The government recently announced it would extend Operation Tinombala until it captured Santoso. Photo by Jafar Bua.

The government recently announced it would extend Operation Tinombala until it captured Santoso and members of his network. Photo by Jafar Bua.



The last few months have seen an escalation of tensions in Poso, Central Sulawesi, where the Indonesian government has been waging a security operation against the country’s most wanted terrorist, Santoso. At least 10 people have been killed since the start of Operation Tinombala in January, including at least two ethnic Uighur Chinese. Adding to the recent death toll, 13 military personnel were killed in a helicopter crash in late March.


The Indonesian government announced last month that it would extend Operation Tinombala until it captured Santoso and members of his network, which is thought to number 29 people. The leader of the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) is suspected of running a terrorist training cell in the mountainous region of Central Sulawesi. This will prolong the regime of violence that has afflicted the region for more than a decade, disrupting the local economy and the lives of local residents.

Conflict history

Poso was the site of serious violence between Christian and Muslim communities from 1998 to 2001. A government-mediated peace accord was signed in 2001, and Indonesia then appeared to turn its back on Poso, viewing the problems as “over”. But the bombing of a marketplace in May 2005 and the beheading of three schoolgirls in October the same year forced the government to acknowledge that it had allowed extremism to fester unchecked and spurred it back into action.


About 15 years after the signing of the peace agreement, the community is growing increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for peace in Poso, and for good reason. Since the end of communal conflict, the government has launched a series of security operations involving the mobilisation of police and military troops. But it has not been able to break the chain of violence and terror.


The peak of previous government efforts to restore peace came on 22 January 2007 in an operation to capture violent jihadists on the wanted persons list (DPO), many of whom were connected to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). The operation netted more than a dozen perpetrators but was criticised for the repressive actions of the security forces, which were accused of violating human rights. Although it does not excuse the excessive force used, it is important to note that the raids followed the failure of a persuasive approach, in which the police made prolonged attempts to convince their most wanted suspects to surrender. A residual consequence of this repressive operation has been considerable psychological impacts on victims’ families, which include not only feelings of trauma but also a desire among many for revenge.


After many of the JI-linked extremists were captured in 2007, it appeared the government had made a dent in the violence. There was only one fatal attack in the five years after the raids, whereas more than 100 people were killed in the five years leading up to them. But the seeds of revenge continued to germinate, and Santoso rose in prominence. Santoso was a military commander for Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), the violent offshoot of JI founded by Abu Bakar Baasyir, but eventually went out on his own, and established the MIT. He was the first Indonesian to openly pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The extremist movement in Poso was also bolstered by the arrival of terrorists from the training camp in Aceh that was broken up by authorities in 2010, and recently, by ethnic Uighurs from China.

Camar Maleo and Tinombala

Government operations over the past two years, in particular, demonstrate the poor decisions that have characterised the approach to Poso and have allowed violence to continue. On 26 January 2015, the government launched Operation Camar Maleo I to hunt and capture Santoso. Camar Maleo was extended three times, with Camar Maleo IV eventually concluding on 8 January 2016. The four operations involved at least 700 military and 1,000 police officers. At the termination of the operation, 300 police were transferred, while 700 remained in a number of points in Poso Pesisir subdistrict, as part of Operation Tinombala. Operation Tinombala began on 10 January 2016 and was set to finish on 10 March. It was led by the Central Sulawesi Police, and involved a force of 2,400 police and military troops.


Neither the Camar Maleo nor the Tinombala operations had much impact on life in Poso City but in Poso Pesisir subdistrict – where many residents depend on cropping for their livelihoods – the effects have been acutely felt. Frequent gunfights between security forces and civilian militia groups mean that many residents fear getting caught up in the violence, and have been forced to stop farming their crops, disrupting their source of income. Neither Christian nor Muslim communities support the repressive approach – both have been equally affected by disturbances to their daily lives.



The government has never conducted an evaluation or published data on the local social and economic ramifications of its security operations. Photo by Jafar Bua.


The security operation has also disrupted the social fabric of the region. The stigma of being labelled a terrorist can affect social integration, especially for the families left behind when terrorists are captured or killed. Although Poso has not seen return to the communal violence between Christian and Muslim communities, after 11 years of security operations, locals are starting to feel that little has changed. Rather, Poso has become a site for the conflict industry and a training ground for war.

