Police uncover likely new terror cell in Sumatra

Indonesian police stand guard at the site of the Jan 14 militant attack in central Jakarta, Indonesia, on Jan 16, 2016.
Indonesian police stand guard at the site of the Jan 14 militant attack in central Jakarta, Indonesia, on Jan 16, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Four followers arrested; hunt now on for leader of North Sumatra group loyal to ISIS

Indonesian police may have uncovered a new domestic terror cell, loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), operating in North Sumatra province.

This would again be proof of the extensive influence of ISIS over different militant groups in Indonesia, as well as its wide geographical reach across a country with the world's largest Muslim population.

The hunt is on for the leader of the cell, identified by Padang Sidempuan city police as Abu Sumatra, or "Father of Sumatra" in Arabic. "We want to know who Abu Sumatra is and where he is from," The Jakarta Post reported Padang Sidempuan police chief Helmi Lubis as saying yesterday.

Counter-terrorism analysts say there has been chatter tagged to Abu Sumatra in forums and chat groups on extremism recently.

The police chanced upon him and four of his followers after they examined the cellphone of a recently arrested sex offender named Rizal Faisal. "When we were going through Rizal's text messages, we found conversations about ISIS with the four suspects and Abu Sumatra," said commissioner Helmi, adding that the four followers of Abu Sumatra had been arrested at different locations last Friday.

Experts such as counter-terrorism analyst Al Chaidar, of Malikussaleh University, say ISIS, using intermediaries and the Internet, has not just spread its ideology to urban areas and cities in Java but also to small towns and villages in Sumatra, Sulawesi or the Indonesian part of Borneo island. Police presence is low there, allowing radicalised groups to thrive and grow.

Analyst Adhe Bhakti added that the provincial capital Medan could also be a strategic base for ISIS because it is adjacent to Malaysia.

This latest development comes after reports of two suspected home- made bombs found separately in North Sumatra earlier this month.

The arrests of the four followers of Abu Sumatra were part of Indonesia's extended dragnet for militants after the Jakarta attack on Jan 14 which killed eight, including the four terrorists with links to ISIS.

Indonesian security agencies have mostly focused on remnants of the now disbanded Jemaah Islamiah terror network, as well as members of the East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) led by the country's most wanted terrorist Santoso.

The Jakarta terror attack, however, has shifted attention to elements linked to Aman Abdurrahman, an Indonesian ideologue now jailed for setting up a paramilitary training camp in Aceh with former JI spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir in 2009.

Aman had pledged his allegiance to ISIS and merged various extremist groups under his Jemaah Anshar Khilafah terror network.

These include groups like the MIT and the West Indonesia Mujahideen - where the so-called "Jakarta Four" attackers were from.

Aman, who is believed to have orchestrated the strike on Jakarta, has been known to order his followers to emigrate to the caliphate or join ISIS as foreign fighters.

Hundreds are said to have made the journey, with police on Sunday intercepting nine adults and five children in two families who were travelling to Syria to join ISIS. One of the families was from Tangerang in Banten province, and the other from West Kalimantan.

The arrests came less than a month after four Indonesians from Bogor in West Java were stopped in Singapore. They, too, had plans to join ISIS.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'Police uncover likely new terror cell in Sumatra'. Print Edition | Subscribe