JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia has launched military exercises in the eastern island of Sulawesi, a haven for radical Islamists, as part of broader efforts to crack down on militants with suspected links to the Islamic State group, officials said on Tuesday.
Television footage showed the military firing rockets in remote, mountainous central Sulawesi as part of the exercises. The drills come amid heightened government concerns over a rising number of Indonesians pledging loyalty to Islamic State (IS) and trying to join the group fighting in Iraq and Syria.
“IS is a potential security threat ... so we’re preparing our forces to respond to that,” said military spokesman Major General Mochamad Fuad Basya.
He described the exercises as routine and said similar drills would be held elsewhere in Indonesia.
“The target is to make sure our forces are ready for any threat ... and for a deterrent effect to radicals in that area,” he said.
Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, the vast majority of which practices a moderate form of the religion. It saw a spate of militant attacks in the 2000s, the deadliest of which was a nightclub bombing on the holiday island of Bali that killed 202 people, most of them tourists.
Police have been largely successful in destroying domestic militant cells since then, but officials now worry about a resurgence in militancy inspired by groups like Islamic State and Indonesians who return after fighting with the group.
“IS provides fresh oxygen to Islamist groups here by giving them a legitimate call to jihad,” Tito Karnavian, a police official and former chief of the national anti-terrorism unit, told foreign journalists last week.
The government, which banned Islamic State teachings and endorsement last year, also began erasing radical websites and videos this month, Karnavian said.
The home affairs ministry is preparing to revise anti-terrorism laws to allow authorities to closely monitor suspicious international travel, Indonesian media reported.
Police have said between 200 and 300 Indonesians have left to join Islamic State, but some security experts believe the figure could be higher.
Up to 32 Indonesian citizens were detained in Turkey earlier this month while trying to cross the border into Syria, suspected of trying to join Islamic State.
Reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Paul Tait