Indonesia’s Controversial Special Forces Regain U.S. Support in Counter-Terrorism Struggle

Andrew McGregor

November 18, 2010

Elite special military forces have played a critical role on the asymmetrical battlefield of the war on terrorism. While applying sophisticated equipment, highly trained personnel, refined intelligence gathering and unconventional tactics to counterterrorism efforts, many Special Forces units have also been charged with secrecy, unaccountability and the use of illegal and extrajudicial measures in their operations. Indonesia’s Kopassus (Komando Pasukan Khusus – Special Force Command) Special Forces unit is a prominent example of an otherwise effective Special Forces group whose counterterrorism efforts have been compromised by alleged atrocities in its campaigns against Indonesian-based separatist movements.

Kopassus 1Unlike the Special Forces units of many Western nations that have seen only sporadic use on an operational level, Indonesia’s Kopassus has been highly active since its formation in 1952, particularly in operations targeting Indonesia’s many separatist movements. The unit had its origins in the conflict between the newly formed Indonesian national army (Tentara Nasional Indonesia –TNI) and counterrevolutionary forces of the self-declared Republic of the South Moluccas, who were assisted by two companies of the Korps Speciale Troepen (KST), a colonial Special Forces unit drawn largely from Calvinist Melanesians and best known at that point for their ruthless execution of thousands of men while putting down a 1946-47 rebellion in southern Sulawesi. Impressed by the KST’s fighting ability, Indonesian Colonel Alexander Evert Kawilarang asked Major Rokus Bernadus Visser (a.k.a. Mohammed Idion Djanbi, a Dutch soldier and Special Forces commander who had refused repatriation at independence and stayed on as an Indonesian citizen and convert to Islam) to create an Indonesian Special Forces unit along the lines of the KST. This force, the Kesatuan Komando Tentara Territorium III/Siliwangi (Kesko TT) eventually became Kopassus after a series of name changes. The unit’s red beret is derived from the red beret worn by Dutch Special Forces.

Despite being the elite force of the TNI, Kopassus has earned an international reputation as a major violator of human rights, with both local and international rights organizations producing ample documentation of abuses (including torture, kidnappings and targeted killings) committed in Papua, Aceh, East Timor (where they armed and organized murderous pro-regime militias) and even Jakarta during the May 1998 riots which witnessed the murder of ethnic-Chinese Indonesians and the gang-rapes of ethnic-Chinese women.

U.S. support and aid to Kopassus was banned in 1999 but restored last July, possibly because the Indonesians had threatened to turn to China for military training and assistance (Asian Sentinel, July 23). A 2008 proposal by the Bush administration to resume U.S. training for Kopassus forces went nowhere after State Department lawyers determined such training was prohibited by the “Leahy Law,” a congressional provision that prohibits U.S. military assistance to foreign military forces that routinely violate human rights.

Kopassus 2Kopassus Sniper Team

According to US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the restoration of military aid to Kopassus will be a gradual process, enabled by “the ongoing professionalization” of the TNI and “recent actions taken by the Ministry of Defense to address human rights issues” (Asian Sentinel, July 23; Detikcom [Jakarta], July 22). Kopassus members will be vetted individually before being allowed to participate in U.S. military training. According to Kopassus commander Brigadier General Lodewijk Freidrich Paulus, Indonesia and the United States “need each other because we have the same outlook on anti-terrorism. Both parties can support each other” (Antara Online [Jakarta], March 25).

This process may be complicated by the recent leak of an Indonesian intelligence report that revealed Kopassus had drawn up a list of civilian “enemies” and churches to be targeted in Papua (Jakarta Post, November 11). [1] Papua, the largely Christian and Melanesian western part of the island of New Guinea, has been home to a simmering independence movement since it was annexed by Indonesia while preparing for independence from the Netherlands in 1963. A further complication is presented by the posting of a ten-minute video of Indonesian troops burning the genitals of two Papuan detainees on YouTube in October. [2] In an unusual development that may have been prompted by the desire to avoid jeopardizing the renewal of U.S. training and aid, authorities admitted the antagonists in the video were Indonesian troops and suggested court martials might be in order (Jakarta Globe, October 22). Local insurgents of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM – Free Papua Organization) have targeted the massive gold and copper mining operations of American firm Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold in Papua, which are guarded by personnel of the Indonesian army. The renewal of Freeport McMoRan’s concession was one of the topics discussed during President Obama’s visit to Jakarta earlier this month (Jakarta Globe, November 4).

