Densus 88. However, Barton said the unit has adopted a unique, “strategic” approach to interrogations that aids intelligence gathering.
Suspects were kept at police stations rather than in jails and allowed to meet their families.
Despite Densus 88’s recent successes, the worry is that the militant threat to Indonesia is mounting as IS fighters return battle-hardened from Syria and Iraq. The ultra-radical group also commands support from some Indonesians who have stayed at home. About 800 Indonesians have travelled to Syria to join IS and 169 have been stopped en route and deported, according to Indonesia’s national counter-terrorism agency.
“These new homegrown terrorists and the local have never gone abroad. But with the advent of the Internet age and technologies like social media, it’s easier to make bombs and explosives to do operations,” said the law enforcement source.
Authorities remain deeply worried about an attack during the holiday season. In the longer term, the worry is the possible return of hardened IS fighters like Naim to the region. “They will be a different type of terrorist and the police are going to have a lot more problems,” said Indonesian analyst Rakyan Adibrata. — Reuters