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Fears over new Sulawesi terror group
Publication Date : 13-02-2013
Indonesian militants hiding in the jungles of Poso in Central Sulawesi province are gelling around the country's most wanted terrorist, Santoso, giving rise to fears that the group could morph into the next Jemaah Islamiah (JI) regional network, analysts say.
Calling themselves Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT) - East Indonesia Holy Warriors - the group has evaded an intense crackdown by the authorities, been linked to lethal attacks on policemen, and produced homemade bombs, anti-terror experts say.
A large cache of bombs - 12 bombs with nails, detonators and ball bearings - was discovered early this month by a resident in Poso town, and they are believed to have been produced by MIT.
MIT has the potential to turn into a more lethal group like JI, said the International Crisis Group's senior adviser Sidney Jones, partly because it already has an Indonesia-wide network and because "some of the more serious jihadists have gone up there (Central Sulawesi) to fight".
MIT, thought to have 50 members in Poso alone, also has a history of international contact "that some of the other small groups emerging in Indonesia don't have", she said during a discussion in Jakarta last week on terrorism trends in Poso.
Terrorism analyst Al Chaidar said the group has recruited skilled members, such as those with IT knowledge, to hack into websites, and this group has tried making connections to Al-Qaeda.
The new group began to coalesce in 2010 as terrorists fled to Poso for refuge after a major raid on a terrorist camp in Aceh, Sumatra that year.
MIT's link to JI is not surprising, as Santoso was the field commander of Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), JI's successor group, which was behind the Bali bombings.
JI and JAT were led by extremist preacher Abu Bakar Bashir, who is currently behind bars for financing the Aceh terror cell. With JI crippled and JAT members in hiding, MIT has become the umbrella group for Indonesian militants. While terrorism experts said MIT is still some time away from becoming a more organised group, its connections and Santoso's extremist aspirations are troubling signs.
In October last year, he posted an open letter on a radical website taunting Indonesian anti-terror police organisation Densus 88 and challenging it to a face-off, saying: "This is an open challenge to you... I will wait for your arrival. We fight till we die."
In the remote town of Poso, MIT's fight against Densus 88 is continuing.
The police tactics, in particular its trigger-happy reputation, have to change to avoid fuelling revenge killings and gaining sympathisers, said Nur Tahamil from the Institute for International Peace Building.
But while MIT's fight for now is against the police, this might evolve into something bigger.
"There is enough of a vision of their role as jihadi players that it is not impossible that this could morph back into something that sees itself as not just focused on police," said Jones.