Heists, Terror Plots Expose Weapons Threat to Nation

JAKARTA

Police fear that assault rifles left over from a civil war in Aceh province could fall into the hands of terrorists who favour Mumbai-style gun attacks instead of bombings.

Police believe some of a recent spate of armed robberies could be linked to former rebels or terrorist groups, or both. Robberies have been a source of funds for Islamist militants in Indonesia in the past, they say.

The hold-ups have also exposed an illegal trade in deadly military-grade weapons in the mainly Muslim country.

A terror group discovered in Aceh in February was allegedly training for a gun attack on Jakarta similar to the assault by a squad of militants on Mumbai, India, which killed 166 people in 2008.

“There are a number of terrorist suspects (from the Aceh-based group) still at large. I suspect that the loot from armed robberies has helped finance this terrorist group,” national police spokesman Marwoto Soeto said.

In the most spectacular of the recent heists, 16 gunmen armed with military-grade assault rifles attacked a bank in Medan, near Aceh, in broad daylight last week.

Wearing motorcycle helmets and using hand signals to coordinate their movements, they killed a police officer, wounded two guards and made off with around US$40,000 in cash.

Security consultant Martin Hughes said the Medan robbers demonstrated a high level of training combined with extreme aggression and a willingness to use violence, even murder, to achieve their gaols.

“It would suggest to me that you have people with previous experience in the Aceh conflict or members of the security forces,” he said.

“But I think you need to have more information before you can start to make a judgment on that, because of the variety of possibilities.”

Analysts said the number of weapons handed over as part of the 2005 Aceh peace deal, which ended a 30-year conflict, was suspiciously below what the Free Aceh Movement rebels were believed to possess.

Still more weapons entered circulation with the end of communal fighting in the regions of Poso and Ambon, they added.

“I’d assume that some people would have cached weapons for a rainy day. There’s certainly no great surprise in the trading of firearms,” Hughes said.

National Police chief of detectives General Ito Sumardi said an operation to track and seize illegal weapons had begun Wednesday and would continue as long as needed.

“Based on the national police chief’s instruction related to the increase in armed robberies, I have ordered police across the nation to conduct a sweep for illegal weapons,” he said, in comments reported by Antara news agency.

The sight of powerful automatic weapons like AK-47s and M-16s in the hands of the Medan robbers is sure to set alarm bells ringing in the headquarters of Indonesia’s US-trained anti-terror police squad.

Some of the dozens of militants arrested in connection with the Aceh training camp earlier this year have told police they were planning a Mumbai-style gun attack on targets in the capital.

The suspected shift in tactics in favour of attacks by squads of suicidal gunmen follows an internal debate among Al-Qaeda-inspired terror groups about the number of Muslims being killed in indiscriminate bombings, analysts said.

Police are on the lookout for trouble during the ongoing religious month of Ramadan, which militants have marked in the past with violent raids on bars and nightclubs.

Tensions are also higher following the arrest earlier this month of radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir – a figure revered by many Islamic extremists – for allegedly funding and coordinating the Aceh group.

Islamist websites have said the arrest is part of a US-led plot against Islam and a provocation to all Muslims ahead of Ramadan.

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