One of the biggest manhunts in post-Suharto Indonesia has found its target, and Santoso, Indonesia's most wanted terrorist, is dead.
He was found and shot on 18 July by the elite army unit Kostrad; not by the police who had been searching for him for the last five years. His death has implications for the risk of violence, military-police relations, and the draft anti-terrorism law now being revised in parliament.
Santoso aka Abu Wardah (in cap on right) with confidant Basri aka Bagong (Photo courtesy of Tinombala Operation Task Force)
Santoso's death may mean the end of his group, the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia, even if the remaining stragglers manage to hide out for a few months more. But it does not mean the end of terrorism in Indonesia. In fact, the risk of retaliatory action in the short term is high, although the capacity of would-be terrorists remains low.
The 40-year old Santoso was a not-very-bright commander whose ego vastly exceeded his skills. He stepped into the role of field commander at a critical time, however, after police had broken up a training camp in Aceh in early 2010 and discovered a gold mine of information that led to the arrests or deaths of dozens of senior jihadi figures. The toll on terrorists from post-Aceh operations turned police into their number one enemy and Santoso entered the fray with gusto. By the time he was shot, he was responsible for the deaths of more than a dozen police and had tried to kill many more.
He may have called himself the Zarqawi of Indonesia, after the late insurgent leader in Iraq, but in fact he could not see very far beyond the town of Poso. Even after he swore allegiance to the new 'caliph' of ISIS in July 2014, his goal was more to attack Detachment 88, the counter-terrorism unit of the police, than to achieve any ideological or religious goal.
But in the course of his five-year campaign in the jungle outside Poso, he and a few more capable adjutants managed to train more than a hundred extremists in basic military tactics and weapons skills, creating an impressive alumni network that today stretches from Sumbawa to Syria. His supporters used social media effectively on his behalf, making him one of the very few Indonesians whose name is recognised by luminaries in the global jihad.
He was also the only jihadi leader who controlled territory, even if only a few square kilometers in the Poso hills, and who thus kept alive the myth that jihadists were using violence in the service of building an Islamic state. The mantra of Indonesian ISIS supporters was that if you couldn't go to Syria, go to Poso. It was to augment Santoso's forces that Indonesians in Syria worked to divert Uighurs fleeing China to go to central Sulawesi rather than Turkey.
Now that myth is shattered, and there could be a stronger focus on going to Basilan, in the southern Philippines, where Indonesians in Syria have already recognised Aby Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon as amir for Southeast Asia.
There is another implication of Santoso's death. While the Kostrad unit that found him was part of a joint police-military operation, the military is losing no opportunity to trumpet its success. This will undoubtedly work to its advantage in the drafting of the anti-terrorism law, where it has already been lobbying hard for for a greater role in fighting terrorism. If it succeeds in getting several categories of terrorism acknowledged as explicitly the military's domain (dealing with attacks on Indonesian embassies abroad, for example) this could strengthen its hand as other security legislation, such as a revised bill on the TNI itself, comes up for debate. The new national police chief, Tito Karnavian, has unusually good diplomatic skills, but he is going to have to use them to ensure that the police do not see more of their internal security role eroded by a confident and far more popular military establishment.
The military's role in Santoso's 'martyrdom' has not gone unnoticed in extremist social media, with pro-ISIS groups effectively declaring war on members of the Kostrad team that killed him. Attacks on soldiers have been very rare and largely confined to conflict areas in Indonesia, but this development could change the terrorist perception of the enemy.
Overall, the death of Santoso removes an important symbolic figure from the jihadi movement and leaves it temporarily without a local focus. If the Indonesian jihad was centered until Monday on Poso, where is it now and what are its goals? As it struggles to find answers, the incentive for revenge will remain high.