Editors Note: The following article contains themes and topics that may be distressful to some readers. Hyper-linked articles and videos may contain instances of graphic violence, torture and death, reader’s discretion is strongly advised.
Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. With more than 200 million adherents, the country makes up more than 13% of the globe’s believers. By all measures the country is an overwhelming success economically as well as politically. Amidst booming growth, Indonesia features a vehemently secular government and justice system as well as a largely tolerant, pluralist society.
Unfortunately, the country has not been immune to the spread of Islamic extremism.
Over the past decade, the country has been fighting a low-level insurgency by a loose network of Terrorist groups. Indonesia has also been struggling to curb the more recent trend of its fighters exporting their violence overseas – it is one of the largest suppliers of Islamic State, for instance, with more than 500 people having travelled to Syria.
The country has also been a victim to more than a dozen home-grown attacks that have killed hundreds of nationals as well as tourists. With an overstretched and underfunded police force inadequate for the task, how do you fight an enemy with no rules nor mercy? With the help of its foreign allies, most importantly Australia and the United States, Indonesia undertook a highly controversial path towards ending the violence. Turning the terrorists greatest tool against them – fear, through the creation of a unit that would do what ever it took to hunt down the bad guys.
One of the largest instigators for Terrorist attacks across Indonesia has been Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), founded by a group of former Afghan Jihadis who created a network of fighters whilst in exile in Malaysia during 1985. Around 1999, the group had greatly expanded its efforts. This included a bombing of the Istiqlal Mosque, the attempted assassination of the Philippine ambassador in Jakarta, as well as church bombings across the country.
In 2002, the world was shocked by the devastating attacks on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali. A coordinated bombing by JI members killed 202 people, the majority of which were foreigners most notably from Australia which lost 88 nationals. In the aftermath of the attack, the country decided to form a specialist para-military police unit that would focus solely on hunting down and stopping the various terrorist cells that were beyond the means of ordinary police units.
More than a police unit…
Densus 88 is the official designation for a unit unlike anything to come before it in Indonesian policing. The story goes that the “88” originates from a senior Indonesian police official mishearing “ATA” – the working name for the “Anti-Terrorist Assistance” program, though others such as Brigadier General Pranowo who was the Anti-Terror Director, have stated that the “88” is a tribute to the number of Australian fatalities after the Bali bombings.
As President George Bush undertook his global war on Terror, he also opened up a mountain of funding for countries just like Indonesia. With a river of cash for cutting edge equipment, a joint project between Australia, Indonesia and the United States would funnel money through the US Diplomatic Security Service to mould this new unit into what is, in effect, a Special Forces detachment. The CIA, FBI and even the US Secret Service work alongside the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australian Special Forces to run recruits through a gruelling training program at a secret compound on Megamendung, which lies 50kms south of Jakarta.
Under the Anti-Terror Assistance program, salaries, weapons, close-combat warfare, forensic sciences and surveillance training were bankrolled directly by the US government. When the task force was first established towards the end of 2003, more than $130 million was allocated for Densus 88’s establishment with an operational budget of $1.3 million in 2004 that would grow to more than $40 million by 2006. Australia is also a huge backer for the group, allocating $35 million over five years for the establishment of an anti-terror training centre in Jakarta run by the AFP, which continues to provide extensive assistance on the ground.
As the “war on terror” continues its seemingly unending cycle of violence, it is a dangerous game when we metaphorically fight fire with fire. Police and intelligence forces must, by their very nature, delve into this murky underworld. Indonesia chose to blunt violence with violence, creating a force whose very methods are morally reprehensible in their dogged pursuit of the enemy. Somewhat ironically, they have also been extremely successful.
The challenge comes when the public questions its trust in the very forces who commit atrocities against their own citizens in the pursuit of these terrorists.
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- The recent Terrorist attacks on Europe have rocked the EU’s spirit of cooperation. How do we end the killing? Read more in: Why we fight: Ending the Terrorist threat
The unit’s record is a succession of victories that have crippled large-scale terror networks in Indonesia. By 2005, Densus 88 had almost single-handedly turned the tide against JI.
In highly publicized raids, they had eliminated Dr. Azahari Husin, the mastermind behind the Bali Bombings as well as subsequent attacks on the Australian embassy and JW Marriot.
In 2007 Abu Dujana, a senior lieutenant, was apprehended in a joint operation with the AFP and in 2009, Noordin Mohammad Top was killed during a raid after blowing up himself along with his wife and two children.
Victory, but at what cost?
Whilst it’s effectiveness is undisputed, the existence of such a highly trained para-military organization is alarming when it exists as a branch of the police. Operating largely outside the law, Densus 88 has been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses through the use of torture. Amnesty International has expressed alarm at the proliferation in claims that the unit has abused its power in its pursuit of the enemy.
According to the new chief of the Indonesian National Counter-terrorism agency, more than 121 cases of torture and abuse had led to a suspects death in custody since 2007. It isn’t hard to find evidence of these flagrant civil rights violations. In 2013 for instance, footage leaked onto Youtube that allegedly to showed Densus 88 members beating a suspect and then shooting another in the back before being taken down.
Rumours of extra-judicial killings of suspects are rife, recently resurfacing after the death of Siyano in police custody following a raid on March 10th. Siyano was the alleged commander of NeoJamaah Islamiyah (neo-JI), an offshoot of JI, who died under suspicious circumstances during his transportation to a detention facility. Public outrage exploded after it emerged that afterwards, police even attempted to buy the family’s silence with a Rp $100 million bribe (US $7,619).
In 2007, Densus 88 was widely reported to have tortured many of the 22 activists responsible for unfurling a South Maluku Independence flag during a presidential visit to Ambom. In 2010, the activists’ leader died in custody after being denied treatment for his kidney problems which were attributed to being forced to drink hot water infused with carbon paper.
There is evidence that the Indonesian government knowingly used and continues to call upon Densus 88 to suppress and crush the separatist movements in West Papua. On the 14th of June 2012, the leader of the independence movement Mako Tabuni was shot dead by police, sparking riots that left parts of the city in ruins. Three days after Mr. Tabuni’s death, text messages were sent anonymously to other group members stating that “[they] were next”. Reports also claim that Densus 88 officers are increasingly being embedded in units tasked with retaining control of West Papua, in a special report, Australia’s ABC 7.30 program documented numerous instances where independence members were gunned down in the streets or snatched from their homes without a warrant.
During US President Barrack Obama’s visit to Indonesia in 2010, footage was leaked that showed Densus 88 members pressing a flaming stick into a West Papuan separatists genitals (WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT – footage) whilst an officer held a knife to his throat and the suspect pleaded that he was “just an ordinary civilian” as his head was covered by a plastic bag.
Despite the Obama administrations slight scolding, the chances of the US cutting back funding to the group are highly unlikely. On the whole, it is undeniable that they have had absolute success in killing or capturing more than 500 Islamic militants in their investigations, even if their methods are unpalatable.
A New War
Densus 88’s close ties to Australian and US intelligence agencies have had a profound effect on how terrorists conduct themselves in Indonesia. As JI has fallen apart, terrorists have had to adapt and unfortunately, that has led to the proliferation of much smaller cells that are harder to track or predict.
The bigger question remains as to Densus 88’s future – as it has largely achieved its objective, there is little chance that such a large investment in resources would be dismantled. The troubling evidence points to the unit being used more often to achieve the government’s political aims such as the retention of West Papua, or control opposition groups. If Indonesia allows this to happen, then one can only wonder how, in the end, it has achieved anything more than replacing the threat of terrorism with the threat of government violence.
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