Indonesian vigilante group recruits ex-members of defunct hardline group, runs army-like training

Rizieq Shihab was declared a suspect and detained in relation to a Nov 14 mass event.
Rizieq Shihab was declared a suspect and detained in relation to a Nov 14 mass event.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Indonesian vigilante group Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI) has enticed ex-members of disbanded Muslim hardline group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) to join them, and conducted army-like training for young recruits.

The revelation came as police released more details of what happened during a shoot-out between police and FPI leader Rizieq Shihab's bodyguards last week.

"They recruited the die-hard types from Garut, Sukabumi, Bogor to train in Megamendung to become laskar (paramilitary troops)," said a senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This is high militancy and calls for a prompt action."

FPI runs an Islamic boarding school in Megamendung, West Java province, in the cool breeze of the mountains in the famous Puncak area about 1 ½ hours' drive from Jakarta. Garut, Sukabumi and Bogor - also in West Java - are among the strongholds of radicalism in Indonesia.

HTI, which called for Islamic law and wanted to unify all Muslims into a caliphate, was disbanded in mid-2017 on grounds that it contradicted Indonesian state ideology Pancasila, the founding national principles that promote pluralism, tolerance and democracy.

Rizieq was declared a suspect and detained on Saturday (Dec 12) in relation to a Nov 14 mass event which flouted health measures to control the spread of the coronavirus and sparked fears of fresh outbreaks in the capital.

Thousands of his supporters had gathered to attend the wedding of his daughter and commemorate Prophet Muhammad's birthday.

The cleric ignored police summons and was placed under surveillance. Police tailing his convoy in the early hours of last Monday led to a shoot-out with his bodyguards. Six bodyguards were killed, while the other four fled the scene.

FPI said the police shootings were "extra-judicial killings" and claimed the bodyguards did not have firearms.

The police, however, said on Tuesday (Dec 14) that the officers acted in self-defence. Two of the bodyguards killed tried to shoot at the officers after ramming into their police car.

The other four were gunned down on their way to the police station after they tried to snatch the officers' firearms.

Anti-terror expert Adhe Bhakti of the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies (Pakar) said members of FPI, HTI and other Islamist groups held a joint mass street rally in 2016 to protest against then Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian  who was - in a controversial court ruling - convicted of blasphemy against Islam.

"Ex-HTI members need a new home, at least one that is similar, although ideology-wise FPI and HTI are not a match," Mr Adhe told The Straits Times. "It is also not impossible that those ex-HTI members joining FPI have on their minds that at some point, they could influence FPI to change."

Following Rizieq's detention, incidents were reported across several cities on Sunday. A 30-year old supporter identified as Muhammad Firmansyah tossed Molotov cocktails outside a bank branch in West Jakarta and was arrested, according to police.

No casualties were reported.

In Makassar, South Sulawesi, a group of people threw a Molotov cocktail at a police post, smashing its window. In another incident, residents descended on the Ciamis police station in West Java to stage a rally and told officers to put them in jail as a display of solidarity with Rizieq.