‘Training’ ground

In March 2015, for example, Poso was selected as a site for combat practice by the military’s elite Rapid Reaction Strike Force (PPRC). Some 3,222 military personnel from the air force, navy and army were sent to Mount Biru for the exercise. At least 283 families, or 933 individuals, were forced to leave their homes for three weeks while the military scarred the terrain with artillery fire. Following the operation, about 600 troops stayed behind, ostensibly to build houses and improve the supply of clean drinking water.


Although the military claims it is conducting training, there is a widespread perception that its real intention is to capture Santoso. Conducting military operations under the guise of training is a clear violation of Law No. 34 of 2004 on the Indonesian Armed Forces, which states that military operations can only be carried out with the endorsement of the national legislature (DPR).


A consequence of the military’s involvement in Poso has been a lack of clarity about police and military roles. Although police should take the lead in the eradication of terrorism (in accordance with Law No. 15 of 2003 on the Eradication of Terrorism), there is now some confusion as to which institution is best placed to head the operation to capture Santoso. While in the past the military was always considered “backup” to police, Operation Tinombala has been designated a joint police-military operation. Some have argued that it is this lack of clarity – and competition between the two security forces – that has prevented Santoso’s capture.


The duration of the operation, the large numbers of personnel deployed, the repressive tactics used, and the fact that the security forces have not been able to guarantee the safety of residents has provoked simmering feelings of suspicion and distrust of the security forces among the local population. The police’s counter-terrorism unit, Densus 88, in particular, have shot targets who have not shown any resistance, made aggressive shows of force, and treated captured suspects inhumanely. Residents in Poso grumble that the prolonged operation seems little more than a site for senior police seeking to advance their careers. They cite the fact that the Central Sulawesi police chief has been promoted three times over recent years and police who have served in the province have often gone on to senior positions in the force (for example, National Police Chief Badrodin Haiti).


With the extension of Operation Tinombala, Poso locals are now asking: will these operations ever put an end to the violence? Is the government aware of the impacts of its operations on the community, in particular the residents of Poso Pesisir?



Operation Tinombala, which was originally scheduled to finish on 10 March, involved a joint force of 2,400 police and military troops. Photo by Jafar Bua.

Monitoring and evaluation

Members of the national legislature have recently called for a more rigorous evaluation of operations in Poso. These calls are long overdue. Poso is a post-conflict area and the emergence of civilian militia should not be seen as an isolated issue, rather it is related to unfinished business following the communal conflict.


The public needs to know about the legislative framework and standard operating procedures guiding the operation, the number of troops deployed, the regions targeted and the tasks, functions and authorities of the assigned officials. Most important, however, is that there must be far greater transparency about how much of the state (APBN) and provincial budgets (APBD) have been allocated to the operations. The government has never published detailed figures on the amount and source of funds for the Camar Maleo and Tinombala operations. The four Camar Maleo operations, for example, undoubtedly absorbed large amounts of government funds, as they lasted a full year and involved close to 2,000 security personnel.


Monitoring and evaluation of past and existing operations should involve the local government, representatives from the national and local legislatures (DPR/DPRD), religious and community leaders, and civil society organisations. While national and regional legislatures are better placed to control and evaluate the technical implementation of operations, civil society organisations and members of the public can provide detailed information on the impacts on local communities.


The government has never conducted an evaluation or published data about the local social and economic ramifications of the security operations. If the provincial government can more accurately identify the social and economic problems resulting from the operations, then it will be better placed to issue policies to minimise them. The local government needs to prioritise policies that will promote social inclusion and ensure residents continue to have access to economic resources, as well as access to justice.

An alternative approach

Terror and violence will never be resolved with a repressive approach or by mobilising security forces as if going to war with a powerful enemy. When approaching civilian militia, governments generally have three options: political resolution at the negotiation table, a persuasive approach, or a repressive approach. The government would be much better off facing Santoso and his network with a persuasive approach that focuses on processing perpetrators through the courts and avoids spilling further blood. As the 11 years of security operations in Poso have shown, a repressive approach will only result in a transient reduction in violence.


The emergence of a civilian militia in Poso is not simply a matter of ideology. It is also related to the way the security forces have targeted perpetrators of violence. In the past, when the victims of violence were members of the Christian community, it was clear that the motive for violence was revenge over the communal conflict at the turn of the century. But in the case of Santoso and his network, the targets of terror and violence have been the security forces and their collaborators.


Improving the social and economic conditions of the people in Poso will help to change community perceptions about the government’s intentions in bringing peace to the region. More than anything else, it has been the accumulated disappointment over the government’s failure to manage Poso effectively for more than a decade that has spurred the emergence of a civilian militia, which has been so easily exploited by actors with malevolent intentions.


Photos by Jafar Bua published with permission.



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