To the consternation of pro-democracy activists and those with grim memories of ex-president Suharto’s authoritarian rule, Joko Widodo’s government continues to mull over legislation that would give the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) a wider counterterrorism role.

It is not clear yet what changes will be made to the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law, but in a letter to Parliament last month new armed forces chief Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto rang alarm bells by proposing that terrorism should be changed from a law enforcement to an officially defined state security issue.

That, and the contention that terrorism is also a threat to territorial integrity, would place it squarely within the domain of the military, which lost its internal security role when democratic reforms made it solely responsible for external defense in 1999.

“The question is whether it is desirable to give the military the authority to take the initiative without reference to the police,” says Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a think tank. “It opens a wedge where the dangers will outweigh the benefits that would come from specifying its roles in the law.”

Previous versions of the draft legislation have allowed Indonesia’s capable special forces units to spearhead the response in cases of ship or aircraft hijacks, mass hostage-taking and multiple simultaneous terrorist threats.

“The law only provides for prohibited acts carrying criminal liability for the perpetrators (and) is only applicable after terrorism acts have been carried out,” said in his letter to the parliamentary committee working on the draft.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) inaugurates Air Force Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto as the country's new military chief at the presidential palace in Jakarta on December 8, 2017. Photo: AFP / Gagah Adhaputra
President Joko Widodo (R) inaugurates Air Force Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto (L) as military chief in Jakarta, December 8, 2017. Photo: AFP/Gagah Adhaputra

To deal effectively and efficiently with terrorism, Tjahjanto wrote, the strategy of “proactive law enforcement” should be applied where terrorists are lawfully apprehended in the planning stages of an operation before they can inflict death and destruction.

Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan, a former commander of the army special forces’ (Kopassus) elite Detachment 81 counterterrorism unit, told Asia Times that Indonesia is merely seeking to model itself along the lines of many Western countries.

He points in particular to the involvement of the British Special Air Service in the dramatic 1980 Iranian Embassy operation as an example of the army being called in when the police were not thought to be up to the task.

Panjaitan says the government wants to create a crisis center at the presidential palace, separate from the existing National Anti-Terrorism Agency (BNPT), which would make decisions on threat levels and whether to involve the military in any given situation.

“All we want to do is create the right balance,” says the retired four-star general, who also acts as Widodo’s chief political adviser. “We want to establish an equilibrium for the roles of the police and the military.”

Panjaitan rules out formalizing a specific anti-terrorism role for the military’s nationwide territorial structure. But he says the retired non-commissioned officers who form the village-level layer, known as babinsa, could still act as “eyes and ears” of the counterterrorism apparatus.

Indonesia's army forces paint their faces for celebrations of the 72nd anniversary of the Indonesia military, in Cilegon, Indonesia Banten province, October 5, 2017.  REUTERS/Beawiharta
Armed forces paint their faces in celebration of the 72nd anniversary of the Indonesia military, October 5, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Former president Susilo Bambang Yiudhoyono was furious when he learned that the militants responsible for the 2009 bombing of Jakarta’s J.W. Marriott Hotel had been living in a village in Java for four years without anyone reporting their presence.

Security experts estimate 80% of anti-terrorism efforts focus on intelligence, 15% on investigation and only 5% on what they call “door-kicking,” though the tactical capabilities involved in that task are crucial.

On that score, there is a significant difference in capabilities between Detachment 81 and its police counterpart, Detachment 88, which was created in the wake of the devastating 2002 Bali bombing and has still performed remarkably well with limited training.

Those limitations became obvious during a joint exercise at a supposed terrorist-held hotel in central Jakarta, where two police commandoes found themselves stuck upside down as they rappelled down the front of the building – in stark contrast to the fast-roping ability of the Kopassus operators.

US instructors and other well-placed sources say that like other specialized units, Detachment 88 has perishable skills which require constant training – something that hasn’t been achieved up to now because of a continual turnover of manpower.

