Indonesia has long suffered from the plague of militancy, which has included infamous attacks in Jakarta, Surabaya, and Bali. The now largely-defunct Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an al-Qaida offshoot that was perhaps the most deadly group, was behind a string of attacks in the 2000s, not only in Indonesia, but also the Philippines. It even planned attacks in Singapore. Following operations by Detachment-88 (Densus-88), the Indonesian police’s counterterrorism unit, JI was effectively neutralized (although JI-linked figures still continue to be arrested in Indonesia).
In recent years, the Islamic State-affiliated Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) took on the mantle of being the country’s most active militant group, and some of its more notorious attacks include the 2016 Jakarta attacks and the 2018 Surabaya bombings. Against this backdrop, another militant group also emerged, the East Indonesia Mujahideen, or the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT), which boasted connections to high-ranking Indonesian militants in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and was the first Indonesian group to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014. After Indonesian security forces killed Santoso, MIT’s leader, in 2016, many believed that the outfit would crumble.
Yet as of 2020, MIT seems to have regained some of its footing and has conducted several attacks over the past few months, displaying its resilience. After Santoso, Ali Kalora took over the helm, and he has been the key reason for MIT’s resurgence. Ali Kalora grew up in the mountains and jungles of Poso Regency in Central Sulawesi, where MIT’s operational capabilities lie. His familiarity with the terrain gives MIT an advantage over Indonesian forces, which are routinely rotated in and out of the region as part of Operation Tinombala, a specific counterterrorism operation that targets MIT. Operation Tinombala, which began in January 2016, has been extended time and time again; each time Indonesian authorities state that they are close to decimating the group, but continued MIT attacks and clashes prove otherwise.
Authorities say that MIT has around a dozen militants. From January to April 2020, at least 17 suspected MIT members or affiliates were arrested, indicating that the authorities’ figures of the actual number of militants is understated. It also likely does not include supporters of the outfit, especially in Poso Regency, where thousands went to pay their respects at Santoso’s funeral. Poso is also a hotspot for sectarianism, where communal violence was recorded between Christians and Muslims in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and where three Christian girls were beheaded in 2005. Ali Kalora tries to take advantage of these pre-existing sentiments.
While JAD’s main operational leadership remains in the shadows, Ali Kalora has not. He appears in MIT videos, calling for attacks. MIT itself could be argued to be more active than JAD in the digital sphere, as they release videos of the beheading of locals who are suspected to be feeding information to security forces. This not only serves to raise the group;s profile, but it is reminiscent of what the Islamic State did, which helped them gain more clout and support from radicalized elements on the basis of shock value. Ali Kalora stated that the novel Coronavirus was a curse for the thogut/thagut, a reference to the “tyrants,” and during Ramadan, MIT operatives conducted attacks to secure amaliyah (a term referring to field action used by Indonesian jihadists).
Under Ali Kalora’s leadership, MIT has sought to increase its funding, and is believed to have received funding from overseas terror networks and sympathizers. The group is also seeking to improve its explosive capabilities; authorities recovered materials and bombs in some raids. There are also growing connections between JAD and MIT; last year authorities arrested five militants with links to both. A JAD treasurer arrested reportedly confessed that he was instructed to send some funds to MIT. Kalora has also sought to increase recruitment, and capitalizes on perceptions that the Indonesian state does not care for the Muslim residents of Poso.
MIT remains a small group that is constrained to Central Sulawesi; however, it has achieved a sense of reverence among Indonesian jihadists. With the outfit regrouping and consolidating itself further, it will continue along this path, gaining more support from radicalized individuals from Indonesia and overseas, while attempting to create functioning logistical networks with other outfits, like JAD. MIT will continue to remain a limited but notable threat to Indonesia.
Uday Bakhshi is a political and security analyst with a focus on Southeast Asia.