The East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) continue to lose the support of field operatives. However, the group’s control of territories in the country means that it is far from defeated.
By Umair Jamal
Last month, four people were killed in a deadly attack in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province by militants believed to be linked with the Islamic State.
The attack was reportedly carried out by affiliates of the East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), a militant group known for its ties to the Islamic State.
While the victims belonged to a Christian community and there is some history of Muslim-Christian conflict in the area, authorities say the attack was not religiously motivated.
In recent years, Indonesia has struggled to contain Islamic militancy and terror attacks involving local and transnational militant groups.
However, unless Indonesia pushes MIT out of its small territory, the Indonesian government’s counterterrorism plans will continue to face challenges.
What does the investigation say about the attack?
The ambush took place in Lembantongoa village in Central Sulawesi. Of the four victims killed, one was beheaded and another was burned to death. The perpetrators also burned at least six houses, including a house that was used as a church.
Brigadier-General Farid Makhruf, commander of a military force that patrols the Central Sulawesi region, said that MIT’s attack was an act of revenge after the recent killing of two of their militants.
Pastor Gomar Gultom, the head of the Indonesian Council of Churches, reiterated Farid’s stance. “I ask for the public and the press not to narrow this down to a religious problem, what more to call this a persecution of Christians,” he said.
“It is not only Christians in Sigi who are afraid. This terror attack has disrupted the lives of all people in society,” Gomar added, referring to the area of Central Sulawesi where the attack occurred.
Despite a major manhunt, the perpetrators of the attack have evaded arrest.
MIT still remains a dangerous group
Before becoming the first terrorist organization in Indonesia to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, MIT was known for carrying out attacks against security forces. However, after publicly committing to the Islamic State’s sectarian agenda, MIT’s attacks have expanded to target Christians, Hindus and even Muslims in the country.
MIT’s former leader, Santoso, who saw the group commit its support to the Islamic State in 2014, died in 2016 in a gun battle with police. However, the group has not only survived after his death but continues to carry out attacks.
The group has suffered considerable casualties over the last year, considering it doesn’t command a huge number of field operatives. Reportedly, MIT only has 11 members including its current chief.
In April, two members of the terrorist group were killed by police in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province. In November, another two terrorists with MIT were killed in a joint operation by military and police.
It is possible that the recent MIT attack was a sign of frustration as the group loses support and is increasingly isolated. The group may want to send a message that it still remains a threat in the country.
Mohamad Adhe Bhakti, executive director of the Centre for Radicalism and De-Radicalization Studies (PAKAR), commented that the latest killings highlight how MIT is becoming more “brutal”. “I note that this is a killing with the most number of victims in one attack. Prior to this, MIT usually attacked one or two people only,” Adhe said.
MIT survives despite major counterterrorism campaign
MIT is based in Central Sulawesi’s mountainous Poso district. For more than a decade, the region has been known as a hotbed of religious conflict and extremism. Though MIT may have only a few members left, one of the major reasons the group continues to survive is because it still has a base of operations.
MIT’s base in Poso district was the only place in Indonesia where “extremists could ever plausibly claim to control territory, even if only a jungle camp or two, and maintain an active jihad”, said a recent report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) as referenced in the South China Morning Post.
The report further noted that MIT was “hugely symbolic to the violent extremist movement.” This could be one of the reasons that it continues to attract the support of a select few locals and foreign militants sympathetic to its cause.
MIT has also been training Uyghur fighters from China in Paso and reportedly has ties with other militant groups in Southeast Asia.
In 2015, three Chinese Uyghurs were sentenced by a Jakarta court to six years in prison each for “conspiring” with MIT after attempting to meet Santoso. In 2016, six Uyghurs who travelled to Poso to join MIT were killed in a military operation.
Unless Indonesia’s security agencies flush MIT out of its base and contain the flow of international and local militants to its strongholds, the fight against the group will not succeed.