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The Indonesian military and counter-terrorism: new business, same old ways

TAPOL Briefing - October 5, 2021

From the early 2000s, terrorism in Indonesia was regarded as a matter of 'security and order', and dealt with by the police and its militarized anti-terror unit, Densus 88. However, in 2018, legislation was amended which marked a shift in that the Indonesian military was again given a key role in countering terrorism. In 2021, this legal provision was brought into play as the main West Papuan armed resistance, the TPNPB was designated as a 'terrorist' organisation by the Government.

The move further cements the military's power and authority, which has been growing for twenty years, and has been enabled by civilian politicians and aided by retired military officers who hold some of the highest offices of state, and who have failed to attempt serious reform. Furthermore, the international community is generally uninterested in encouraging reform and is probably wary of alienating a 'strategic ally' and upsetting the idea of Indonesia as a democratic 'success'. The designation is also motivated by the Government's intention to both avoid Indonesia's obligations under international law and to allow the military to re-consolidate its territorial structure through the expansion of administrative – and therefore military – units.


In April 2021, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, Mahfud MD, declared West Papua's armed resistance movement, the National Liberation Army for West Papua, TPNPB (Tentara Nasional Pembebasan Papua Barat, National Liberation Army of West Papua) a 'terrorist' organisation (also known as TPNPB-OPM or simply OPM, Organisasi Papua Merdeka, the Free Papua Organisation), with the support of the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT, Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme).

The move was prompted by the TPNPB's killing of the head of Indonesia National intelligence Agency's (BIN, Badan Intelijen Nasional) Papua branch, Brigadier General Putu IGP Dani NK on 25 April 2021. But politicians had been moving towards the declaration for two-and-a-half years since the December 2018 attacks by TPNPB that killed 18 road workers in Nduga, West Papua. In the days after the attack, some politicians in parliament's lower house, the DPR (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat), declared that an anti-terrorism "adjustment" was necessary which would allow the military to be involved in attacks against the TPNPB.1 Existing terrorism legislation had been changed earlier in 2018 to make the military able to conduct anti-terror operations, but the TPNPB was not regarded as a terrorist organisation in the same way as Islamist operatives. Under the Military Law of 2004, the military already had the power to carry out anti-terror operations (under 'Military Operations other than War') which the 2018 change drew on. So the 2018 amendment facilitated the military's involvement further.

The debate continued in the days after a joint military-police operation had begun in December 2018, which displaced tens of thousands of civilians and led to the deaths of 243 people over two months. Pro-government lawyers advocated that TPNPB be declared a terrorist organisation.2 But they also warned that doing so might "internationalise OPM attacks or action taken [against] them by Polri/TNI." The Indonesian Government was bound by the Geneva Accords but if it was dealing with 'terrorism', it was argued, the TPNPB's fighters could become 'terrorists' and face both the consequences of a military onslaught and restrictions on media channels and financial support.

At the time of the 2018 attacks, senior military figures expressed scepticism that TPNPB could be regarded as terrorists. While Islamists, for example those that carried out the Bali bombs in 2002 and 2005, did not enjoy the support of the population in areas where they operated, the TPNPB manifestly did, it was argued, making identifying them difficult.3 A more critical perspective would be that the police and military do not make sufficient efforts to distinguish between civilians and guerrillas, or are not interested in doing so, resulting in frequent civilian injuries and casualties.

From the perspective of the recent terrorist designation, these concerns by the military establishment are telling. The Minister responsible for declaring organisations to be terrorists, Mahfud MD, encouraged the military to make a "quick, assertive and measured response" to the killing of the BIN head. But he also issued a reminder to the security forces not to target civilians.4 To be seen to target civilians would go against the rationale for the designation, that is that the TPNPB have caused an "atmosphere of fear" among civilians.5

In West Papua, the justification for calling the TPNPB terrorists – of effectively protecting civilians – is clearly problematic for the military. The Government knows that the TPNPB has the support of local communities. It is also aware that its reputation among the same communities is very poor whether because the same communities may support the TPNPB's goals or because the military often fails to observe the 'principle of distinction' between civilians and those involved in conflict, a cornerstone of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), even though the TPNPB may also have been in breach of this principle on occasions.

Aside from the recent situation in West Papua, however, the designation needs to be seen in a wider perspective.

Anti-terrorism: a profitable pursuit for the security forces

In 2018, anti-terror laws were changed so that the military now officially has a primary role in anti-terror operations, alongside the police. This change had already been under debate in the national parliament but was expedited as a result of the 2018 Surabaya suicide bombings, which saw President Widodo threaten to pass a presidential decree mandating the change without legislative agreement. Without much opposition, Parliament changed the law.

