Indonesia ramping up search for top fugitive Santoso

Reporters watch a video recording showing East Indonesian Mujahidin, led by Santoso, at police headquarters in Palu, Indonesia Central Sulawesi province, Dec 31, 2015.
Reporters watch a video recording showing East Indonesian Mujahidin, led by Santoso, at police headquarters in Palu, Indonesia Central Sulawesi province, Dec 31, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA • Indonesian security forces are regrouping to launch a more aggressive campaign to hunt for the country's most-wanted man, the police have said, after months of fruitless searching in the jungles of Sulawesi Island.

Security forces plan to bring in 500 more policemen and soldiers to reinforce the 1,600 personnel looking for Abu Wardah, better known as Santoso, Indonesia's most high-profile backer of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"There is a new operation called Tinombala that will focus on Poso and the surrounding areas," said Cetral Sulawesi police spokesman Hari Suprapto yesterday, referring to the district where Santoso is believed to be based.

Details of how the military and police would join forces still had to be worked out, he said. Officials at the presidential palace were not available for comment.

President Joko Widodo has made the arrest of Santoso one of his national security priorities, and had given security forces until Jan 9 to arrest him. But Santoso, who has been on the run for more than three years, has proven to be more difficult to catch than expected.

Analysts say he could be an inspiration for Indonesian militants returning from fighting with ISIS in the Middle East.

Determined to capture Santoso, Mr Joko last March approved the first major military counter-terrorism operation since the bombing of two Jakarta hotels in 2009.

The police's elite counter-terrorism unit, Detachment 88, had captured 28 terror suspects in the past year. A blitz by troops, warships and fighter jets weakened Santoso's forces, but he got away, and officials believe he still commands up to 40 men.

While security forces increase their focus on Santoso in Central Sulawesi, analysts are alarmed over a growing network of ISIS supporters around the capital, Jakarta.

Police over the weekend arrested three people after finding bomb-making equipment in a house near Jakarta, said police spokesman Sulistyo Pudjo Hartono.

The police said the three were suspected of having links with a group of men arrested across the island of Java last month, who were believed to be planning attacks over the New Year holiday.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'Indonesia ramping up search for top fugitive Santoso'. Print Edition | Subscribe