Santoso, aka Abu Wardah, and his men are hiding out on the mountains of Central Sulawesi, where thousands of police and military personnel have been deployed to hunt them down. But why has this IS-linked terrorist group not fallen yet?

by Marguerite Afra Sapiie

“Are you looking for death?” Sr. Comr. Leo Bona Lubis, the deputy chief of Central Sulawesi Police and commander of the Tinombala Operation, asked Ruslan Sangadji, a journalist based in Palu, Central Sulawesi.

Ruslan had asked for permission to tag along with the security forces going to Mount Biru. After an exhausting journey to Poso, Central Sulawesi, stretching hundreds of kilometers, he intended to cover the hunt for the most-wanted terrorist in Indonesia, Santoso.

It had been weeks since the police left Tamanjeka, a village at the foot of Mt. Biru. They rested that day and Ruslan sat among them. He could see the top of the mountain clearly. But it was not the mountain’s peak that he wanted to see.

He made one last shot to ask for permission to enter the military zone from Adj. Comr. Glen, who was leading the last team of the operation. Glen commanded a small team comprising six Brigade Mobile (Brimob) and four Indonesian Military (TNI) members in a shift change.

Again Glen simply smiled and shook his head, saying that the police could not allow him to join in the eight-hour quest to ascend Mt. Biru.

Brigade Mobile (Brimob) personnel involved in the hunt for Santoso and his men board a truck. (The Jakarta Post/Ruslan Sangadji)

“It’s too far, man. You can’t come with us. Please just return to Poso city with them,” Glen said, smiling as he pointed at troopers who were throwing their rucksacks into a Brimob truck to return to base in the city.

Glen is among more than 2,500 joint security personnel comprising 1,500 police members from Densus 88 counterterrorism squad and Brimob.  The remaining 1,000 members are from the Navy Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion and Special Underwater Unit. In the latest update, the Army sent fresh reinforcements consisting of 880 special agents.

If there is one thing that Glen could tell Ruslan about the operation, it would be how life-threatening it is. Deep in the humid tropical rain forest, they must think and act tactically to reach the objective, or at least to guarantee their very survival.

Food supplies often are a problem. Even though supplies are replenished every five days, the troops sometimes have to pick corn or cassava from plantations. Shooting birds is sometimes unavoidable.

“We have eaten snakes too,” Glen told Ruslan, laughing.

Trekking in the vast terrain of Mt. Biru, Glen's life has been intertwined with Santoso's in the last year since the first Camar Maleo Operation in 2015. Assigned to the joint police-military operation, he was summoned for the latest Tinombala Operation, which started on Jan. 10.

He has, according to the task, one primary objective: to eradicate the East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT), a Poso-based militant group that evolved from a local branch of Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) to a staunch supporter of the Islamic State (IS), a radical Middle-East organization.

However, Glen heard more about Santoso's group in 2012, when the long-haired militant leader publicly challenged Densus 88 in a statement released by al-Qaeda-affiliated media.

He blatantly declared himself “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi al-Indonesi”, adopted from the name of the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in June 2006.

Just like other extremist groups, the MIT consists of experienced combatants and well-trained jihadists of other nationalities, such as the Uighur from China who joined in 2014.

However, most of them are locals, part of an extremist cell that kept growing even after the signing of the Malino peace treaty, which formally ended the Poso communal conflict, in 2001.

Fanatic book seller

Known by name the Abu Wardah, Santoso is a former seller of Islamic books. He is a Javanese who used to live in Tambarana, Poso. His passion for radical jihad was fueled by infamous cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir through the recording of his preaching about Muslim massacres in Chechnya and Palestine.

He first appeared as a jihadist during the religious-fueled conflict between Muslims and Christians in Poso in 2000. Santoso ignored the Malino treaty, which the government-sponsored peace treaty was signed by the two conflicting communities.

His burning anger, and desperation for revenge for Muslim casualties in Poso, drove him to become active in the Tanah Runtuh group, a local affiliate of the JI, where he mostly learned about frontline jihad. He forged his violent-version of jihad in a military training camp established by Waqalah Uhud Mantiqi III, a wing of JI in the Sulawesi-Maluku area.

