Crackdown on Islamists 'could backfire'
Fabio Scarpello in Denpasar
Militants could just find new base, former rebel leader says
The former leader of an Indonesian terrorist group has warned that the crackdown on Islamist militants in Poso could merely push the suspected al-Qaeda-linked militants to a new base in the sprawling archipelago.
Jafar Umar Thalib, who once led the notorious Laskar Jihad militia, confirmed that Central Sulawesi province has been a sanctuary for al-Qaeda-linked groups, including Jemaah Islamiah - Southeast Asia's most feared terror group.
But he said the security drive in Poso, the province's main port where 16 suspected terrorists had been killed and many arrested since last month, would not curtail activities of mujahedeens in the region.
'I do not think they have much strength left,' he said, referring to the suspected militants. 'I think the security forces will finish them within six months. But the government must monitor their movements, otherwise they will be reborn elsewhere.'
Mr Jafar confirmed he had been approached by Jemaah Islamiah when Laskar Jihad was involved in the Muslim-Christian war in the Maluku Islands and Central Sulawesi during 1999-2001.
Laskar Jihad was disbanded soon after the Bali blasts in 2002. Neither Laskar Jihad nor Mr Jafar were implicated. But he was tried and cleared a year later for inciting hatred. He remains one of Indonesia's most outspoken radical Islamist leaders and has been at loggerheads with Abu Bakar Bashir, who has threatened jihad, or holy war, against the police in Poso.
In recounting how Jemaah Islamiah chose Poso to regroup, train and wage jihad, Mr Jafar pointed to the demise of the Philippines' Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago as havens for mujahedeens in the region.
The thick forests of Mindanao became a shelter for Islam warriors after the fall of the Taleban in Afghanistan. Hosting the Islamist radicals was the Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF], who welcomed the mujahedeens' expertise and weapons.
The MILF is the Philippines' largest Islamist rebel group. It has been fighting for an Islamic state in Mindanao since 1976. The island is home to the 4 million Muslims in the overwhelmingly Catholic country of 88 million people.
Nevertheless, the MILF-mujahedeen agreement lasted only two years and ended when the separatists asked Washington to join in the peace dialogue it had opened with Manila. One of the conditions for US involvement was a promise by the MILF to renounce terrorism and involvement with any groups associated with it.
The about-face forced the mujahedeens onto the Sulu Archipelago, heartland of the Abu Sayyaf terror group. The archipelago extends from Mindanao as far as Borneo, the island split between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
But Abu Sayyaf was already on the radar of the Filipino security forces. A US-backed first offensive was launched in February 2002. More followed, with the last and largest, started in August 2005, still ongoing.
According to Mr Jafar, it was in this context Poso became the new JI base. The area had been recovering from a bloody sectarian war and presented a fertile ground sowed with anger, grief and religious extremism.
The 1999-2001 war had started in the nearby Maluku Islands and 15,000 people were killed.
According to the International Crisis Group, Jemaah Islamiah moved to Poso because it believed it could become a qoidah aminah, a secure area where residents could live by Islamic principles, and then spread outwards.
Initially, JI kept a low profile but eventually launched a series of jihadi attacks that most saw as merely vicious crimes. Among those, the most chilling was the beheading of three Christian girls in October 2005.