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Analysts Warn Indonesian Police Crackdown May Fuel Extremism

Members of Indonesian police anti-terror unit Special Detachment 88 move into positions as they prepare for a raid in Solo, Central Java, Indonesia, September 26, 2012.
Members of Indonesian police anti-terror unit Special Detachment 88 move into positions as they prepare for a raid in Solo, Central Java, Indonesia, September 26, 2012.
Local terrorism and growing unrest in Indonesia have challenged the government to get a grip on violence. But the use of force by police has fueled anger among some extremists. If the police cannot find a way to reduce their kill rates, the military could take a greater role in securing the country.

Poso, an area in Central Sulawesi once wracked by violence between Muslims and Christians, has become the latest focus of police efforts to root out terrorism in Indonesia.

In recent months battles between security forces and suspected militants there have led to more than a dozen deaths. The conflict has also heightened fears that militants are regrouping in the remote hills that provided shelter to past terrorist movements.

In a briefing to reporters recently, one security analyst said it was very unlikely that militants have the skill or capability to launch a large-scale terror attack like those of years past. But heavy-handed action by police is fueling anger among militants that could resonate more widely, according to Sidney Jones, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Jakarta.

“This anger is serious and it could have serious political implications. It also could lead to rationales for giving the military a greater role in handling terrorism,” said Jones.

Jones said criticism of police operations by mainstream Muslim groups could lead to declining political support for Detachment 88, the U.S. and Australian-trained counterterrorism squad formed after the 2002 bombings on the resort island of Bali killed more than 200 people.

Trust in the police force as a whole is already low, and some analysts suspect it is part of the reasoning behind a recent presidential instruction that allows the military to assist the police in dealing with communal conflicts.

Human rights groups have called the instruction, known as an "inpres," unnecessary, and say it could lead to abuse by security forces with a history of human rights violations. Haris Azhar is a coordinator at the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence.

“No matter if there is war or not, the president is saying this is the time for the military. By this inpres the military will take more role and action,” said Azhar.

Unlike the civilian police, Detachment 88 has enjoyed high levels of public support for helping to cripple Jemaah Islamiyah, Southeast Asia’s al-Qaida offshoot responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings.

But an increasing number of deaths of suspected militants at the hands of the police has raised concerns that the force is not doing enough to capture rather than kill them. Last month Detachment 88 killed seven suspected militants in Poso. Azhar says that type of brutality is fueling the extremism police are meant to be fighting.

“Now we have two problems, terrorism and the war on terrorism itself," said Azhar. "It is very clear that the police have a very, very bad performance.”

Anger with the police first took off back in February 2010 following their break-up of a terrorist training camp in the remote hills of Aceh in North Sumatra. The discovery of the camp sparked a nationwide dragnet that led to the arrest, killing or conviction of hundreds of suspected militants.

That sweep touched nearly every jihadi group in Indonesia, says Jones, and made the police enemy number one. She says police need to find a way to reduce their kill rate and conduct more post-operation analysis. If they do not, Jones says, groups that pose little threat now could use the violence to recruit more followers.

“If you already have revenge against the police as your number one motivation, the more deaths you have at police hands is just going to give more motivation to more people to get involved in the movement,” said she said.

Indonesia has successfully prosecuted a number of militants and has executed three of the men accused of engineering the Bali blasts. Terrorism now has become a war between police and extremists.

But those extremists are less disparate than once believed, and they are starting to return fire. Since 2010 the number of police killed in terrorist operations has topped 20.