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June 23, 2010

Indonesian Terrorist Sweeps Raise Concern Over Police Tactics

Since February, Indonesian security forces have killed 13 terrorist suspects during police raids. Police defend their tactics, saying they act to protect themselves and the public. But human rights groups and security analysts are questions the motives behind what they call "shoot-on-sight" tactics.

When Indonesia's elite counterterrorism unit, Detachment 88, took out the country's top terrorist suspect several months ago, witnesses say he was sitting in an Internet café on the outskirts of Jakarta.

Police said the man known as Dulmatin, suspected of masterminding the bomb attacks in Bali in 2002, was armed and dangerous.  According to Indonesian authorities, Dulmatin shot at police and officers then fired several rounds of ammunition before killing him. The United States had placed a $10 million price tag on Dulmatin's head and Indonesian security forces celebrated his killing as a major victory.

A total of 61 terrorists have been captured and 13 others have been killed since February, when police discovered and raided a hidden training camp in the mountains of Aceh.

But Noor Huda Ismail, a terrorism analyst with the International Institute for Peacebuilding said such security sweeps against suspected terrorists is part of a troubling pattern.  Noor Huda is calling for an open investigation into the recent shootings, pointing out that witness testimony raises concerns about whether these suspects posed a real threat.

Police may be purposely targeting some terrorist suspects rather than relying on a legal system that some say is too lenient, said Noor Huda.

In 2005, Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir - the accused spiritual leader of the regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah - received a 30-month sentence after being convicted of conspiracy related to the Bali bombings.  He was released on good behavior after serving 25 months in prison.  Six months later, the Indonesian Supreme Court overturned his conviction based, on witness testimony.

Police need to uphold the law, Noor Huda said, regardless of their doubts about the legal system, because their current operations fuel the belief that security forces are no different from the terrorists.

"The police are not in the killing business. I know those guys in the killing business. If we do the same thing we are like them. Noor Huda acknowledges that "they are bad guys. They are terrorists. They might kill us. [And] they kill civilians. But we don't want to behave like them, right?"

Noor Huda said in the past police have been successful in apprehending more than 500 alleged terrorists since Detachment 88 was formed in 2002, following the suicide bombings in Bali that killed more than 200 people.  The United States, which has provided training and support to the force, also commends it for its ability to prevent possible attacks by dismantling training camps and confiscating explosive materials and weapons.

Tito Karnavian, head of Detachment 88, dismisses claims that the police are involved in any planned killings of terrorist suspects. Their job, said Tito, is to apprehend alleged terrorists, and it is up to prosecutors and the courts to convict them. Tito disputes criticism that his men are acting with unnecessary force.  

"The police understand which one is really hardcore, which one is the militants, which one is really sympathizers, which one is supporters … These kind of mechanism observations really shape the sensitivity of our officers in doing raids," said Tito.

As an example, he points to two back-to-back operations in May. In the first one, police shot dead Maulana, a hardline militant suspected of procuring weapons and cash to be used in a major attack on high-profile leaders in Jakarta.  Tito said police knew Maulana was extremely dangerous and they went in prepared to shoot at the first sign of trouble.

The next day police stormed a house in central Java, arresting three people and seizing a cache of M-16s, AK-47 and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.  No bullets were fired that day, said Tito, because, thanks to intelligence, the police knew they were dealing with more moderate suspects than Maulana.

Inspector General Ansyaad Mbai, head of the counter-terrorism desk at the Coordinating Ministry for Legal, Political and Security Affairs, said it is the constitutional responsibility of the government to protect more than 200 million people in Indonesia.  He added because terrorists are committing extraordinary crimes, police need to respond with extraordinary measures.

Still, Noor Huda and other analysts say security forces must reassure a skeptical public that they are operating under the law when trying to capture terrorists and maintain public security.