At least 1,000 security personnel have been deployed to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in an ambitious operation to bring the leader of a radical Islamist militant group that has terrorized Indonesia's civilians and counterterrorism police to justice.
Attired in civilian clothes to avoid detection, some 600 officers from the Indonesian Mobile Brigade flew to Central Sulawesi last week to begin a 60-day hunt for East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) chief Abu Wardah Santoso and 19 others on the country's most wanted list. The special forces police will link up with 400 local officers and target Santoso's hideout in the mountains near the harbor of Poso, which has been the site of violent attacks against civilians and authorities.
"They will be spread across a number of locations believed to be the hideouts of the armed civilian group in Poso," a police spokesperson told local media. "In the last month, five civilians have been killed by the group allegedly led by Santoso."
Santoso, who has evaded police on Sulawesi for four years, commands a small but committed terrorist network throughout the country, and has been locked in conflict with Detachment 88, the elite counter-terrorism division of the Mobile Brigade, calling on his followers to assassinate its members.
At least six officers have been killed by individuals linked to Santoso since 2011. The radical leader congratulated the killers on their handiwork in a video statement released last year.
"I am amazed by the courage of you guys, who are so brave," he said in the recording. "I am proud, I am impressed by your courage, like a lion jumping on his prey, to tear the prey apart. Detachment 88 is the real enemy, the real Satan. When you face the fight against Detachment 88, you need to be in spirit, you need to be strong."
Santoso is believed to be the first Indonesian to have pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and is suspected of receiving international recruits and support from the Islamic State. In September authorities arrested four men traveling on Turkish passports, believed to be Chinese Uighurs, who were reportedly intent on linking up with Santoso's network in Poso. This past January, a hostage who escaped from an MIT cell reported that a foreign fighter was among the group who held him.
"We suspect that Santoso is getting help from the foreigners," a police spokesman toldthe Jakarta Postat the time. "The foreigners are likely part of ISIS."
Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at Indonesia's Defense University, told VICE News that the operation could be the best chance in years of catching Santoso.
"They wouldn't do the operation, with that many resources, unless they have good information. Information is the key," Sulaiman said. "There might be a good chance this time that they arrest or kill him."
That information is likely to have come last Saturday, when Detachment 88 officers in Poso arrested six MIT members.
"We have already finished questioning them and they have been detained at the Mobile Brigade headquarters indefinitely until the investigators have gathered enough evidence for their case," said a police spokesperson.
The men were allegedly involved in arranging logistics and funding for the group, as well as scheduling secret meetings between Santoso and his wife.
"They might get him, but that won't affect the underlying issues here," noted Sulaiman. "You can catch Santoso, or whomever, but these groups will re-emerge in different ways, just like in the past, unless you address the issue of radical Islam in Indonesia."
Santoso is the product of a number of terrorist networks that have risen and fallen over the years. He was originally linked to al Qaeda's Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, which planned the Bali bombings in 2002 that killed 202 people. He rose to prominence as a commander in a splinter group, Jamaat Ansarul Tawhid, and finally emerged under the MIT banner in 2010.
Sulaiman explained that terror groups like MIT use radical clerics and teachers around the country whom authorities have largely ignored to draw recruits to their cause.
"I'm not going to say that the security forces are infiltrated by this ideology," he said. "But you have people in the police and the military who have sympathies towards political Islam. Their attitude toward the radical clerics and mosques has been, 'If you're not causing too much trouble, you're fine.' But Indonesia has a very porous border, and even if people are not engaging in terrorism here, you look at the groups in the Philippines and Malaysia, often there is a connection to Indonesia. Indonesia's role in training and radicalization has been ignored."
The question of whether or not the country with the world's largest Muslim population can rid itself of terrorism, he said, will be determined by whether or not the authorities continue to neglect the spread of radical Islam within Indonesia.
Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell