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Coming to terms with terrorism in Indonesia

Indonesia's special counter-terrorist unit, Densus 88, is appealing for greater co-operation from citizens.

The recent shooting spree against police in central Java and the discovery of two houses storing massive explosives in and near Jakarta suggest that Indonesia may be lagging in countering the threats of terrorism from radical Islamic groups.

Approaching the 10-year commemoration of the October 12 suicide bombing that killed hundreds of foreign tourists on the holiday island of Bali, this Muslim-majority nation is already coming to terms with the fact that the threats will remain. Still, people hope that the police will be able to foil any plot of major attacks before it happens.

The police's special counter-terrorist unit, Densus 88, has won praise for busting terrorist networks and has made many arrests since its creation in 2003. Indonesia has not seen any major terrorist attack after the elite force killed Noordin Mohammed Top, the Malaysian bomb-maker linked to all the Indonesian suicide bombing attacks since Bali, during a raid in 2009.

Densus 88 has made a number of arrests in connection with the remnants of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network, but smaller attacks have continued, suggesting that the threat from those who seek to create an Islamic state by violent means is far from being defused.

Ironically, police have been singled out for the attacks by JI splinter groups. In the past, JI targeted foreigners, attacking nightclubs in Bali, the Australian embassy in Jakarta, and the Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta to ensure maximum international publicity. The new, smaller, home-grown terrorist groups no longer enjoy support from al-Qaeda.

The series of attacks on the police in the central Java town of Surakarta in August set off a massive counter-operation by Densus 88 with measurable success. The operation led to the discovery of a safe house in the Tambora district in Jakarta with large amounts of explosives. An explosion in Depok, a Jakarta suburb, led to the discovery of a house where massive quantities of explosives had been stored. People inside were apparently assembling a bomb when it accidentally exploded.

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But while Densus 88 may have claimed success, its operations have also revealed an ominous fact. It turns out that the assailants were still in their teens, suggesting that the terrorist groups are still recruiting and still gaining new members. The discovery of two caches of explosives also highlighted intelligence failures. No one in the security services noticed anything suspicious about the houses in question right up until the raids. Nor does the ability of the terrorist groups to purchase explosive materials in bulk bode well.

The terrorists are said to have confessed to a plot to bomb the parliament building. In 2010, police also claimed to have foiled a similar terrorist plot to assassinate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with a car bomb.

If the terrorist groups have succeeded in recruiting youngsters while planning major operations without being detected until the last minute, this suggests that the police aren't just one or two steps behind, as many had assumed until recently. If Indonesia has managed to avoid a massive new terrorist attacks in recent years, it is primarily because the perpetrators have been inept and careless.

That is hardly comforting.

Understandably keen to avoid setting off a massive panic, the government rarely announces the level of national alert of a terrorist attack. But in the wake of the recent discovery, officials have appealed for better co-ordination between the nation's main intelligence agencies and for greater public co-operation in the fight against terrorism.

An archipelagic nation of 240 million people makes the task of monitoring the movement of terrorist suspects very challenging without the help and support of the public.

Neighbours of the Depok house told reporters after this month's bust that the suspected terrorists had moved in months earlier and put up a plank announcing that it was an orphanage. Although they found it strange that no children were ever seen in the house, they did not report this to the police. Similarly, the house in Tambora, a densely populated area, had escaped detection from neighbours. A rule requiring citizens to report any suspicious activity to their neighbourhood association or the local police has gone largely unheeded in the big cities, where people tend to mind their own business.

Even more worrisome, the fight against terrorism cannot count on the support of the Islamic organisations, which last week unanimously rejected suggestions that the government start certifying clerics. The idea had been mooted as the government struggled to curb the growth of Islamic radicalism, which, officials say, makes recruiting would-be terrorists easier. Some analysts say that radical Islamic groups have used sermons at mosques to spread hatred and their violent ideology.

Most Indonesians have already factored in the threat of terrorist attacks into their lives. Almost 10 years since the most deadly terrorist attack hit Bali, people in big cities still have to put up with tight security checks and metal detectors when entering office buildings and shopping malls.

The government could surely do with more assistance from the public in monitoring their respective neighbourhoods and reporting on any suspicious movements. But it's the police, of course, who still bear the primary responsibility for preventing future attacks.

Washington Post-Bloomberg

The author is a senior editor of The Jakarta Post, an independent English-language newspaper in Indonesia.