But the military's role in anti-terror operations began much earlier than 2018. Two decades ago, the military became involved in operations to stop communal violence in Poso in Central Sulawesi and Ambon in Maluku. Violence in Poso broke out among Christian and Muslim communities and escalated through competition between these two communities over how power and influence under new political and administrative arrangements was to be distributed.6

Between 2000-2007, both the military and police expanded their presences, establishing new district commands (KODIM, Komando Distrik Militer) and police resorts (Polres, Polisi Resor). Officers who had been stationed in South Sulawesi's regional command (KODAM VII, Wirabuana) received promotions, and military businesses profited from illegal activities: extortion, cockfighting, sex work businesses, security guard businesses, smuggling, illegal logging, and the sale of weapons, the latter directly contributing to the conflict itself.7

Initially, the military declared, their presence in Sulawesi was justified because of the outbreak of inter-communal violence in the region after 1998, which the police could not deal with. Later, it was alleged that the area had become a base for Islamist terrorists, including those allied with Al-Qaeda and ISIS. While communal violence had largely subsided by 2009 as a result of dialogue and other peacebuilding efforts, a poorly-resourced jihadi group and self-declared affiliate of ISIS, Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT, Mujahidin Indonesia Timur), numbering fewer than 50 individuals, was able to regroup by 2012.

MIT was subject first to joint police and military operations in October 2015; and later in January 2016, a much larger operation involving 3000 police and military troops. After the January 2016 operations, the Government approved the re-establishment of a large regional military command in North Sulawesi, (KODAM XIII, Merdeka), ostensibly to stop traffic in foreign fighters and smuggled weapons from the Southern Philippines.

By March 2018, the operation had been renewed in a number of three-month extensions despite its leader having been killed in 2016, and MIT members numbering just seven people in late-2017, with extensions continuing into 2019.8 In the last ten years, therefore, a clear pattern has developed of the military using relatively weak terrorist threats to construct new facilities, and to base permanent combat troops on the ground in Poso.

Meanwhile, without official military involvement in anti-terror operations, the Government founded a special militarized police unit, Densus-88 (D-88) after the first Bali bomb in October 2002. D-88 operations against alleged Al-Qaeda-inspired cells won public support in Indonesia and acclaim among its foreign state sponsors and anti-terror experts. However, despite the decline of terror-related threats in Indonesia, it has not been disbanded. In its operations, whether in Java or elsewhere, Densus 88 has used force disproportionately, failed to obtain arrest warrants prior to operations, has stood accused of assassinating suspects, and in video footage apparently taken in Poso in 2007, is alleged to have tortured suspects.9

Despite the shift since the New Order in the Indonesian Government's anti-terror strategy away from focussing on pro-independence movements,10 D-88 has long operated in West Papua, assassinating leaders of the peaceful pro-independence organisation KNPB (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, West Papua Nasional Committee), and TPNPB, long before the recent terrorist designation.

And the military's presence has expanded through the creation of more district regional commands. The unilateral renewal of the Special Autonomy Law has given Jakarta the powers to decide on the creation of new districts without requiring consultation. This practice, known as pemekaran, has allowed the military to mirror in its territorial structure new districts and provinces to become often the most powerful state institution in remote areas, overseeing lucrative natural resource concessions held by foreign and national corporations.

Flying under the 'laws of war radar'

The use of the terrorist designation has allowed the military a freer hand to lead counterinsurgency campaigns and consolidate its business interests. But it is also a strategic choice which seeks to avoid the Government's obligations under the laws of war. Under IHL, for example, TPNPB fighters could be fighters engaged in a non-international armed conflict, because they operate under an organised command structure in a particular territory11 and have the demonstrated capacity to carry out attacks, bearing arms prior to military engagements.12 Furthermore, they have political objectives, namely the establishment of an independent state.

However, the Indonesian Government has deliberately overlooked these considerations and used the terrorism classification, it argues, to protect civilians. It has therefore avoided classifying TPNPB as a terrorist organisation because of its political objectives; though the end result is the same and amounts to again regarding independence movements as 'terrorist', last seen during the New Order period (1966-1998) and dealt with by the military.13 This tendency is not unique to Indonesia. As the International Committee of the Red Cross commented in 2017: "There appears to be a growing tendency among States to consider any act of violence carried out by a non-State armed group in armed conflict as being "terrorist" by definition, even when such acts are in fact lawful under IHL."14


The advance of further security force power and influence follows a pattern of the kind seen in Sulawesi. These developments are intended to increase the number of personnel and bases on the ground, leading to more business opportunities and local and national influence, supported by bureaucratic appointments. In this context of increasing militarization, Jakarta's unilateral review and reimposition of the Special Autonomy Law this year are largely irrelevant, except to note that the original law contained some possibilities for improving political representation for West Papuans which were never honoured. Instead, it is quite clear that the objectives of the authorities are to repress any possibility of dissent from West Papuan people themselves.

