The Surabaya attacks were a turning point in Indonesia's war on terrorism. President Joko Widodo's administration had been pushing for a harsher anti-terrorism law for years. It was another terrorist attack, the country's first linked to the Islamic State (ISIS), back in 2016 that sparked plans to dramatically expand the reach and authority of police when it comes to arresting alleged terrorists.
But it was May's tragic string of bombings in Surabaya—and nearby Sidoarjo, East Java—that pushed the new anti-terrorism law over the finish line. The brutality of that attack, which hit several churches in the middle of Sunday morning service and included suicide bombers as young as nine, set into motion one of the biggest anti-terrorism sweep since the Bali bombing of 2005.
To-date, some 200 people, all of them alleged terrorists, were detained in a series of raids across Java and Sumatra. Another 20 were killed by police during the raids. And just last week, police caught another 50 alleged terrorists right here in the Indonesian capital. Most of them were either members of, or associated with, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), the terrorist group behind the Surabaya attacks.
At the center of this crackdown is the new anti-terrorism law, which was passed weeks after the Surabaya attacks and affords police sweeping authority in the investigation and detention of alleged terrorists—and anyone else sympathetic to their cause.
“We’re applying the new law,” Tito Karnavian, the chief of the National Police, told local media shortly after the arrests. “Before we could only arrest people when they had [terrorist] plans or were making bombs. But now just participating in a terrorist group can land you in jail for 200 days. And we can criminalize the sympathizers as well.”
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It's the sheer breadth of this crackdown that has some rights activists and legal experts concerned. The Jokowi administration successfully pushed the law through the House while the country was still reeling by what the president himself referred to as the "barbaric," attacks in Surabaya. It was floated in the press as a needed measure to protect the country from terrorists.
But, critics say this new law allows the authorities unprecedented rights in the war on terror. Under the new law, those caught supporting terrorism, either through speeches, literature, videos, or links online, can face up to five years behind bars. Suspected terrorists currently abroad can have their passports revoked, effectively rendering them stateless, and the law also lowers the legal threshold for stuff like wiretaps and raids, while also allowing police to detain people for extended periods of time—in some instances nearly a year—without charging them with a crime.
“Supporters usually participate by helping with the funding or logistics, and they can be prosecuted as long as we have sufficient evidence,” Brig. Gen. Hamli, the director of the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), told VICE. “We’re also on alert now for sympathizers.”
Still, it's articles like those that have critics questioning whether this is a needed measure for our safety or a sign of police over-reach. Papang Hidayat, a researcher with Amnesty International Indonesia, told VICE that the new anti-terrorism law infringed upon people's freedom of speech. The root of the problem, he said, lies in the definition of a terrorist sympathizer as someone who is "exhibiting speech, behaviors, writings, or materials with the intent to influence a person or group of people to commit acts of violence." The issue here isn't the effort to combat radicalism, it's the unclear language of the law, Papang explained.
"For example, we can't say that a post [on social media] showing support for a Sharia-based caliphate is a way to influence others because that's a form of personal expression," he said. "Spontaneous posts like that can't be characterized as influencing others or sedition. But when it's being reproduced frequently and repeatedly, like if a person creates a website or shares the same content over-and-over again, then it may mean they have an intent to influence others."
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Then there's the problem of detaining people without enough evidence to convict. Anti-terrorism operations, like those conducted by the specialized task force Densus 88, already have a habit of going sideways from time-to-time, with a troubling track record of false arrests and abusive tactics. In February, Muhammad Jefri, an alleged terrorist, died during an operation in Indramayu, West Java, and before that incident another man, Siyono, was falsely arrested in Klaten, Central Java, and beaten so bad that he died during the investigation.
With issues like this hanging overhead, how can anyone be sure that everyone arrested in the recent anti-terrorism sweeps is actually guilty of a crime, Papang asked.
"In regards to the arrest of the 200 alleged terrorists, we can’t tell for sure if any of them are a false arrest,” he said. “The point is, we need to assist and ensure the police’s accountability and transparency [in these raids].”
The thing is, a lot of people saw issues like these coming. The anti-terrorism law wasn't passed by House lawmakers moments after it was drafted; it was the source of heated debates for two years before finally being approved. Authorities said they needed an updated law because, at the time, the existing ones seriously hampered their efforts to arrested terrorists before their plots became a reality. Under the old law, terrorist suspects could only be arrested once they began to put a plot in motion, explained Benny J. Mamoto, the head of the Police and Terrorism Studies Research Center at the University of Indonesia.
“With challenges like these, the police were seen as ineffective in times of terror,” he said. “And so this new law can hopefully can stop attacks as early as possible.”
But new law or not, the terrorist plots continue in Indonesia. Just last week, three more suspected terrorists died in a raid in Yogyakarta. And in Indramayu, West Java, a married couple allegedly attempted to bombthe local police headquarters with a homemade pressure cooker explosive. Both are now behind bars. The bomb? It failed to explode.