With global attention fixated on the coronavirus pandemic, the small Central Sulawesi city of Poso and its surrounding mountains have seen a concerning mini-resurgence in jihadi activity.
In April, militants from the local pro-ISIL group Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT) kidnapped and brutally murdered two farmers. They also staged a botched attack on a police officer in the city, after which two assailants were shot and killed as they tried to escape.
The history of extremist violence and its drivers in Poso are complex, evolving from a local communal conflict at the turn of the millennium to a small but stubbornly resistant group of ragtag terrorists – inspired by global jihadists – hiding out in the hills. This recent upsurge in militancy demonstrates MIT's quite remarkable resilience despite the death of its founding leader Santoso in 2016, and an ongoing joint police-military counter-insurgency operation. It has also highlighted the troubling degree of support the group appears to enjoy among some local communities.
MIT's defiant evasion continues to be an important rallying point for ISIL supporters across the archipelago. Yet this celebration of a few armed men camping out in the forest reveals just how little Indonesia's jihadi movement has had to cheer about in recent years.
Violent April: global inspiration, local roots
On 15 April, two MIT militants armed with a decrepit handgun confronted a policeman outside a bank on a busy street in Poso city, apparently trying to steal his weapon. During the altercation, the officer was shot in the chest but survived. The assailants fled the scene on a motorbike and police say they were killed during an ensuing gun fight.
The botched raid was bookended by the murder of two local farmers. A week before the brazen daylight attack on police, the body of a local man who had been reported missing was found with his head severed. A week later, the body of another farmer was discovered with severe lacerations on his neck. In a first for MIT, the group claimed both killings by publishing gruesome footage of the executions on social media platforms used by its supporters.
MIT's publication of the executions online suggests they have at least in part been inspired by ISIL's use of beheadings to instill fear in the Middle East. Both videos were packaged as propaganda videos, borrowing heavily from ISIL's signature style. The first video depicted a farmer being beheaded after MIT leader Ali Kalora delivered a speech in front of an ISIL flag, threatening police and calling on supporters throughout Indonesia to conduct attacks. The second video, meanwhile, showed a farmer being shot in the head at point blank range following a graphic claiming he had been serving as a police informant, all playing to the soundtrack of a popular ISIL nasyid (hymn).
But despite the clear nods to ISIL propaganda, such executions are not a wholly imported phenomenon. At least eight innocent locals have been executed in a similar fashion by MIT in recent years, including one in December 2018, whose body was used to lure police into an ambush. Further, isolated incidents involving decapitation took place on both sides of the sectarian violence 20 years ago. And in 2005, local Islamist militants beheaded three Christian schoolgirls in an attempt to reignite communal conflict in the region.
War with police
Given the state of his attackers' sole beat-up revolver, the ambush of the police officer in town was likely aimed at retrieving his firearm, but the latest uptick in violence is part of MIT's wider battle with police, which is now almost a decade-long. Armed clashes between the group and police in the mountains near Poso have occasionally been punctuated by raids and suicide bombings of local police stations. Law enforcement officials are seen as the front-line defenders of the thagut (oppressive) state, and are therefore prioritised as targets.
Through this period, the small group has proven astonishingly resilient. Thousands of police and military personnel have taken part in an operation to rid the Poso mountains of MIT in recent years. While the joint endeavor appeared to have dealt a killer blow when Santoso was eventually tracked down four years ago, his successor, Ali Kalora, has managed to evade capture with roughly a dozen stragglers ever since. The group regularly attracts a trickle of supporters to replenish its ranks as members are arrested or killed. Every time police and armed forces nudge the numbers down (as they did last year), MIT seems to rebound with new recruits.
Part of the reason the low-level insurgency has been so difficult to eliminate is longstanding antipathy towards police in Poso. Just a few hundred metres up the road from this month's ambush outside the bank, tensions erupted in late 2006 as residents clashed with police, leaving one young man dead and causing substantial damage to property. Subsequent police raids in the same neighbourhood three months later killed 16 suspected Jemaah Islamiyah militants, one police officer, and left several suspects and officers wounded.
The surprisingly deep reservoir of local support for MIT was particularly apparent during the recent funeral for the two militants killed on 15 April. Video footage of the service, livestreamed on Facebook, showed hundreds of people spilling onto the street outside the mosque where the bodies were blessed, chanting ISIL slogans and waving the group's black flag. The procession to the burial site was accompanied by a heavy escort of motorbikes, while dozens of people lined the route through town – many saluting the passing convoy with a raised fist or index finger – a popular symbol among jihadist groups and their supporters.
These scenes appear to have energised support among ISIL supporters from across the archipelago. One user posting in a pro-ISIL telegram chat group commended the two men's courage before saying: "What is interesting is the bodies of both were greeted with enthusiasm and respect by the Poso Muslims, lined up young and old to welcome the arrival of the deceased, like heroes returning from the battlefield". Another, gushing with praise for MIT said: "The Muslims of Poso know more about MIT's history... MIT were their heroes and defenders when the state let Muslims be slaughtered by Christian militias in the 2000s."
Ali Kalora's call for attacks on police in one of the farmer execution videos has also been widely lauded and shared across extremist social media.
Poso is still far from becoming a full-blown insurgency, though it's clear that militants aren't going away. The low bar of success set among ISIL supporters – largely because of their own ineptitude – has meant the recent campaign of violence has nonetheless been seen as a significant achievement.
The fresh escalation could motivate more to lend support to MIT's cause, or even convince some to strike out in their own regions. But perhaps most concerning is the apparent level of approval – or at least sympathy – for the deceased militants among local Poso residents. This suggests MIT will continue to attract new recruits for years to come.