Indonesian special forces join manhunt for terrorists who killed Christians in Sulawesi

Police inspecting the site of an attack in a remote Christian community of Lembantongoa village, in Palu, Sulawesi, on Nov 28, 2020.
Police inspecting the site of an attack in a remote Christian community of Lembantongoa village, in Palu, Sulawesi, on Nov 28, 2020.PHOTO: AFP/CENTRAL SULAWESI PROVINCE POLICE

JAKARTA - A group of terrorists who killed four Christians last week in Central Sulawesi province, have split up into two or three smaller groups in the jungle, as they are being pursued by Indonesian authorities including military special forces, according to a senior field military officer.

He told The Straits Times on Tuesday (Dec 1) that the group of 11 men has split up in order to avoid detection as they were cornered and descended from the higher mountain areas, and were moving near the borders of Poso and Sigi regencies in Central Sulawesi.

“We used to do our tracking work, relying on IT (Information Technology), but today they do not use a single mobile phone,” said the senior field military officer based in Poso, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That incident is a blow to us.”

Police believe the extremist Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) group killed the Christian family of four and torched six homes, including one frequently used to hold mass prayers, in a remote village of Lemban Tongoa in the province. Two of the victims were beheaded.

The Friday (Nov 27) killings, which happened in a remote location where transportation is difficult, has prompted Jakarta to deploy elite special forces units to beef up the manhunt.

The MIT, led by Ali Kalora, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Ali Kalora took over the MIT from Santoso, who was once Indonesia’s most-wanted terrorist and who was killed in July 2016 after a massive manhunt.

The authorities have been hunting for the Kalora-led MIT in the last few months. On Tuesday and Wednesday (Dec 1 and 2), the manhunt was joined by special forces units from both the Marines and the army’s Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad).

The MIT militants have descended from the mountain top areas after Indonesian officers intensively combed Cen tral Sulawesi’s deeply forested area.

“We have been relying on human intelligence information. We have to do quick follow-up actions after any report from villagers who spotted any of the wanted terrorists,” the field officer said.

Face cuts of the 11 wanted militants have been distributed to cities and villages in the province.

The MIT is believed to have only 11 members left after two of them, identified as Wahid alias Bojes and Aziz Arifin, were spotted to be descending on the provincial capital of Palu, in the middle of November. They were tailed and killed in a regency about two hours’ drive from Palu. 

“They were trying to get supplies as they ran out of foods and logistics up there. The two came down and were given foods by villagers. They also managed to meet a villager (who supported their cause), who let them use his motorcycle,” the field officer told The Straits Times.

Anti-terror expert Mr Adhe Bhakti of the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies (Pakar) said that a few incidents indicated that the MIT has weakened.

The mid-Nov arrest of two MIT militants signalled their desperation, said Mr Adhe.

In another incident, on April 15, Ali Kalora’s two other followers Muis Fahron and Darwin Gobel wounded a mobile brigade police outside a Bank Mandiri Syariah branch in Poso and tried to snatch an assault rifle from the officer but failed. 

The two militants quickly left the scene and hours later were hunted down and killed by the police.

“Ali Kalora and his followers are having minimal logistic right now, both in terms of weaponry and other equipment,” Mr Adhe said. “The Lemban Tongoa killings (last Friday) could be them avenging the police and military.”

President Joko Widodo has condemned the killings, saying there is no place for terrorism anywhere in Indonesia.

“That barbaric act is clearly meant to provoke and terrorise the public, and to disturb the unity and harmony among the people,” Mr Joko said in a statement on Monday night. He invited everyone to stay united to fight against terrorism.

Mr Adhe said the Lemban Tongoa incident is unlikely to spark any conflict between the Christians and Muslims, as residents understand and see it as a terrorist act. 

Poso, a sleepy Central Sulawesi town, had a bloody history of sectarian conflict from 1997 to 2000, where hundreds of people were killed and thousands fled their homes.

In a video broadcast sent around on the social media, leaders of the Poso Interfaith Communication Forum (FKUB) appealed to all residents of all religions to stay united, not be provoked by the Friday incident and trust the authority to investigate the case.