Former militia and released terrorists have turned to democratic means to advance their agenda in…
Retired Muslim militants are openly embracing democratic elections in the former radical stronghold of Poso in Central Sulawesi, with many planning to vote or even run for office themselves in the elections tomorrow. But in Bima, on the island of Sumbawa, south of Sulawesi, some radicalised communities are refusing to vote, as allegiances to violent Islamist networks shift south.
Support for the East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) has fallen sharply in Poso in recent years. MIT’s leader, Santoso, was shot dead by police in 2016. In Bima, meanwhile, support for the group has only increased.
Terrorist groups in Poso and Bima have an established connection, as documented in a 2018 report by IPAC. Santoso’s MIT, for example, has long trained people from Bima who travelled to Poso to pledge their allegiance. Two militants shot police in Bima in September 2017 at the command of the group.
The Poso-Bima connection even has a personal aspect: Santoso’s second wife, Jumiatun (alias Umi Delima), is a former student of the Al Madinah Islamic boarding school in Bima and was reported missing when she went to join Santoso’s group in Poso. After finally being found, arrested, and jailed for more than two years, she was released in December 2018 – and is now reported to have returned to Bima.
As we discovered during our research, terrorism – or extremist violence or radicalism – is a highly sensitive issue in Bima. Not many people are prepared to speak openly about it, especially if they know we are gathering information. Because of this, conversations about the return of Santoso’s second wife to Bima are carried out in whispers.
When we ask people in Bima about the issue, we tend to get two kinds of answers. The first, usually coming from security forces like police and military figures, who despite their reluctance to talk feel obliged to give an answer, is that the issue exists but that its influence is limited to certain groups in certain areas – particularly in the urban village of Penatoi – and that the groups’ movements are being monitored, and will continue to be monitored. They refer to these groups as Igaras – Islam Garis Keras, or “Islamic hard-liners”.
The second kind of answer usually comes from religious figures and communities. They are defensive, stating that acts of terrorism in Bima are not perpetrated by local people, and that although hard-line communities exist, they tend to keep to themselves and do not disturb others, and so on.
The two responses are different, but there is a noticeable similarity in their tendency to downplay the serious threat of terrorism in Bima. Anyone with an interest in the field knows that Bima has been an important site for the development of terrorist movements in Indonesia over the past decade, with much deeper roots.
On top of this, we know that numbers are not everything in this game: terrorism does not require a great number of people to carry out a great deal of destruction.
A glimpse of Penatoi
Located in the subdistrict of Mpunda in the heart of Bima city, and only half a kilometre away from the mayor’s office, the urban village of Penatoi is the city’s oldest, and has long been the home of its political and economic elite.
There is a mosque, and other kinds of religious infrastructure, but the area is also seething with “vice”, like drinking, cockfighting and drug abuse. Despite these activities, over the last 30 years or so, hard-line groups have been moving into the area in growing numbers.
Several such groups have settled in the area, but the most extreme is the Tauhid Wal Jihad, which has pledged allegiance to hard-line cleric Aman Abdurrahman, a key figure in the deadly riot by terrorist inmates at a police detention centre in Depok last May.
The group is now reported to “control” seven of the 12 neighbourhoods in the tightly packed urban village. It is also reported to have taken control of the government-built Istiqomah Mosque, the largest in the area, and is said to have the power to decide who can give sermons there.
One of our sources says that when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared the establishment of a caliphate in 2014, the first place in Indonesia to fly the ISIL flag was Penatoi. Attendees of the Istiqomah Mosque and hundreds more people in Bima, including children, are reported to have pledged allegiance to ISIL after Friday prayers in July that year.
Entering Penatoi now feels like entering another world, so stark is the contrast with what lies outside. The main street is narrow, not even wide enough for a car, and divides rows of small, simple houses with tin roofs.
Here we can see the faces of the men, big and small, but with a unifying look: their hair is long, their chins bearded, they wear long gowns over trousers that fall to the ankles, and sport round hats on their heads – “like people in Afghanistan,” our local partner comments. As in Poso, these people called themselves and are referred to as ikhwan – a term borrowed from the Arabic word for “brother”, used to denote young Muslim activists and militants.
If we see women, they are usually hanging out laundry or cooking, and wearing long hijabs, often with a face covering. According to two of our sources, there are seven widows in the area whose husbands were, in their terms, “murdered by Densus 88” (Special Detachment 88, the anti-terror unit of the National Police), and have now banded together to support one another in their daily lives.
Once outside the area, free from the feeling of oppression brought on by so many suspecting eyes, we quietly admire their solidarity and resilience.
Lessons from Poso for Bima
In Bima, we did not see the kinds of positive developments among the ikhwan or similar support for democracy that we saw in Poso. The two case studies offer some interesting points for comparison.
After the communal conflict in Poso, many people refused to participate in elections. But in Bima participation in elections has been consistently high. Over the past five years, turnout increased from 74.6 per cent in the 2014 elections to 86.0 per cent in the 2018 regional election.
But an official from the local Election Supervisory Board (Bawaslu) says that there is a group of people in Penatoi, about 60 or more, who refused to sign up to vote ahead of last year’s election. “They have national identity cards, but they don’t want to participate in elections. Their names are still on the electoral roll, but they don’t want to vote. And we can’t force them to, either,” he says.
A second interesting difference is the origins of support for terrorism and rejection of democracy in Poso and Bima. In Poso, many ikhwan were radicalised because of communal conflict between Muslims and Christians, and the further influence of the Jemaah Islamiyah network. Meanwhile, in Bima, participation in elections is only rejected on the basis of religious ideology. They view democracy as a thaghut system – a kind of worship of false idols.
Third, and finally, the origins of support for democracy are also different in the two areas. In Poso, many people – including ikhwan and former jihadists – support the 2019 elections because they have experienced violent conflict and now want to resolve their differences in a peaceful way. The communal conflict was between Muslims and Christians in more or less equal numbers, and most do not want to see it repeated – “if we win we become coals, if we lose we become ashes”, as the local saying goes.
This is a valuable lesson for Bima from Poso. The community in Bima needs to remain vigilant against hard-line groups and the violence that they can cause, precisely because certain communities have begun to estrange themselves, like those involved in Santoso’s MIT and other hard-line groups.
They need to reject these violent ways of fighting for their interests, and support elections and the competition that can occur within them. This is especially the case when we remember that 97.4 per cent of the population of Bima is Muslim.
It’s not that there are no signs of promise in this direction in Bima, even among the hard-line communities of Penatoi. It’s that we just need to push them further.
For example, according to a source who closely follows the ikhwan in Penatoi, campaign banners for this year’s election have stayed safely in place, unlike in previous years when advertisements were often ripped down and thrown into the gutters. Several ikhwan known to our source are also reportedly planning to vote in the upcoming election.
Some sources report that although many ikhwan from Bima reject democracy, some will participate in tomorrow’s election, as it is a rematch between Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo Subianto. The ikhwan who do vote are expected to back Prabowo. In 2014, despite losing the overall election, Prabowo captured 76 per cent of the vote in Bima city and 71.5 per cent in Bima district. “The people of Bima prefer to vote for the candidate who seems assertive, authoritative, handsome, and with a military background,” a local partner says.
We don’t know which way voters will go in tomorrow’s election. But we hope that free and fair competition in the world’s largest single-day election will tempt more followers in West Nusa Tenggara.
This article is based on a larger research report on violent extremism and peace efforts in Poso and Bima, supported by the Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Justice (AIPJ).