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Indonesia Kills Most-Wanted Terror Leader, but New Threats Loom

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An Indonesian counterterror squad participates in a drill earlier this year. Indonesia is concerned that the country could see a resurgence of a terrorism problem that peaked with major bombings on the resort island of Bali over a decade ago. Photo: European Pressphoto Agency
An Indonesian counterterror squad participates in a drill earlier this year. Indonesia is concerned that the country could see a resurgence of a terrorism problem that peaked with major bombings on the resort island of Bali over a decade ago. Photo: European Pressphoto Agency

JAKARTA, Indonesia—Security forces shot dead Indonesia’s most-wanted terrorist, giving President Joko Widodo a hard-earned victory as he contends with the threat of Islamic State influence in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

Police said Tuesday that they killed two men in a jungle shootout a day earlier in a rugged, remote area on the island of Sulawesi. One of them was confirmed Tuesday to be Santoso, the alleged leader of a terrorism network known as Mujahidin Indonesia Timur. The U.S. had put Santoso and the group on a terror list for alleged links to the Middle East-based Islamic State, targeting the group with sanctions in September.

Santoso evaded capture and trained extremists for years from secret locations in hilly areas of Sulawesi. He had been the focus of more than a year of intensive counterterrorism operations involving thousands of soldiers and police.

Santoso’s death “means the symbolic heart of Indonesia’s jihadist movement is gone,” said Sidney Jones, head of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. “No one else except Santoso ever pretended to control territory, and with him gone, the attention shifts to the only jihadists who do control territory’’ such as groups backing Islamic State in the neighboring Philippines, he said.

Santoso’s death is unlikely to markedly alter the terrorism threat in Indonesia, given that he had limited powers to act from the isolated region.

“He is only a small part of the Indonesian-Islamic State terrorist network in the country,” said Muh Taufiqurrohman, senior researcher at the Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies. “There are still cells of Islamic State sympathizers who are preparing themselves for future attacks.”

On Monday, a patrol group in the Poso region of central Sulawesi spotted a group of five people, police said. When they moved closer, a firefight ensued. Two people among the spotted group were shot, while three others escaped. No security personnel were reported injured.

Indonesian police didn’t immediately confirm the identity of the second man killed in the shootout but said they suspected Santoso’s second-in-command, known as Basri, had been present and escaped; they earlier thought he had been killed. Police said Santoso had been identified through fingerprints and by former militants and police officers who had known him. Police said authorities would carry out a DNA test in the coming days.

Indonesia largely has contained terrorism since bombings by the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah killed 202 people on the resort island of Bali in 2002. With U.S. help, Indonesia set up a counterterrorism force that killed or jailed hundreds of radicals, sending extremist leaders underground and severely reducing their ability to carry out deadly attacks.

But officials have grown concerned about the threat of a new generation of radicals, including hundreds of Indonesians believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to support Islamic State. In January, four men with ties to Islamic State carried out a gun-and-bombs attack in downtown Jakarta, resulting in the deaths of eight people, the four attackers included.

It was the first attack linked to the movement in this country of 250 million people, which traditionally has favored a brand of tolerant Islam. Mr. Widodo has been under pressure to demonstrate he has terrorism under control, and the efforts to eliminate Santoso reflect that, analysts said.

Last year, Indonesian security forces homed in on central Sulawesi in an effort to root out Santoso, ultimately placing about 3,000 soldiers and police officers in the remote region. Police said the operation had helped cut Santoso’s followers from a group of more than 40 people to 19 or fewer.

Tito Karnavian, chief of Indonesia’s police, said security forces would continue the Sulawesi operations “while neutralizing radical ideology there” but also said the top terrorism threats in the country were elsewhere in small cells, including on the main island of Java.

The four men involved in the Jakarta attack in January were connected to Islamic State through Bahrun Naim, a man who studied with hard-line Muslim leaders in central Java and is based in Syria, according to police. Other radical leaders are believed to recruit followers in prison.

Published at The Wall Street Journal | July 19, 2016

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