JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia has won praise for cracking down on Islamist militants behind a string of deadly attacks and at the core of the fight have been the heavily armed black-clad officers of its anti-terrorism unit — Detachment 88.
A symbol of improved security cooperation with Western nations, the unit has gained somewhat of a cult status among many Indonesians, particularly after live television images of dramatic sieges ending in a hail of gunfire.
“They’ve been pretty good on the investigative side and intelligence side and being able to crack down on these rings,” said Ken Conboy, a Jakarta-based security analyst and author.
Police have succeeded in killing or capturing hundreds of suspected militants in recent years. Last week, Detachment 88 officers shot dead Dulmatin, a wanted militant with a $10 million bounty on his head who was tracked to a Jakarta Internet cafe.
The unit has been monitoring Islamist networks for potential threats ahead of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama next week. It has also joined security training exercises at key strategic sites such as five-star hotels and airports.
Detachment 88 was established after the 2002 Bali bombings carried out by militant network Jemaah Islamiah, which firmly placed Indonesia as a frontline state in the U.S.-led “war on terror.”
But the Western funding of an anti-terrorism unit in the world’s most populous Muslim nation can be sensitive. There have been reports of U.S. intelligence officers in Jakarta helping tap cell phones and reading SMS text messages of Indonesian civilians.
A U.S. embassy spokesman in Jakarta declined to comment, but a U.S. government document showed the unit had received technical support, training and equipment under the State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) program since 2003.
An Indonesian official, who spoke on condition on anonymity, confirmed the unit got Australian and U.S. help in advanced wiretapping technology, and also some British and French aid.
Indonesia and the United States are likely to discuss further security cooperation during Obama’s visit. Washington has been considering whether to lift a ban on military training for Indonesia’s notorious special forces unit, known as Kopassus.
Conboy said Detachment 88 got its name because a top police officer at a briefing on the Anti-Terrorism Assistance program had mis-heard “A-T-A” as “Eighty-Eight,” which he thought was auspicious since eight is a lucky number in Asian culture.
There have also been reports that it was due to the 88 Australians who died in the Bali bombings, while a top Detachment 88 official said it was because 88 resembled handcuffs.
Australia worked closely with Indonesia on security and Canberra helped set up a training center to combat militants in 2004, pledging A$38 million ($35 million) over five years.
The facility — boasting a forensic laboratory and a Boeing 737 fuselage — is in the police academy in the city of Semarang.
Indonesian extremists have become more savvy at communicating by using couriers rather than cell phones to avoid detection and analysts see limits to the usefulness of electronic surveillance.
“It has acquired good capacity to pursue jihadi elements once their existence has been detected,” said Sidney Jones, an expert on Islamist militants at the International Crisis Group.
“But their ability to detect previously unknown groups is much weaker, because that information has to come from the community, not from fancy intercepts,” added Jones.
There have also been controversies over how Detachment 88 operates, in particular whether they have used deadly force during raids too often, raising the risk of retaliation from militants and losing possible intelligence.
Dulmatin and another wanted militant, Noordin Mohammad Top, who is believed to have masterminded suicide attacks on Jakarta hotels last year, were both shot dead during raids.
“They don’t take any prisoners which I think some have noted with concern,” said Conboy.
Tito Karnavian, the head of Detachment 88, told Reuters in a recent interview that officers used a response proportionate to threats under international operating procedures.
“So if the threat is lethal, we can use also the lethal force,” added Karnavian, who said Noordin Top had been killed after attacking officers with an M-16 rifle and pipe-bombs.
($1=1.083 Australian Dollar)
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan