DENPASAR, INDONESIA — Tension has risen once again in the religiously divided Indonesian province of Central Sulawesi, where two police raids in January in the Muslim-majority town of Poso resulted in the deaths of 14 Islamic militants. The raids were aimed at arresting 29 people wanted for a series of crimes and believed to be members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), considered one of Southeast Asia's most lethal terror groups.
The security forces' tough stance has worried some analysts, who maintain that while the hard-nosed approach is necessary, they may also bolster support for Indonesia's jihadi movement. Police tactics in this historically volatile port city resonate throughout Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation and an important front in the US-led war on terrorism.
"What happened may convince some of the dormant JI cells that are against the bombings that it is time to act," says Sidney Jones, head of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Southeast Asia. "It is possible that some of the mujahideen fleeing Poso will make their way to Java, and join forces with Noordin Mohamed Top."
Mr. Noordin, the alleged leader of the most radical wing of JI, has been blamed for some of the worst terror attacks to hit Indonesia in the past few years, including the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed 202 people.
According to an ICG report released last month, JI's senior leaders moved to Poso shortly after the 2001 Malino peace agreement ended a two-year sectarian conflict that killed almost 1,000 people in the area.
Before the peace deal, JI played a secondary role in the Sulawesi fighting to militant groups like Mujahidin KOMPAK, Laskar Jundullah, and Laskar Jihad, according to the book by Ken Conboy, The Second Front: Inside Asia's Most Dangerous Terrorist Network, which recounts the rise of the JI.
The Malino agreement was badly implemented and some of the root problems of the Christian-Muslim war were never addressed, according to the ICG report. The JI tapped into this reservoir of dissatisfaction to recruit and replenish its ranks.
"I think JI's main target will still be Westerners and Western interests in Indonesia. This is a core trait of any Wahhabi-based terrorist group," says Mr. Conboy. "Few policemen may be killed, but that does not mean that JI has changed its focus of attack," he says.
According to the ICG reproort, two JI leaders who moved to Poso after the Mindano peace deal were among those killed in the January police raids.
Yet Hasanuddin, another key figure in Poso's more radical JI elements, is now in Jakarta, where he is on trial for leading some of JI's most vicious crimes. A native of Central Java, Hasanuddin, who like many Indonesians has just one name, trained in the Philippines, in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front-controlled territory of Mindanao, before moving to Poso in September 2002.
In Poso, Hasanuddin soon rose to become the leader of JI's Poso cell. Authorites allege that, under Hasanuddin's direction, JI bombed a market in the majority-Christian town of Tentena in May 2005, killed a Protestant minister as he delivered a sermon in July 2004, and ordered the beheading of three Christian schoolgirls in October 2005.
The beheadings, in particular, triggered an outcry across Indonesia. Hasannuddin has said that "the girls' heads were a present to Muslims for Idul Fitri [the last day of the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan]."
As the police operation to capture the remaining fugitives continues, Ms. Jones stressed that Jakarta is treading a thin line, and that arresting the fugitives – in itself – will not be enough to control the jihadist rebound in Indonesia.
"Jakarta needs to explain that what is going on is a law-enforcement operation and not an anti-Muslim drive," Jones says, adding that the first signs are encouraging. "So far, the government has been proactive and, for once, it has stolen the media-spin away from the radicals."
Following the raids, Vice President Jusuf Kalla invited various Islamic leaders for a brainstorming meeting on Poso. Most of the leaders have since made public statements of support for the government line.
A notable exception was radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, considered by the US and Australia as the ideological leader of JI. Mr. Bashir has labeled the police as anti-Muslim and has threatened a jihad, or holy war, to defend Muslims in Poso.