Chris Barrett and Karuni Rompies, Singapore/Jakarta – The chief of Indonesia police's anti-terror squad has warned that violent extremism still poses a danger in South-East Asia's largest nation, admitting authorities are powerless to stop jihadists from spreading their ideology on social media.
Indonesian authorities have rounded up hundreds of militants in the past two years in a crackdown that has severely weakened organisations such as Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda-linked network that carried out the 2002 Bali terror attack.
In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Bali bombings on October 12, Inspector General Marthinus Hukom said terror groups were still a threat in Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim-majority country.
"Today [JI] don't have a structure, they are loose. But they can move together and get massive because they consist of small cells planted everywhere. So they are quite dangerous," said Hukom, who heads Detachment 88, the counter-terrorism police unit set up after the Kuta nightclub blasts with funding and training from Australia and the United States.
He warns Islamic State-affiliated groups in Indonesia remain equally dangerous despite lacking organisation.
Pro-IS extremists carried out a suicide bombing of a church in South Sulawesi province and a gun attack on a Jakarta police station last year. Police later announced they had foiled a planned attack on Indonesia's Independence Day in August 2021 after arresting dozens of mostly JI members.
Despite possessing far greater capabilities in intelligence and de-radicalisation programs compared with two decades ago, the rise of social media has been a double-edged sword in combatting extremism in Australia's near neighbour, according to Hukom.
While such technology has become a tool for crime fighters in thwarting extremism "it can also help evil-doers carry out their crimes easily", he said.
"Initially, they used social media networks to show their ideology. They spread it publicly," he said. "Then they also spread explosive material handbooks. The radical groups downloaded them and saved them.
"Then they created new accounts and spread the same kind of content. It means no matter how strong we try to stop them, hack their social media accounts, they will rise again and create new accounts again.
"We must raise public awareness, we must protect our people, and don't let them get provoked by their massive spread of ideology in social media."
Hukom's comments come as survivors and relatives of friends of victims prepare to travel to Bali to mark two decades since the bombings, which killed 202 people including 88 Australians.
The anniversary has approached amid outrage about former JI bomb maker Umar Patek being made eligible for parole last month after serving only 11 years of a 20-year prison term.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese expressed concern about reducing the sentence of Patek, who admitted to mixing chemicals used in the Bali attacks, and he remains in jail in East Java with his early release yet to be signed off by President Joko Widodo's government.
Yasonna Laoly, Indonesia's minister for law and human rights, has made clear Jakarta would only consider objections to Patek being freed from Indonesian institutions not external voices.
Hukom's police squad endorsed his release, believing him to have been fully reformed, but he said Indonesia owed much to Australia for strengthening its counter-terrorism forces and its "workplace culture". The two countries last year renewed an anti-terror intelligence sharing pact.
"We've learnt a lot from them since the 2002 Bali bombing," said Hukom, who arrested Bali bomber Amrozi a month after the attack. "At that time, we understood nothing. We didn't have the technology, we didn't know what kind of [terror] network it was. They taught us. They even helped us with investigation technology."
Speaking at a seminar at the University of Indonesia this week, he added: "Honestly, our approaches now have vastly changed, [the capability] of our intelligence now is extraordinary."
Adhe Bhakti, a terrorism expert at the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalism Studies in Jakarta, said the introduction in 2018 of comprehensive anti-terrorism laws had given police and Indonesia's National Counter-Terrorism Agency, BNPT, much greater scope to arrest suspects.
"I think we can say they are successful given the significant drop in the number of terror attacks," he said.
"The counter-terrorism law allows law enforcers to arrest people before they carry out their crime as long as law enforcers have proof that they plan to do an attack or are involved in terrorism activities."