Increasing militarization for most Indonesians appears to be limited to West Papua and Poso. However, D-88 has already abused its mandate in Java in pursuit of alleged terrorists without having been properly held to account by Government Institutions (including the National Commission for Human Rights, Komnas HAM) or other civil society organisations that may fear the consequences of questioning the legality of its operations.15 Likewise, the military operates in plain sight in Java with a visible public role, pronouncing on political affairs and with former army officers assuming roles in Government and the civil service. In other words, security force operations against 'terrorists' in West Papua are not as distant as is assumed. But this also means that with coordinated effort, the public in Indonesia and beyond may yet have the potential to hold their power to account and end impunity.


We call on the Indonesian Government to revoke the designation of the TPNPB as a terrorist organisation and the Indonesian military's involvement in 'anti-terror' operations. As this report highlights, this is providing the military with opportunities to expand and consolidate its territorial structure and business interests. There should also be a moratorium on the creation of new districts which have not improved the economic marginalisation of West Papuans but rather have led to the militarisation of West Papua.

We furthermore call on civil society to make a concerted effort to campaign for civilian oversight of the military while realising that this reform process should not merely involve again giving the police carte blanche in anti-terrorism policy and practice. The police's militarisation and the unlawful practices of D-88 are warnings against this approach.

The international community must urgently request access of independent organisations (intergovernmental and non-governmental) to areas affected by conflict in West Papua. We are sure that an independent assessment of the situation could draw the conclusion that TPNPB members would be regarded as fighters in a non-international armed conflict under international law rather than 'terrorists'.

In this connection, the international community should advocate for a 'humanitarian pause' to stem an increasing flow of internally-displaced people in several districts of the Central Highlands region which have been beset by conflict since the designation of the TPNPB as a 'terrorist organisation' and which is hardly covered by international media.


1. K. Erdianto, 'DPR Usul Pemerintah terapkan Operasi militer selain perang' 13th December 2018 https://nasional.kompas.com/read/2018/12/13/14453171/dpr-usul-pemerintah...

2. F. Pane, 'Mendefinisikan OPM dan KKB' 5th December 2018. https://www.republika.co.id/berita/kolom/wacana/18/12/06/pjad4n440-mende...

3. BBC Indonesia. 'Penembakan Nduga: Beda dengan teroris, gerilyawan Papua punya 'hubungan dengan warga' 9th December 2018. https://www.bbc.com/indonesia/indonesia-46498239

4. Detik.com 'Peringatan Mahfud ke TNI-Polri soal tumpas teroris Papua: Jangan Sasar Sipil' 29th April 2021

5. Saputra, "Hikmahanto: Penggunaan UU Terorisme untuk KKB Papua Tepat!" 30th April 2021, detik.com

6. G. Van Klinken, Communal Violence and Democratization in Indonesia. Small Town Wars Routledge 2007, pp.85-87

7. Sangaji, A. 'The security forces and regional violence in Poso' in H. Schulte-Nordholt, G. Van Klinken, Renegotiating Boundaries: Local Politics in Post-Suharto Indonesia Brill, 2007, p. 276

8. R. Diprose and M.N. Azca, 'Past Communal Conflict and Contemporary Security Debates in Indonesia' Journal of Contemporary Asia, 2019 vol. 49, no 5, pp.780-793

9. J. Lamchek, Human Rights-Compliant Counterterrorism. Myth-making and Reality in the Philippines and Indonesia Cambridge University Press 2019, pp.242-274.

10. M. Clark, 'The 88th Densus AT: The Role and the Problem of Coordination on Counter-Terrorism in Indonesia' Journal of Law and Politics, 2, 3. 2009, p.86.

11. TPNPB's territorial units are called 'KODAP' and follow the borders of Regencies (Kabupaten). V. Mambor, 'Intan Jaya conflict (5): A new armed conflict that brings deaths'. 12 February 2021 Jubi.com

12. E. Crawford, Identifying the Enemy. Civilian Participation in Armed Conflict Oxford University Press 2015, pp.38-41.

13. M. Clark op. cit. p.86

14. 'International humanitarian law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts.' Document prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Geneva, October 2015, p.17.

15. Lamchek, op.cit. pp.244-245.

Source: https://www.tapol.org/news/indonesian-military-and-counter-terrorism-new-business-same-old-way