Sulawesi terror group on the run splits up to evade special forces

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

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 the Indonesian authorities, including military special forces, according to a senior field military officer.

He told The Straits Times on Tuesday that the group of 11 men split up to avoid detection as they were cornered. He said they had descended from the higher mountain areas and were 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 killings last Friday in a remote location where transport is difficult have prompted Jakarta to deploy special forces from the military to beef up the manhunt.

The MIT, led by Ali Kalora, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Ali Kalora took over the leadership of MIT from Santoso, who was once Indonesia's most-wanted terrorist. Santoso was killed in July 2016 after a massive manhunt.

The authorities have been hunting for the Kalora-led MIT for the last few months. On Tuesday and yesterday, special forces units from both the Marines and the army's Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) joined the manhunt.

The MIT militants descended from the mountaintop areas after Indonesian officers intensively combed Central 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.

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

MIT is believed to have only 11 members left after two members of the group, identified as Wahid, alias Bojes, and Aziz Arifin, were spotted descending from higher mountain areas near the provincial capital of Palu in the middle of last month.

  • 11

    Number of members believed to be left in the extremist Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen group, which is alleged to have killed a Christian family of four and torched six homes last Friday in Central Sulawesi province.

They were tailed to a regency about two hours' drive from Palu and were killed.

"They were trying to get supplies as they ran out of food and logistics up there. The two came down and were given food 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 Adhe Bhakti of the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies (Pakar) said a few incidents indicated that MIT has weakened. The arrests last month of two MIT militants signalled their desperation, he said.

In another incident on April 15, two of Ali Kalora's followers, Muis Fahron and Darwin Gobel, wounded a mobile brigade police officer outside a Bank Syariah Mandiri 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 (have) minimal logistics right now, both in terms of weaponry and other equipment," Mr Adhe said. "The Lemban Tongoa killings (last Friday) could be them (taking revenge against) the police and military."

President Joko Widodo has condemned last Friday's 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, when hundreds of people were killed and thousands fled their homes.

In a video broadcast that was shared on social media, leaders of the Poso Interfaith Communication Forum (FKUB) appealed to all residents of all religions to stay united, not be provoked by last Friday's incident, and trust the authorities to investigate the case.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2020, with the headline 'Sulawesi terror group on the run splits up to evade special forces'. Subscribe