JAKARTA – Indonesian security forces are regrouping to launch a more aggressive campaign to hunt for the country’s most-wanted man, police said Monday after months of fruitless searching in the jungles of Sulawesi Island.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has made the arrest of Santoso, Indonesia’s most high-profile backer of Islamic State, one of his national security priorities and had given security forces until Saturday to arrest him.
But Santoso, who has been on the run for more than three years, has proven to be more difficult to catch than expected.
Security forces plan to bring in 500 more police officers and soldiers to reinforce the 1,600 personnel looking for Santoso, who analysts say could be an inspiration for Indonesian militants returning from fighting with Islamic State in the Middle East.
“There is a new operation called Tinombala that will focus on Poso and the surrounding areas,” said Hari Suprapto, spokesman for the Central Sulawesi police, referring to the district where Santoso is believed to be based.
Details of how the military and police will join forces still had to be worked out, he said. Officials at the presidential palace were not available for comment.
Determined to capture Santoso, Jokowi in March approved the first major military counterterrorism operation since the bombing of two Jakarta hotels in 2009.
A blitz by troops, warships and fighter jets weakened Santoso’s forces, but he got away and officials believe he still commands up to 40 men.
While security forces increase their focus on Santoso in Central Sulawesi, analysts have raised alarm over a growing network of Islamic State supporters around Jakarta.
Police over the weekend arrested three people after finding bomb-making equipment at a house near Jakarta, according to a police spokesman, Sulistyo Pudjo Hartono.
Police said the three were suspected of having links with a group of men arrested across the island of Java last month, who were believed to be planning attacks over the New Year’s holiday.