Published October 10, 2010
| Associated Press
HAMPARAN PERAK, Indonesia – Muslim militants wearing black masks stormed the tiny police precinct in western Indonesia and unloaded their assault rifles — riddling officers' bodies with bullets and shining a spotlight on the country's changing face of terrorism.
Extremists, better known for targeting Western nightclubs and hotels, are now going after Indonesia's state. And for the first time in more than a decade, the army has waded into the fight.
"It happened so fast, there was no way to react," said Irsol, the chief detective at the precinct on Sumatra island, who narrowly escaped the midnight assault by turning off the lights and hiding in the bathroom.
By the time the militants had sped off, one of his friends was sprawled on the floor with a hole in his head and 10 others in his arms and chest. Another friend was slumped over his computer, and a third lay motionless in a pool of blood in front of a holding cell.
"It was like they were sending a message to police and soldiers everywhere," said Irsol, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name. Still shaken after the Sept. 22 strike, he said the message was simple: "Watch out ... you're next."
Indonesia, a secular nation with more Muslims than any other in the world, was struck by a massive terrorist attack in 2002, when members of the al-Qaida linked network Jemaah Islamiyah carried out twin suicide bombings on crowded nightclubs on the country's resort island of Bali. 202 people were killed, many of them foreign tourists.
Though Jemaah Islamiyah has since abandoned such tactics, saying too many Muslim civilians were among the victims, members of a violent offshoot led by the late bomb-making expert Nordin Top continued to carry out near-annual strikes on embassies, beach-side restaurants and glitzy hotels, killing more than 60.
But the attacks have been far less deadly, in part because hundreds of suspects have been arrested and convicted — making the government and its security forces yet another target.
Indeed, the discovery of a new terror cell's jihadi training camp in westernmost Aceh province in February made it clear the game was about to change.
Several arrested militants said they wanted to punish the state for lending support to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, said Maj. Gen. Ansyaad Mbai, the head of the newly formed National Anti-terrorism Agency.
Their weapons of choice were guns, not bombs, he said, so they could be more precise.
Sidney Jones, a leading international expert on Southeast Asian terrorist groups, said the Aceh cell — which brought together militants from different networks — has been influenced in part by the Middle East.
"They have a long-term strategy of building an Islamic state and Muslim officials who hinder that objective are the enemy and need to be confronted," she said.
"That doesn't mean attacks on foreigners are a thing of the past. But for now, at least, police appear to be the number one target."
The attack on the police precinct — financed by a series of deadly armed robberies of banks and money changers that has netted more than $127,000 since April — has been billed by militants as a warning of what is yet to come.
Militants also have warned of high-profile assassinations, saying President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono topped their list.
The government has wasted no time in going on the offensive.
For the first time since longtime dictator Gen. Suharto was swept from power in a wave of pro-democracy street protests in 1998, the military has joined U.S.-trained elite police in fighting the militants.
"We're ready to crush terrorists, any time," said Maj. Gen. Lodewijk Paulus, who heads Kopassus, an army unit that until recently was on a U.S. blacklist for widespread, Suharto-era rights abuses.
In recent weeks, soldiers have been shown on national television taking part in anti-terrorism drills, some wearing black helmets and uniforms as they jump out of helicopters.
Others have been shown combing rugged mountain terrain for fleeing militants.
One clip even showed troops screaming at suspects in a river to surrender and then — before they were given a chance to do so — emptying their guns.
Critics warn that involving the army in combatting terrorism has its dangers.
It could spark competition between security forces, undermining the anti-terrorism fight, they warn. It also risks fueling Islamist propaganda and angering the public at large.
Mardigu Wowiek Prasantyo, a terrorism analyst, said that Indonesia has been successful in pushing back the terror threat so far partly because the alleged militants were, for the most part, treated according to the law.
They weren't secretly detained for long periods of time, and they received open trials, widely covered in the media. This helped convince a skeptical public that the threat was homegrown — not part of a U.S. conspiracy against Muslims.
But Hendardi, a noted rights activist from Setara Institute who uses only one name, has other concerns.
"I'm worried the military will use their power to once again suppress civil rights and arrest anyone they consider "terrorists," he said. "It really feels like we're turning back the clock."
Associated Press Writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this report from Jakarta.