With its main base in West Java, the 6,500 man Kopassus force consists of five groups with different responsibilities:

  • Groups 1 and 2 are Para-Commando groups responsible for special operations, unconventional warfare, reconnaissance and counter-insurgency operations.
  • Group 3 (Sandhi Yudha) is dedicated to combat intelligence.
  • Group 4 is a training unit.
  • Group 5, known as SAT-81 Gultor, is responsible for counterterrorism operations, hostage rescue and protection of national and foreign dignitaries. Members of the roughly 200 man Group 5 are drawn from the best qualified troops in groups 1 to 3.

Kopassus training is extremely arduous and the development of special military skills is encouraged. Officers must be able to speak a foreign language and enlisted men and NCOs must speak at least two local languages of the more than 700 spoken in Indonesia.

Australia’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) conducted a joint counterterrorism exercise in Bali with Kopassus in September, the latest in a series of annual joint exercises since Australia lifted its own ban on cooperation with Kopassus in 2005 (Jakarta Post, September 28; The Australian, October 18).


1. For the 25 page report, see

This article first appeared in the November 18, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Indonesian Security Forces Kill West Papuan Militant Leader General Kelly Kwalik

Andrew McGregor

December 23, 2009

General Kelly Kwalik, a senior leader of the Free Papua Organization (Indonesian – Organisasi Papua Merdeka – OPM), was shot and killed in a raid by Indonesia security forces on December 16 in the southern coastal town of Timika (Jakarta Post, December 16). National Police Chief General Bambang Hendarso Danuri said the shooting of Kwalik was justified by the rebel leader’s record of violence (Jakarta Globe, December 19).

Kelly KwalikStamp Posthumously Issued by the Unrecognized Republic of West Papua

Kwalik’s December 21 funeral in Timika was accompanied by clashes between Indonesian police and up to 800 OPM supporters attending the services (AFP, December 21; Tempo Interaktif [Jakarta], December 21). The coffin was covered with the illegal red, white and blue “Morning Star” flag of the West Papuan independence movement. Displaying the flag can bring a sentence of 20 years to life under Indonesian law. The Catholic bishop of Timika, John Philip Saklil, called Kwalik “a great figure who fought for the best for the Papuan people,” but added, “Violence will only generate more violence and murders will only lead to more murders” (AFP, December 21). The funeral followed several days of high tensions, marked by protests and warning shots fired by Indonesian security forces who kept the army on standby to intervene if rioting broke out.

Control of Western New Guinea was transferred from the Netherlands to Indonesia according to the terms of the 1962 New York Agreement, negotiated by the Netherlands, the United States and Indonesia without input from the natives of the area concerned. Several of the region’s ethnic groups opposed the agreement and founded the OPM in 1965 to seek independence for western New Guinea (now administered as the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua). In 1971 the OPM declared the existence of the “Republic of West Papua,” but the declaration was soon followed by a major split in the movement. Support for the movement was revived in the 1990s by the activities of American gold-mining giant Freeport-McMoRan in the region and alleged human rights abuses by the Indonesian military. The OPM now operates through at least nine decentralized commands but remains poorly armed, using bows and arrows and arms and munitions left over from battles fought on the island in World War II.

Indonesian police, who claim the 60-year-old Kwalik was guilty of abductions, murders and terrorist attacks (including the murder of two American Freeport employees in 2002 and the killing of an Australian mine technician last July), verified the identity of the body through videos and photos after family members refused to submit DNA samples for testing (Jakarta Post, December 17; Jakarta Globe, December 19). Kwalik denied any role in the attacks, which others have suggested may have been part of a protection racket run by Indonesian security forces. The rebel commander described the attacks as a “pure conspiracy between the Indonesian police, the Army and Freeport” (Jakarta Globe, December 19).

