Indonesia is sharing a bed with terrorist sleeper cells

Lack of a clear policy to deal with terrorism at its root causes is giving extremist a sympathetic base in which to thrive
Indonesia is sharing a bed with terrorist sleeper cells

Indonesia anti-terror police take a part in a counter terrorism exercise at Benoa harbor in Denpasar on Bali in this March 8 file photo. (Photo Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP)

A riot at a police detention center in Depok, West Java, and attacks on churches and police headquarters in Surabaya clearly provide interrelated elements to better understand how terrorism has evolved in Indonesia.

Links between these tragedies and new terrorist tactics and targets, along with the future of counterterrorism, differing opinions and responses among political actors are clearly seen as critical problems.

Indonesians should understand this situation in which they are effectively sharing a bed with terrorist sleeper cells. 

Lack of awareness

Indonesia, judging by these new attacks, is being targeted as a potential battlefield by terrorists.

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This country, for almost the last two decades, has also been portrayed as a hotbed of terrorist activity.

Indonesia is encountering two problematic issues. First, terrorist activity is now more intensive and extensive. And second, Indonesia is weak on preventive strategies.

However, there is a more serious problem in Indonesia. There is a lack of awareness and solid agreement among political actors on looking upon terrorism as an extraordinary crime against humanity.

There are conflicting views among the ruling elite on how firm Indonesia's response to terrorism should be at a time when the country can least afford to bog itself down in such useless political debates.

Some politicians are still debating the simple matter of what defines terrorism. They just do not want to recognize and accept the core meaning of terrorism — the use of illegal force by non-state actors by executing massive violence via spreading fear, coercion, intimidation, and murder.

It is said that this political blindness and lack of awareness are major factors for the unpredictable nature of deadly attacks in Indonesia today.

It has also allowed the rise of terrorist sleeper cells to blend in and enjoy an easy atmosphere in which to plot their brutal attacks.


By and large many people look upon terrorism with a global perspective, that it is an expression of resistance to "global injustice." 

Although terrorism is affected by global and regional political influences, Indonesia should look more at an ideological and religious justification for the emergence of terrorism. It is argued that terrorism in Indonesia is a result of the country's political, social and cultural background.

Since 2012, Indonesia has been a major target of Islamic State (IS) propaganda. The group has progressively and continuously recruited new members there. 

Indonesia to IS and other terrorist networks is seen as a safe haven for them to hide and strengthen.

Radicalism is a proven source of terrorism. Several surveys have found that 7 percent of Indonesian Muslims have a permissive way of thinking towards radical movements and ideology. This is a real challenge for Indonesian Muslims. It suggests that terrorist groups such as IS can infect them quite openly.

This is a big problem for counter-terrorism efforts in Indonesia.

Indonesia struggles in the war on terrorism when sympathizers warmly support so-called sleeper cells.

The willingness of communities to help them often results in ineffective, heavy-handed counterterrorism efforts that foster even more resentment.

At stake

With a series of new attacks and the fear of subsequent ones, Indonesians are now asking the question — how do we know if we are winning the war on terrorism?

Indonesia's whole counterterrorism strategy is at stake. This country should comprehensively evaluate state-based responses to terrorist attacks. 

Despite them appearing decisive on the surface with the new anti-terrorism law and the formation of a special anti-terrorist squad, they and other political steps have so far proved ineffective in preventing and predicting terrorist attacks.

Counter-terrorist policies which are only based on a narrow range of repressive methods and security measures, tend to produce serious negative side-effects. It serves to stoke the problem further rather than reduce it.

A more holistic approach by making use of an entire range of preventive measures may lighten the impact of hard solutions by relying more on the impact of a softer approach.

In this regard, Indonesia should flex its social and cultural muscle in building positive responses.

To limit the sleeper cell aspect of terrorism in Indonesia, it is important to initiate inclusive and constructive dialogues in society and build — hand in hand — good understanding and networking between socio-religious groups and state-actors.

The Indonesian government must offer more support to moderate Islamic groups and communities who can be effective actors in countering radicalism as well as act guarantors in the protection of human rights.

Father Max Regus is a priest from Catholic Diocese of Ruteng, Flores. He holds a Ph.D. degree in Social Sciences and Humanities from the University of Tilburg, the Netherlands. He is now working on a postdoctoral project entitled 'Religion and Peacebuilding in Asia: A Church-Based Investigation' and the project is supported by the Institute of Missiology Aachen, Germany.

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