Santoso played on villagers’ sympathies, especially in the coastal town of Poso, since some locals still held grievances over the past communal conflict as well as resentment toward security personnel for conducting heavy-handed operations in the area.

He first grabbed the police’s attention in August 2004, when he was arrested for attempting to rob a truck carrying clove cigarettes with six others. He later disappeared.

Experts and officials believe that Santoso studied a radical interpretation of Islam in Ngruki, Surakarta, Central Java, as well as learned about bomb-making in Mindanao, the Philippines.

It was not until the military training camp in Jantho, Aceh, was dismantled in 2010 when Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) entered Poso. JI’s splinter cell formed by Ba’asyir piqued Santoso’s interest in making a comeback with an offensive jihad.

Indonesian Military (TNI) personnel on Santoso’s trail in the forest. (The Jakarta Post / Ruslan Sangadji)

He then led the newly established military unit of JAT, and later formed his own group, the MIT, with the help of followers in Poso who passionately believe that Indonesia was a land for jihad.

The group first shocked the country in 2012. Two days after the MIT declared its establishment, two dead police officers were found in a hastily dug grave in Tamanjeka village of Poso. Sporadic terror reigned afterward with sadistic murders, such as beheadings and stabbings.

In November 2014, a 50-year-old local resident named M. Fadli was found dead in front of his house in Tangkura village in Poso, with his neck slashed by a machete. Santoso’s gang claimed responsibility.

In Parigi Moutong regency last September, the group was reportedly involved in the murder of residents Nyoman Astika, 70, and Hengky, 50, who were found beheaded, while the body of one unidentified victim was found covered with stab wounds.

Rumor has it that all the aforementioned victims helped the police obtain information on the Santoso-led terrorist group’s movements and whereabouts.

In April 2015, after a gunfight with the police took the life of Daeng Koro—one of Santoso’s closest allies -- the group allegedly beheaded Koro’s father in-law. The man was accused of leaking information about the group to Densus 88. His body was found in Malino village, Central Sulawesi.

The Santoso group has zero tolerance for people thought to be police informants, even close relatives of the MIT. This punitive stance is heavily related to their guerilla strategy.

In December, Central Sulawesi Police chief Brig. Gen. Idham Azis said the police had found a hidden camp consisting of 10 huts that was believed to have been used by the MIT, located 15 kilometers from Kilo village, Poso.

Besides finding one dead body suspected to be a member of the group, five homemade weapons, explosives and male and female attire at the camp, Santoso and his group were nowhere to be found.

In January, the police raided a newly established training camp located 20 kilometers from a village where they killed one MIT member in a gunfight. But once again the group disappeared into the forest.

Local residents living at the foot of the mountain sometimes help security personnel to track the fast-moving MIT. However, the matter is a lot more complicated than it seems as not only those sympathetic to Santoso’s group but also those who oppose him tend to keep facts to themselves.

Papa Mirna, 34, a Tamanjeka resident, told Ruslan how the gruesome horror faced by local villagers in Poso was effective in make them remain silent about his whereabouts. Beheading is very an effective way of saying “I’m warning you”.

Sometimes, threatening text messages and flyers warn villagers not to cooperate with the police, who they refer to as ansharut-taghut (transgressors against Allah’s rule) or the enemies of Islam.

“If I ignored the warning, I was told that something bad would happen to me,” said Papa, who received a warning in 2013.

Tackling guerilla warfare

The police consider Santoso the most dangerous militant group leader for a reason. He is an expert in guerilla warfare, mapping, bomb-making and in utilizing every part of the forest for his cause.

There are reports that one of the 27 MIT members, which include three women from Bima, West Nusa Tenggara, and two Chinese Uighurs, is a former illegal logger who knows the forest like the back of his hand.

“The MIT applies guerilla warfare by moving from one place to another,” Operation Tinombala 2016 territorial head Sr. Comr. Leo Bona Lubis said.

The system has served Santoso’s gang very well, allowing them to elude capture. Years of experience in moving around the region’s mountain and villages have enabled MIT members to identify the routes easily; they know the terrain and where to run.

Besides guerilla warfare ability, the MIT has a structured hierarchy, Central Sulawesi Police spokesman Adj. Sr. Comr. Hari Suprapto said. Santoso sits at the top, along with Basri, aka Bagong, and two Chinese Uighurs. They build external communications, arrange tactics and strategies and train frontline executors in jihadi essentials, such as bomb-making.