This article first appeared in the December 23, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Indonesian Jihadis Prepare for Gaza Intervention

Andrew McGregor

January 21, 2009

Israel’s assault on Gaza has brought widespread condemnation from the Muslim world, though no Muslim nation has dared intervene so far. In many cases this official position is at variance with popular sentiments, as in distant Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation.

FPI SupportersFront Pembela Islam Supporters

With no Israeli embassy in Jakarta (the two nations have no diplomatic relations) and no Jewish population to speak off, Indonesian anger at the Gaza incursion has at times been hard-pressed to find an avenue for expression. The country’s lone synagogue, a barely used and rabbi-less building in Surabaya, has been the target of angry mobs shouting “Go to hell, Israel” while burning Israeli flags (Antara News Agency [Jakarta], January 8). An unlucky KFC outlet in Central Sulawesi province was overrun by 300 protesters enraged over US support for Israel, who fortunately restricted their violence to the furniture (Xinhua, January 8). Demonstrations have also occurred at Jakarta’s Egyptian and U.S. embassies.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government will be seeking re-election in April, so it is being forced to address public anger at Israel while preventing non-government players from taking actions that might be outside the national interest. According to President Yudhoyono, “I’ve talked to Middle East leaders, to the Palestinian ambassador to Indonesia, to the UN Resident Coordinator in Indonesia…and [the conclusion is] additional weaponry, bombs, rockets, tanks, or air power are not what the Gazans need” (Jakarta Post, January 17). The government views financial and humanitarian aid as the best way to help the Palestinians of Gaza, though there are many in Indonesia who would prefer to see more material military assistance sent from Indonesia to pursue “jihad” against Israel for its actions in Gaza.

Indonesia’s Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia –TNI) already have a peacekeeping unit of 210 soldiers deployed in Lebanon as part of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). TNI chief General Djoko Santoso has indicated Indonesia is ready to contribute to another peacekeeping force in Gaza if required (Antara, January 12).

There are a number of Indonesian Islamist groups seeking government support to send fighters to Gaza, including the Islam Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam – FPI) and Hizb ut-Tahir Indonesia (HTI). In Bandung, West Java, the FPI is providing physical, military, and mental training to 40 recruits in a factory (Jakarta Post, January 16). In the Jember region of East Java, the organization says it has recruited 60 Muslim youth for front-line service against Israel (Jakarta Post, January 7). The recruits are receiving a brief period of training in the methods of Pencak Silat, a traditional Indonesian martial arts movement strongly associated with anti-colonialism. The FPI claims to have 4,000 volunteers for service in Gaza, but can only afford to send three to five fighters, who will receive a perfunctory ten days of instruction, though weapons training is not part of the curriculum: “We won’t be teaching them how to use weapons. They will have to learn in the field when we dispatch them to Gaza” (AFP, January 8). The Mosque Youth Coordination Body claims to have recruited 3,500 volunteers to either fight or provide humanitarian assistance, though it estimates only half of these will actually go to Gaza (AFP, January 8).

Abu Bakar Bashir’s Jamaah Anshoru Tauhid (JAT) movement expressed hope that Egypt would allow passage of mujahideen and medical teams through Rafah into Gaza (AFP, January 7). Bashir is the former spiritual leader of Indonesia’s notorious Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist organization.

The Ansor Brigades paramilitary, belonging to Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama, is also training 78 volunteers for Gaza. Candidates need bring only a letter from their family and a health certificate. All expenses must be handled by the volunteer. Recruits are encouraged to develop spiritual powers that will allow them to fend off Israeli bullets and other weapons. The rival FPI eschews such traditional methods in their own training: “There is no immunity in the FPI. If we learn about such practices, how can we die a martyr?” Military strategy is taught to the Ansor recruits, but no weapons training is offered. The program has not been approved by Nahdlatul Ulama headquarters (Tempo [Jakarta], January 15).


This article first appeared in the January 21, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus