Indonesian security forces on Tuesday shot dead a suspected member of a pro-Islamic State militant group who was accused of taking part in beheading locals in Central Sulawesi province, officials said.
The suspect, identified as Ahmad Gazali, was killed during a shootout at a village in the mountains of Parigi Moutong regency, police said.
His death brought the number of suspected members of the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) down to three men, according to officials. He and the handful of other holdovers were the target of a massive manhunt still under way in the area known for its steep and rugged jungle terrain.
“After checking with the list of most wanted persons, it is confirmed to be Ahmad Gazali,” provincial police spokesman Didik Supranoto told reporters in Palu, the provincial capital, referring to Ahmad’s body.
It was taken to a hospital in Palu for an autopsy.
“If no family claims the body, Gazali will be buried in a public cemetery in Palu,” Didik said.
A joint military and police task force confiscated a homemade bomb, a bottle containing gunpowder, a machete and other evidence after the shootout, Didik said.
Ahmad, 27, (alias Ahmad Panjang) joined MIT in 2016 and was involved in terror attacks, including in May 2021 when MIT militants killed four farmers in Kalemago, a village in Poso regency, according to Didik. One of the victims was beheaded.
Ahmad was linked to an attack in November 2020 where a victim was decapitated as well.
A resident of Luwu regency, Ahmad was born and raised in Palu, Didik said, adding that the militant was skilled in making bombs and had mastered the terrain of Poso, Parigi Moutong and Sigi regencies where police believe MIT has hideouts.
On Monday, police said they had mapped the whereabouts of four remaining MIT members in the mountains between Poso and Parigi Moutong. Police based this information on tips from residents who reported seeing the suspects enter a plantation to steal food.
Ahmad Gazali was the first MIT suspect to be killed since Sept. 18, 2021, when police and military members of the Madago Raya task force gunned down Ali Kalora, MIT’s top commander at the time, and a follower identified as Jaka Ramadhan in the jungles of Parigi Moutong. Their deaths reduced MIT’s membership to four, with police vowing to capture the remnants “dead or alive.”
In January 2016, the government launched Operation Tinombala, a joint military-police task force, with a mission to capture or kill MIT militants. The name changed to Madago Raya (Kindness), as part of a strategy that focused on humanitarian and social activities, police said.
At the time of the killings in September 2021, the task force had more than 1,300 members. With the arrival of the new year, authorities reduced that number to 400 and allowed it to operate for another three months, Inspector General Rudy Sufahriadi, the Central Sulawesi police chief who leads the operation, told BenarNews on Monday.
He did not elaborate on how much money was allocated for the extension, saying it came from the National Police budget.
Lukman Tahir, a terrorism analyst at the State Islamic Institute in Palu, said the three remaining MIT fugitives were getting weaker and desperate, adding that patrols should be intensified.
“They are already weak. This is an opportunity for the task force to raise operational tensions so that they can capture the three fugitives,” Lukman told BenarNews.
Mohammad Affandi, a terrorism researcher at the Ruang Empat Kali Empat, a think-tank in Central Sulawesi, said the task force should not kill the three.
“Don’t let all MIT members be shot dead. We need them to be arrested alive. We need to bring the remaining members to the court and make them reveal all involved in helping MIT,” Affandi told BenarNews.
Affandi said authorities should capture sympathizers who supplied food, logistics and weapons.
“Do not focus only on MIT members in the mountain and forests areas. But also reveal those who support it from below the mountains and outside the forest,” he said.
“There are still a lot of sympathizers hanging around and I’m sure the police and the TNI know that. Those sympathizers need to be arrested so that new MITs don’t emerge.”
MIT is one of two pro-IS groups operating in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. The other is Jemaah Ansharut Daulah, which Indonesian authorities blamed for most terror attacks in the archipelago nation during the past six years.