The Indonesian Armed Forces’ Involvement in Counterterrorism: Pondering Beyond the Established Debates

Together in the hunt for MIT members with Polri, TNI also conducts various initiatives to win the hearts and minds in Poso. CREDIT: ISTIMEWA


At the end of April 2022, the Madago Raya operation task force fatally shot Askar alias Pak Guru who was a member of East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) in a shootout in Parigi Moutoung Regency, Central Sulawesi. His death brought the number of MIT members down to two men. Pivotal to this was the joint operation between the Indonesian National Police (Polri) and the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI). However, TNI was not immediately involved in the operation initially codenamed “Camar Maleo” in January 2015. TNI only became involved upon Polri’s request for assistance in September 2015. By then, the operation was re-coded as “Camar Maleo III”. Assistance was requested as Polri encountered difficulties in conducting the mission due to the difficult terrain, exacerbated with its personnel lacking skills in jungle warfare. More adapt to such terrain and warfare, TNI’s involvement was expected to improve the success of the operation.

Within months of its involvement, TNI slain Santoso, the leader of MIT. Despite its initial success, the operation protracted for seven years with two members still on the run. Many hoped for the Madago Raya operation to end soon. Locals have voiced their concerns about the never-ending operation because it has disrupted their daily lives. Upon assessing the current situation in Poso, TNI Commander-in-Chief Gen. Andika Perkasa believes that the situation in Poso is now more stable. Thus, he hopes that the police would call for the termination of the operation. Gen. Andika added that TNI has gradually began to withdraw its forces from Poso since March 2022.

This operation piqued debates on the involvement of the military in counterterrorism. Engaging TNI in counterterrorism is a sensitive issue in Indonesia due to its repressive nature during the New Order. This article will not only discuss the common concerns about involving the military, but also identifies other factors which should be addressed.

The Debates on TNI’s Involvement in Counterterrorism

The relatively successful, though protracted, operation should bring us to discussions on enhancing the effectiveness of the military for future operations. Although TNI is well-known for its capabilities in jungle warfare, its personnel were still impeded by Poso’s difficult terrain. However, discussions on military effectiveness are often downplayed particularly due to various socio-political issues. Instead, the bulk of the attention is on limiting the military’s role in counterterrorism because of fears that granting a greater involvement for the military would lead to extensive human rights violations and the return of the military to its internal security role.

Under the mandate of the revised law on terrorism, Law No. 15/2018, the Indonesian government is supposed to issue a Presidential Regulation (Perpres) on the Rules of Engagement (RoE) of the military in counterterrorism operations. This Perpres should have been issued a year after the ratification of the revised law. Yet, it has been four years since the ratification and there are currently no updates on when the Perpres would be issued. Unfortunately, the Perpres issue would only become news headlines following any related incidents. For instance, in March 2022, House Commission I member Maj. Gen. (Rtd) T.B. Hasanuddin called for the government to expedite the issuance of the Perpres on TNI in counterterrorism following the death of eight civilians in Papua who were killed by an armed criminal group (KKB) in Papua. He asserted that the military should be deployed in operations against KKB and the Perpres would serve as a legal protection for the military in carrying out its duties. He even used a strong rhetoric that KKB has violated human rights due to their brutalities. Ironically, human rights violations have always been the main concern of involving the military in counterterrorism operations. By highlighting the brutal acts of KKB against innocent civilians, it serves to neutralize any concerns about the military’s human right abuses. Additionally, it shifts the discourse to the urgent need to deploy the military against KKB threats.

In recent years, the Indonesian government has released a draft of the Perpres several times. This enabled the public to assess the draft and provide feedbacks. Civil society organisations in Indonesia opposed the draft due to the clauses that they believe will allow TNI to be involved in all stages of counterterrorism measures, including preventive, enforcement, and rehabilitation programmes. They asserted that it would only exacerbate the overlapping responsibilities already shared by key stakeholders such as Polri, National Intelligence Agency (BIN), and National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT).

Intense opposition to the draft is ostensibly due to the men behind the draft itself. According to a 2020 investigation, the Coordinating Ministry of Politics, Legal, and Human Rights assigned the Ministry of Defence to craft the draft of the Perpres. The Ministry also involved other relevant stakeholders from the military to provide suggestions, such as the TNI Headquarter, TNI’s Strategic Intelligence Agency (BAIS), TNI’s Legal Office, and representatives from the special forces. Due to the military dominance, the draft represents the institutional belief and interests of TNI. Despite attempts to accommodate public opinions, there is little impact to the draft as drafters are dominated by the military officers. It was also found that TNI lobbied house members to support the draft.

Pondering Beyond the Established Debates

Ironically, the prolonged debates also created a “gray area” for TNI in conducting its activities. The existing regulations are truly vague which emphasizes an urgent need for a Perpres that can draw clear boundaries. Regardless of the on-going criticism, TNI has carried out various counterterrorism efforts, including counter-radicalisation and deradicalisation programmes. The territorial command structures, which enables TNI to have its own representatives at each regional level down to the village level, regularly carry out Management Territorial (Pembinaan Teritorial or Binter) to improve the living conditions of the people and encourage them to support and protect the national ideology of Pancasila. In Poso, they conducted various activities to “win the hearts and minds” of locals and distance them from the influence of MIT members. These activities included renovating houses, providing health care services, and holding seminars on the dangers of radicalism and terrorism. TNI will not be changing its policy of using Binter to counter terrorism especially when it has always been an intrinsic part of TNI’s mandate since its establishment.

The Perpres is also urgently needed to provide legal protection for the newly minted unit, Special Operations Command (Koopsus). TNI reinvigorated the Special Operations Command (Koopsus) in 2019 in which 80% of Koopsus’ duty was claimed to be on intelligence and surveillance. On paper, Koopsus is not an official intelligence agency, hence there would be limitations on how it conducts missions. Interestingly, one of the early deployments of Koopsus was an evacuation of Indonesians from Wuhan, China. This deployment was not a counterterrorism operation per se. Nevertheless, Koopsus’ capabilities were necessary in the operation as a pre-emptive measure against unwanted terrorist attacks during the evacuation process. Without a clear and legitimate regulation, similar deployments in the future might be subjected to criticism as public will assume that the deployment is beyond the scope of the unit’s duties.

We cannot deny the fact that increasing TNI’s involvement in counterterrorism will allow the military to gain more state resources and justify the existence of its territorial command structures which has always been the target of military reformers. These issues are relevant and should be addressed accordingly. However, it has been more than four years since the revised law on terrorism was ratified and the debates remain stagnant. There are also other areas of debates that should have been explored to understand what should be done to improve the military’s capabilities and maximise their contributions to the country’s counterterrorism efforts.

There is also a concern that discussions on military effectiveness might be exploited by the military to gain more material benefits for the institution. However, enhancing military effectiveness is not only about increasing military budget and acquiring advance equipment. It is also to ensure that the military can adapt to the changing threats and environment, receive adequate training and education, and develop appropriate doctrines. Koopsus, for instance, comprises of personnel from the military’s special forces of each service, but it would take time for the personnel to adjust themselves with the unit’s joint doctrine. Training and experiences would be valuable for the unit to improve its capabilities.

Notably, discussions on military effectiveness tend to be minimal among public. Further, there are limited academics or activists who have the knowledge and technical expertise that could enhance the military effectiveness. The military would, thus, be better suited and should be given a degree of autonomy to technical issues. Nevertheless, the involvement of civilians who have such knowledge is also important to create a good mechanism for checks and balances. By doing so, the debates will not only revolve around socio-political issues but also ensuring that the country has a capable and functioning military.

Lastly, there is a valid fear that involving the military would only exacerbate the perennial problem of overlapping responsibilities among relevant stakeholders. However, overlapping responsibilities cannot be solely blamed on the military. It has always been an acute problem among governmental and non-governmental agencies. The government should ensure the implementation of Perpres No. 7/2021 on the National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE). One of the clauses stipulates the creation of an integrated database on P/CVE efforts. This would supplement the upcoming Perpres on TNI’s Rules of Engagement (RoE) in counterterrorism.


Deploying the military is not the ultimate solution to eradicate terrorism in Indonesia. However, TNI’s role is inevitable when threats escalate beyond the capabilities of Polri. Current debates on TNI’s involvement in counterterrorism often sidestep discussions on the effectiveness of TNI in such operations. Instead, debates largely centre on limiting its role for fear of human rights abuses by TNI. What is crucial for Indonesia’s counterterrorism efforts is firstly for the issuance of PerPres on RoE to be expedited. The much-needed PerPres will not only enforce boundaries on the military but also provide legal protection to TNI when carrying out its duties. Secondly, debates on military effectiveness should be intensified with the involvement of capable civilian authorities. Such discussions should go beyond increasing military budget and acquiring advance equipment. Through such discussions, TNI would be capable of mitigating future threats to Indonesia including terrorism. Lastly, there must be stronger efforts to deconflict overlapping responsibilities in counterterrorism. This would include the implementation of regulations facilitating the creation of an integrated database on P/CVE.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Chaula R. Anindya is a PhD candidate at the Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto and an alumnus of Strategic Studies, RSIS, NTU, Singapore. Her research interests include radicalization, deradicalisation, counterterrorism policies, and civil-military relations in Indonesia.