This lack of continuity, they say, means the unit has yet to learn the teamwork and expertise needed to take down a building occupied by terrorists, one of the main reasons why the paramilitary force has often been accused of shooting first and asking questions later.

Indonesian anti-terror police from Detachment 88 stand guard near explosive materials and other evidence confiscated in raids on suspected militants during a media briefing at police headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia, November 30, 2016. Picture taken November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Beawiharta - RTX2WABJ
Indonesian Detachment 88 anti-terror police stand guard near explosive materials confiscated in raids on suspected militants at police headquarters in Jakarta, November 30, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Kopassus appears to have maintained its skill level, despite the 17-year embargo the US imposed on military contacts between the two countries over the bloody events in East Timor in 1991 and later during the then Indonesian territory’s vote for independence in 1999.

While Kopassus has vastly improved its human rights record, it will take more time to relax the so-called Leahy Law, named after Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy, which still forbids the Indonesians from engaging in combat training with US special forces.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis promised to re-explore the issue during a visit to Jakarta in late January, where he was treated to a bizarre display of Kopassus soldiers breaking concrete blocks with their heads and drinking the blood of snakes they had killed.

Ironically, when then US President Barrack Obama visited Indonesia for the 2011 East Asia Summit, Kopassus and army regulars occupied the two inner rings of the security cordon at Bali airport, leaving the police outside on the perimeter.

The amended anti-terrorism law aims at bolstering the policy and coordination powers of the BNPT, a 100-strong counterterrorism agency staffed by police and military officers which has proved largely ineffectual since it was established by the Yudhoyono administration in 2010.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis (L) shakes hands with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo during his visit to the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside
US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (L) with President Joko Widodo (R) during a visit to the presidential palace in Jakarta, January 23, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Critics say there is no guarantee that giving it more staff and a larger budget will make it any more effective, particularly in the disengagement and de-radicalization of terrorist convicts.

Recidivism within five years of an arrest is surprisingly low, certainly below 10%, but researchers say that has little to do with government programs and more to do with pressure from wives, the birth of a new child or other family circumstances.

On the other hand, the Correction Department’s failure to keep convicted militants in isolation and away from the general prison population has led to further terrorist recruitment from among common criminals.

To rectify that shortcoming, the government is building a new maximum security facility on the prison island of Nusakambangan, off Java’s southern coast, which will eventually hold 240 of the country’s convicted terrorists and other high-risk prisoners.

It is modeled after Louisiana’s Pollock federal penitentiary in the US, with one notable exception: it will be surrounded by a moat, which presents potential water-soaked escapees with an additional hazard when negotiating an electrified perimeter fence.

ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A view of the site of an explosion at a bus stop in Kampung Melayu, East Jakarta, Indonesia May 24, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Galih Pradipta/via REUTERS      ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA. TEMPLATE OUT     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX37FSE
The site of a terror attack at a bus stop in Kampung Melayu, East Jakarta, May 24, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto/Galih Pradipta

Much will depend, however, on whether the supposedly specially trained guards will make a difference, particularly in preventing the prisoners from using mobile phones, as they have been able to do by paying off wardens in other jails.

The 210-square-kilometer Nusakambangan is already home to seven prisons, including Pasir Putih, which along with Cirebon and Garut in other parts of mainland West Java is one of three facilities currently designated for terrorist convicts.

The island houses up to 1,500 prisoners, including about 60 criminals who face death by firing squad at one of two sites set aside for executions; it was where Bali bombers Imam Samudra, 38, Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, 47, and Al Ghufron, 48, were put to death in 2008.

Now on trial in Jakarta, radical cleric Aman Abdurrahman, 46, could suffer the same fate if he is found guilty of masterminding from behind bars the January 14, 2016, bomb and gun attack in the center of Jakarta which left four militants and four civilians dead.

It was that incident, inspired by the now-faltering Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), that prompted calls for strengthening BNPT’s ability to coordinate the 36 different ministries and agencies involved in trying to rein in violent jihadism.