The second level consists of executors who stand on the front line against security officers and are mostly MIT members. Meanwhile, the third level consists of numerous supporters who often act as couriers for the MIT to deliver supplies such as clothes, food, money, weapons and bomb-making materials.

In terms of weapon supplies, the MIT is equipped with sophisticated firearms. During a shootout in August 2015 in which Bado, a MIT courier, was killed, the antiterror squad seized a number of weapons, including rifles and hand-made pipe bombs.

Among them was a Beretta M60 assault rifle, which is commonly used by the US Marine Corps to attack tanks and an M-16 rifle, which were believed to have been smuggled from the Philippines, as well as a Pindad SS1, which is the standard assault rifle of the Indonesian Military.

In winning the war against this dangerous militant group in a vast terrain that stretches for approximately 7,000 kilometers, the police and the TNI have created three main teams to perform specific duties during Tinombala Operation.

Standing on the front line for pursuit and during shootouts is the Hunting Team, comprising Densus 88, Brimob, the Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) and Navy Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion personnel.

The Guardian Team, deployed in posts around villages at the foot of the mountain and in Poso city, consists of police and military personnel who keep track of people who enter and leave the forest and to disrupt the delivery of supplies to Santoso and his group.

“One of our strategies [to stop the Santoso group’s movements] is to close down the supply line, not only in terms of food supplies but also weapons and ammunition,” Idham Azis said.

Evidence seized at an abandoned East Indonesian Mujahidin camp is displayed by the Central Sulawesi Police in 2014. (The Jakarta Post / Ruslan Sangadji)

Last but not least, the Deradicalization Team, which counters MIT propaganda. The team involves not only police members but also religious figures from the Religious Affairs Ministry, local clerics such as Ustad Adnan Arsal who is also the Tanah Runtuh neighborhood chief, local village chiefs and pesantren (Islamic boarding school) officials.

Ibrahim, the former chairman of Al Khairat, the biggest Islamic organization in Central Sulawesi, said that while spiritual jihad existed in the Koran, violent jihad was not contextual for Indonesia.

“Jihad can be done through good deeds, such as preaching or simply just working to fulfill your family’s needs. And Indonesia is not a land at war. Thus, committing violent jihad in Indonesia is wrong,” he said.

Looking at the armed jihad fought by the Santoso group, one can easily guess why the MIT became the first jihadist group in Indonesia to publicly pledge allegiance to IS.

The sworn allegiance has given MIT advantages in the form of massive support from Indonesian IS supporters as well as aid from the global IS organization, according to an Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) report. IPAC is a Jakarta-based think tank founded by terrorism expert Sidney Jones.

Even though none of the 27 MIT members have gone to Syria, according to Jones, Santoso has attracted three top Indonesian IS supporters currently in Syria, namely Abu Jandal, Bahrun Naim and Bahrumsyah.

The latter, who is also the commander of Khatibah Nusantara, IS’ Southeast Asia unit, has assisted Santoso financially by transferring funds both directly to an MIT-affiliated bank account and indirectly to the Philippines to purchase weapons for the group.

In June 2014, Santoso referred to himself as the “commander of Islamic State’s army in Indonesia” after IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi stated that he intended to establish a caliphate. He has very likely been influenced by the IS method of jihad and uses the same tactics, such as beheadings.

The changes in global jihadist geopolitics have closely affected Indonesia’s militant map. The JI in Lamongan, East Java, which was behind MIT’s escalating power in recent years, has split into two factions.

Previously, the Lamongan jihadist cell recruited people and sent them to Poso for training, as well as connected Santoso to pro-jihad media such as al-Qaeda’s Global Islamic Media Front initially and then with the IS, IPAC has reported.

After the IS declared war on its rival militant group in the Middle East, al-Qaeda, some JI members turned to IS. JAT, which Santoso used to belong to, broke up when Ba’asyir, a lifelong supporter of al-Qaeda, suddenly changed course and pledged support for IS.

“Almost 90 percent of JAT members then left and created a new anti-IS group named Jama’ah Ansharusy-Syariah [JAS],” counterterrorism observer Rakyan Adibrata has said.

JAS remained with the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI) and senior leaders of the JI who had aligned with al-Qaeda and al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.

From Poso to Jakarta

Experts say there is rivalry between militant groups in Indonesia, such as the MIT, Darul Islam, JAT and Tauhid Wal Jihad, which were influenced by Amman Abdurrahman, a prominent IS figure in Indonesia.

According to the National Police, the radical cleric, who first spread takfiri (radical Wahabbi doctrine that views non-adherents as infidels) in Indonesia, has close ties to Santoso. Amman is currently detained on Nusakambangan prison island, Central Java, from where it is suspected that he oversees the movement of his followers.

The police claim that Amman was the link between Santoso and perpetrators of an attack in Jakarta on Jan. 14 that left eight people dead.

According to Idham, the bombs used in the attack on Jl. Thamrin were made from the same compounds as those used by the MIT in Poso, indicating that the men behind the attacks and the Santoso gang are affiliated.

While al-Qaeda affiliates primarily focus their attacks on Western interests, IS has declared war on anyone who refuses to follow it, even if they are fellow Muslims. In Poso, the Santoso gang call all Muslims who associate themselves with security personnel enemies.

“It's interesting that most of [Santoso’s] recorded declaration about launching attacks on Densus 88. That is his main enemy, not foreigners, Shiite Muslims nor the TNI. There's a degree of revenge,” said Jones.

Experts have said that militant attacks use different key players, as was obvious in the Thamrin attack, which had similarities to the November 2015 Paris attack, for which IS claimed responsibility.

Terror convict Fajriansyah, aka Rian, is sworn in before testifying at a hearing at the East Jakarta District Court, which invited witnesses, including convicts, to testify in a terrorism case in Poso. (The Jakarta Post/Ruslan Sangadji)

Unlike al-Qaeda, which launches mass bombings, IS affiliates choose a pattern classified as “marauding terrorist firearm attacks” in which a team of suicide bombers and gunmen coordinate attacks. Their equipment is simpler and cheaper, and not as easy to detect.

During a raid in Taunca village, the police found transaction documents suggesting a flow of funds from IS to the MIT. The funds were transferred to bank accounts belonging to MIT supporters or MIT-affiliated foundations, around Rp 2 million [US$ 144] per transaction, Lubis was reported as saying.

The Santoso group is considered part of global terrorist operations and it is little wonder that the government has launched a massive operation to rid the mountainous region of Poso of the MIT. Up until February, 392 Indonesians had joined IS in Syria.

National Police chief Gen. Badrodin Haiti has asserted that security personnel will continue the operation until Santoso is captured, dead or alive. “If the group is not stopped, it will get stronger and will turn into the insurgents like in the Philippines and Thailand,” he said.

After a Feb. 28 shootout in which a suspected MIT terrorist was killed, the Santoso gang split up into small groups and headed for different mountains in the Central Sulawesi region to evade troops hunting them down.

A recent report claims that Santoso is on his own deep in forest on Mount Wuasa in Central Lore subdistrict, Poso regency. Two of his three companions have been shot dead and the third was captured recently. 

Despite the number of MIT members decreasing since the beginning of Operation Tinombala in January, the notorious Santoso and his gang are still committing guerilla warfare in the name of jihad as though they are immortal.

Soldiers cross a river to reach the mountainous terrain where Santoso and his men are hiding out. (The Jakarta Post / Ruslan Sangadji)

The harsh terrain and bad weather, as well as the risk of death on the mountain, foiled Ruslan in his intention to join and report on the hunt for Santoso and his group. It is not an easy task for security personnel, or even for him as a journalist.

On his way home, Ruslan recalled that a police officer had pondered Santoso’s whereabouts. “Is he really in the forest? Who knows, maybe he is a hotel in Bali,” said the police officer.

According to Badrodin, the main difficulties in the operation are not only the harsh terrain or MIT’s elusiveness. It is the large number of MIT supporters that has become the main obstacle.

Even if Santoso is captured, the government will still need stay on guard against the silent supporters who may continue his violent jihad. An offensive operation maybe the key, but addressing the root cause is the only answer to the predicament. (ags)

Ruslan Sangadji in Palu, Central Sulawesi, contributed to this report.