Yerica Lai, Jakarta – A second round of arrests netting suspected Islamist militants in the easternmost province of Papua, security and intelligence analysts say, indicates that religious extremist groups were seeking to set up camp outside of their usual bases on Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi.
Papua, which has a majority Christian population, has been at the center of a long-standing separatist conflict that has heightened recently after simmering for decades.
Analysts believed that members of the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) who hailed from Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi had come to Papua to escape the National Police's Densus 88 counterterrorism squad, which had intensified its crackdowns of the group from 2019 to 2021.
The JAD is a homegrown network of Islamist militants that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) and is believed to be behind a number of terror attacks in the country. "Geographically, Papua is advantageous for them," Stanislaus Riyanta, a Jakarta-based intelligence and terrorism analyst, told The Jakarta Post on Friday. "They are looking for alternatives that are more [accommodating] and have targets at the same time."
Relocating to the province was a survival tactic, Stanislaus said, as the network's members were being hunted down in many parts of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi. This was particularly so after a 2018 court ruling that outlawed the JAD, which provided strong legal justification for law enforcement agencies to surveil, arrest and prosecute people connected to the group.
However, some experts believed that JAD members were not present in Papua as recently as the police had indicated. Terrorism analyst Al Chaidar Puteh from Malikussaleh University in Aceh said the presence of IS-linked militants in Papua dated back to a wave of migrant workers in 2017. "According to our records, at that time there was a migration from JAD Makassar," said Chaidar, adding that many who had relocated to Keerom in Papua and Manokwari and Sorong in West Papua were also looking to buy land for setting up training camps.
Meanwhile, tensions in Papua's separatist conflict have heightened in recent months, the government declaring in April that armed criminal groups (KKB) with links to Papuan rebel groups were terrorist organizations.
The move was made in response to the killing of Brig. Gen. I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha, the Papua head of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), during a rebel ambush of a security patrol in the Papuan highlands that same month.
While most analysts doubt that the JAD would join forces with KKB in Papua because they espoused different ideologies, Stanislaus warned that the JAD's local presence could give rise to more conflicts, danger and terror in the already troubled region. "Anything could happen when you have a common enemy. We need to keep a watchful eye on how this plays out," he said.
Crackdowns on JAD in Papua
In May, at least 12 suspected militants linked to a JAD cell were taken into police custody in a southern district of Papua. After the arrests, National Police spokesman Insp. Gen. Argo Yuwono confirmed that the suspected militants were not native Papuans, but migrants from Java and Sulawesi who had been living in Merauke for some time, as reported by Kompas.com.
He also said that officers had confiscated chemicals and weaponry from the suspects, who reportedly planned to attack churches and Archbishop Petrus Canisius Mandagi of Merauke. It was the second mass arrest of JAD-linked militants in Papua since 2019, when police arrested eight suspected militants in the provincial capital of Jayapura.
The eight were later found to be part of the group's Sumatra network. The suspects arrested in May have been linked to the JAD's Makassar branch, which was responsible for the Palm Sunday 2021 suicide bombing attack against a local church that injured 20 people and left both attackers dead.
According to the Lab 45 research group, the Makassar church bombing is the most lethal JAD attack since the 2018 Surabaya bombings on three churches and the 552nd terrorist attack in Indonesia between 2000 and 2021. Fragmented cells The JAD has been responsible for a series of violent attacks since 2016 that have targeted churches across the Muslim-majority country and is led by Muslim cleric Aman Abdurrahman. Aman, who has pledged allegiance to IS, was jailed and sentenced to death in 2018 for ordering terrorist attacks in the country.
A 2021 report from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) notes that, unlike the Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) that was behind the 2002 Bali bombings, the JAD has always been decentralized with little to no coordination or knowledge transfer between its cells. The group's organizational structure had become even more decentralized and fragmented since mid-2018, when mass arrests left its central structure nonfunctional with no central authority to command independent cells. The IPAC report also says that the JAD's provincial branches in East Java, West Java, Lampung, Greater Jakarta and Maluku have all been inactive as of early 2021 due to the widespread arrests.
Meanwhile, parts of the Central Java, South Sulawesi and West Nusa Terrorism researcher Noor Huda Ismail echoed the warning, saying that the JAD had been able to outsmart authorities in hijacking information technology for their own purposes. "It's clear that there is a possibility of them using online communication, as [the suspects arrested in Merauke] are not native Papuans, but newcomers," Huda told the Post.
He added that since radicalization efforts had embraced social media, what was once a collective action had become a "connective action". "Recruitment has been democratized. Now everyone can join them," he said.