MAKASSAR, Indonesia—Indonesia's terrorism force is refocusing on the southern reaches of Sulawesi island in its fight against terrorism, reflecting a year of rising activity by suspected militants in the region after more than a decade of relative quiet
For several years, the rolling hills at the center of the octopus-shaped island have given shelter to radical Islamic terrorists and their crude training camps in Indonesia, the world's most Muslim-populous country. Now, police say those militants are increasingly moving south from that area—Poso—toward Makassar, the sixth-largest city in Indonesia and historically a transit point for radicals across the region.
In October, police killed one suspected terrorist and arrested two others in South Sulawesi province for alleged involvement in attacks on police and other targets. Before that, in Makassar, police arrested a suspected terrorist in June, and killed two and arrested others in January. Police say at least some of the men came to the south from the training camps.
The region was also home to an early sign that Indonesian terrorists, who run limited operations involving targets on the police and crime like bank robberies, may be altering tactics.
Last year, the Muslim governor of South Sulawesi became the first politician directly targeted in an attack when a man hurtled a Molotov cocktail at him during a political party celebration in Makassar. The bomb failed to explode, but the message resounded: police and foreign targets were no longer the sole targets of terrorists.
The province of South Sulawesi "is a new place of concern," counterterrorism chief Ansyaad Mbai told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview in Makassar. "Poso is still their training ground, but they've been bothered by" security forces there and are moving around more, he said.
In one indication of the province's growing significance, the counterterrorism agency this year set up a new forum for stopping the propagation of radical ideas in Makassar, adding the capital to more than a dozen similar programs across the country created in the past two years.
The Sulawesi activity indicates several things, experts say: old networks die hard, today's terrorists are being forced to move around to find refuge, and the targets themselves are in question.
Makassar, the fast-growing, seaside city of several million, some 1,400 kilometers across the Java sea from Jakarta, last saw overt terrorist activity more than a decade ago. Historically, the region was one of the main bases of Darul Islam, the regionally connected militant group that gave rise to Jemaah Islamiyah—the al Qaeda-linked group behind Indonesia's worst terrorist attacks, including the bombings in Bali in 2002 that killed more than 200 people.
Activity is "re-emerging [in South Sulawesi] after terrorists received trainings from Java and Poso-based terrorists," said Muh Taufiqurrohman, an expert on terrorism issues at the Jakarta-based Abdurrahman Wahid Center.
All of this led Mr. Mbai to give Makassar the nod for his first major gathering with the military since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a formal order, earlier this year, to find a bigger role for the military in the fight against terrorism, which is led by the police. Mr. Mbai leads a multiagency counterterrorism force where the police are predominant.
The military, for its part, says wider Sulawesi is an example of how it created a greater role for itself in the fight against terrorism.
"There have been many captures of terrorists, but it seems it hasn't been matched by prevention," given a high degree of recruiting success, Brig. Gen. Jaswandi, the military's chief of staff for territorial operations across Sulawesi, told the Journal on the sidelines of the meeting with Mr. Mbai.
Mr. Jaswandi said the military is building homes for residents of poor villages in the Poso region—where communal conflict between Christians and Muslims displaced tens of thousands in the late 90s—in an effort to reduce the appeal of extreme ideologies.
In prepared remarks at the event, the governor of South Sulawesi—the man attacked last year—acknowledged the threat in his province, tying it to an economy that, like in a handful of regional power centers, has been growing faster than the traditional centers of commerce in Java in recent years.
"If even a single bomb explodes, it's going to scare away investors," he said in a statement read to open the meeting. "We should not let the action of a few people endanger the livelihoods of many."
Economics have long been part of the equation, in Sulawesi and elsewhere.
Religious zealots are found at the top of extremist groups in Indonesia—which is by and large a nation of progressive, tolerant Islam apart from small pockets of radicalism—but the lower reaches are often populated by men frustrated by their lot.
For some, that frustration has built amid an economic boom in recent years that has pushed provinces like Jakarta to raise the minimum wage more than 40% in a single year.
At a court in South Jakarta last week, Achmad Taufiq, a 24-year-old on trial for allegedly attempting to build a crude bomb to attack the Myanmar Embassy earlier this year, fit that picture.
Prosecutors believe Mr. Taufiq was mostly attracted by the Darul Islam movement.
Mr. Mbai doesn't see big changes in store for the country's counterterrorism operations, but he does favor the president-supported bid to bring the military further into the fold.
He says he is currently pursuing 30 terrorist leaders, and that his job would be easier if he were able to gain the support of regional leaders all the way down to the village level.
"People are confused about whether the terrorists are evil or not, especially at the grass-roots level," he said, citing terrorists' effective use of propaganda.
"When they use Islam, people at the grass-roots level get confused. They use Islam as a banner of jihad." ‘The Wall Street Journal’