Unaesah Rahmah – Terrorist groups in Indonesia are continuing to stage or plan attacks and a key feature of recent ones is that they have involved firearms.
In April, for example, two members of the East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT), a local pro-Islamic State (IS) group, shot a police officer in Poso, Central Sulawesi, and attempted to seize his firearm.
In fact, terrorist group MIT has often used shooting tactics against the local security apparatus. Between 2012 and April 2020, it was involved in at least 10 shooting attacks on police. For the most part, MIT relied on one of its skilled snipers, Basir, alias Ramzi, who was shot dead in the Tinombala operation in March 2019.
Between 2016 and 2018, individuals linked to Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD) and other pro-IS networks were also involved in a series of shootings of police officers. These incidents took place in Jakarta (2016); Tuban in East Java (2017); in the West Java cities of Cirebon and Cianjur; and in Kaliurang to the north of Yogyakarta (2018). Militants linked to the West Indonesia Mujahedeen (MIB) also conducted two shooting attacks in South Tangerang (on the outskirts of Jakarta) in July and August 2013.
Authorities have also thwarted several other plots, and confiscated significant hauls of weapons. Last year, investigations into a terrorist network also led police to confiscate firearms in Bandung, Bekasi, Indramayu (all in West Java), and Medan (North Sumatra).
Despite this, significant firearm seizures in May by counterterrorism police in Java have prompted concerns that further attacks are in the pipeline. Individuals in Surabaya (East Java), Cianjur, and Tasikmalaya (West Java) linked to JAD were found in possession of an extensive collection of firearms and ammunition. These are among the largest numbers of firearms seized from Indonesian militants in recent years, but there are bound to be more guns out there.
Why have shootings emerged as a favoured method of attack for terrorists, despite Indonesia's restrictive policies on gun ownership?
How do they get the guns?
It is not easy to legally acquire a gun in Indonesia. Other than military and police officers, only certain individuals and professionals who pass prerequisite psychology and physical tests can purchase a gun legally. They then need to renew their licences every two years. Despite these regulations, terrorists still manage to plot or orchestrate shootings. They have done so because of the following factors.
First, terrorist groups commonly target police or military firearms facilities. These tactics were used in Poso (2020), Cirebon (2017), the National Police's Mobile Brigade Headquarters (Mako Brimob) in Depok (2018), a Jakarta rally (2016), South Tangerang (2013), and Poso (2012). Terrorists typically use already-acquired firearms or sharp weapons to attack the police before snatching their guns. The Mako Brimob case in 2018 is noteworthy because terrorist detainees snatched 37 confiscated firearms from the interrogation room.
Second, terrorists have developed the ability to assemble guns, including in illegal home-based factories. An example was Wiji Joko Santoso, a trainer of Moro militants in the southern Philippines between 1999 to 2001. An ex-combatant of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), he also went to Syria in 2012 and was believed to have the skills to assemble weapons and explosive materials. He has been linked to the Medan suicide attack in November 2019 that injured six people.
Two home-based weapon factories linked to terrorists were recently discovered in Cipacing, West Java, and Klaten, Central Java. The terrorists responsible for the shootings in South Tangerang in 2013 had purchased weapons from this factory. In 2020, police again uncovered a home factory in Jember that produces firearms such as M-16s, SS1s, and AK47s. Although the factory was not directly linked to terrorist groups, it offered a convenient cover for terrorists seeking to purchase firearms.
Third, terrorists exploit corrupt officers to obtain weapons. In 2020, a cell linked to JAD in Surabaya was thought to have procured firearms and ammunitions from a corrupt member of the military. Previously, Lintas Tanzim, a "consortium" of jihadi militant groups that conducted military training in the Jalin Jantho mountains in Aceh in 2010, recruited ex-police officer Sofyan Tsauri to get firearms for them. Sofyan's former colleagues helped him buy weapons from a police depot, which then ended up in the Aceh training camp.
Sofyan's case was one of the first to throw a spotlight on terrorists' ability to recruit and radicalise police officers. But the Indonesian National Civil Service Agency (Badan Kepegawaian Nasional, BKN) has noted that between 2010-2015, a total of 25 civil servants and military or police officers were involved in terrorist cases. And in 2019, a policewoman in Maluku was linked to a JAD cell in Bekasi. She was reportedly prepared to become a suicide bomber.
Fourth, terrorists have also smuggled firearms from overseas. The connections forged by terrorist groups in the region and the porous borders between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines make it possible for terror networks to purchase and smuggle weapons from neighbouring countries.
MIT and JAD, for example, have taken advantage of their links with Ansharul Khilafah Philippines (AKP) and Isnilon Hapilon's pro-IS network in the Philippines to purchase weapons. This explains why the shooter in the Jakarta attack in January 2016, which killed eight people and injured at least 19, used home-made guns imported from the Philippines.
What needs to be done
Terrorist groups in Indonesia will continue to launch attacks using firearms for as long as they can find a way to procure them. To curtail the supply of firearms to terrorists, authorities must prioritise closing down illegal home-based weapon factories. Reportedly, 90% of Indonesia's illegal weapons come from these sources.
The police and military also need to strengthen the implementation of sanctions against corrupt officers involved in the illegal weapons business. Emergency Law No. 12 of 1951 already includes harsh penalties for weapons smugglers, including police and military officers.
Both agencies also need to expand countering violent extremism (CVE) programs for their officers, beyond the seminars and focus group discussions already in place. It is essential to prevent officers from being recruited by terrorist groups, who turn them into an insider threat to the security of the country.
In addition, the government must further enhance border controls, particularly along well-trodden routes used by terrorists to smuggle weapons in North Sulawesi and East Kalimantan.
Finally, authorities need to continue arresting those who have the skills to assemble firearms and are trained in operating them. If these steps are not taken, then terrorists will keep shooting people in Indonesia.
[Unaesah Rahmah is a Research Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a specialist unit with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]