In early June, the Indonesian authorities made a stunning capture. After pursuing a suspected militant to a safe house in central Java, police say they shot him in the leg as he tried to flee. The target was Abu Dujana, the alleged head of the military wing of the extremist group Jemaah Islamiah (J.I.). That same day, the police made more busts. A squad of Indonesian commandos stormed into a home in Yogyakarta, nabbing Zarkasih, whom the authorities say is a veteran jihadist and J.I.'s overall leader. And just a few months earlier, the police uncovered an arsenal of deadly bombmaking materials in another house in central Java, including potassium, TNT, detonators and ammunition for a grenade launcher, all of which might have been used for a massive new terror attack.
Since the first Bali bombings five years ago, Indonesia has transformed itself from a country riddled with radical Islamist movements and terror threats Indonesians once called autumn "the bombing season" because attacks had become so regular to one of the world's few triumphs in fighting terrorism. Even better, Jakarta has succeeded without resorting to the draconian antiterror tactics increasingly preferred by governments from Sri Lanka to Iraq.
In recent years, Indonesian authorities have arrested or killed some 300 alleged militants. Indonesia has won removal from the Financial Action Task Force's list of nations not complying with global standards on fighting money laundering and terror, and earned praise from the U.S. State Department, which lauds its "new urgency on counterterrorism." The International Crisis Group's Southeast Asia project director, Sidney Jones, probably the world's leading expert on Indonesian terror, agrees, concluding that J.I. is "certainly much weaker" today than ever before.
With the recent British bomb plots focusing attention again on terror, what lessons can the world learn from Indonesia's success? First, counterterrorism has to be seen as a local fight, rather than something imposed by the West. After Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected Indonesia's President in 2004, he made a public declaration of war on terrorism and vowed to convince his countrymen that Islamic radicalism was a threat not just to the West but to Indonesians themselves. Contrast that with the approach of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Though he has been locked in battle with extremists since the army assault on Islamabad's Red Mosque last month, he has yet to acknowledge the strength of al-Qaeda militants based in Pakistan. As a result, when the U.S. points to al-Qaeda's presence in Pakistan, the Pakistani public can easily write off the remarks as American propaganda.
Another element of the Indonesia model is the recognition that the words of militants matter more to other potential militants say, young men thinking of joining a terror group than some sermon from Muslim moderates. Yudhoyono has enlisted not just prominent clerics but militants themselves to combat extremist ideas; to cite one example, contrite former terrorists appear on television and admit how they shed Indonesian blood. It's a strategy that could work in other countries where there is already some public anger at terrorists. In Sri Lanka, for example, the government could play on the disgust many moderate Tamils have for the brutal tactics the Tamil Tigers employ by running televised statements of captured Tigers regretting what they did.
Crucially, too, the Indonesia model relies upon effective police work rather than military force. Yudhoyono seems to understand that, in many developing nations, the military is not the best institution to tackle terror. Instead of relying on Indonesia's armed forces, elements of which have a reputation for corruption, Jakarta has worked with the U.S. State Department to create an élite counterterrorism force called Detachment 88. It has taken the lead in fighting J.I., and helped make the arrests in June. Indonesian security forces were once known for employing harsh methods of interrogation. But, today, rather than tossing terrorism suspects in jail indefinitely or torturing them, as is the case with suspects in Iraq or Russia's Chechen Republic, the Indonesian government successfully prosecutes cases against these militants in court, keeping public opinion on Jakarta's side.
Terrorism hasn't disappeared from Indonesia the International Crisis Group worries, based on its own extensive reporting, that militants may be preparing to strike in Poso, on the island of Sulawesi, potentially sparking again the communal violence that once ravaged the area. But Yudhoyono and other top officials remain confident they have turned the corner in fighting terror. That's good news for Indonesia as well as the world.