‘Most-wanted’ militant killed

Sparsely populated, mountainous and covered in dense forest, Sulawesi provided a base for Santoso’s militant group. Source: Wikimedia

The “most-wanted” Indonesian Islamist has been killed in a gun battle after years on the run, the authorities claim.

Santoso, the leader of the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen, was shot on mountainous Sulawesi, where he had been reportedly hiding in the forests with a group of followers.

His death is being heralded as a major triumph in the world’s most populous Muslim nation after five years evading the authorities who sent thousands of personnel to hunt him down.

“[The death] means the symbolic heart of Indonesia’s jihadist movement is gone,” said Sidney Jones, head of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta. “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 [in Philippines].”

His group had carried out several attacks in Indonesia and was training volunteers from across the sprawling nation. In 2014 he pledged allegiance to IS and was recently added to the United States list of global terrorists.

But his reach was largely limited to the island.

“He is only a small part of the Indonesian-Islamic State terrorist network in the country,” said Muh Taufiqurrohman of the Centre for Radicalism and De-Radicalisation Studies. “There are still cells of Islamic State sympathisers who are preparing themselves for future attacks.”

The security services said that around 19 members of Santoso’s group remained active on Sulawesi.

“The group is obviously weakened now that we have got the leader,” Indonesia’s police chief Tito Karnavian told the media.

He said extremists were trying to transform Sulawesi’s Poso district, where Santoso was based, into a “safe haven”.

“With this group broken, their hope for a base there is gone,” the police chief said.

After several militant attacks in the early 2000s, including the 2002 Bali bombings which killed more than 200 civilians, Jakarta launched a crackdown that weakened several major groups.

But Santoso’s organisation remained active with the longhaired extremist appearing in videos urging extremists to launch attacks on the security forces.

He was not believed to have been involved in the bungled strikes on Jakarta in January in which four attackers and four civilians died.

Several of China’s Muslim Uighurs joined his group and in 2015 four Uighurs were jailed after being caught on Sulawesi allegedly attempting to join Santoso.

Santoso appears to have become radicalised during fighting between Muslims and Christians near Poso in the late 1990s to the early 2000s, which left hundreds dead.