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How Accountable is Indonesia's National Intelligence Agency?

29 Mar 2022
By Robert Lowry
An example of mortar shells. These were seized by the Israeli Defence Force in March 2014. Source: Flickr, IDF,

Indonesia’s national intelligence agency appears to act with minimal oversight. BIN operations, such as their alleged involvement in a mortar attack late last year, often leave us with more questions than answers.

The Badan Intelijen Negara (BIN), Indonesia’s national intelligence agency, is responsible for domestic and international intelligence collection and analysis. It reports directly to the president, though parliamentary oversight is exercised by Commission I of the People’s Representative Council (DPR). Unlike the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), BIN members are subject to civil law, but there is no independent body with authority to monitor its operations or investigate complaints. Different from the TNI and police, its head is not an ex officio member of cabinet but exercises ministerial responsibilities in relation to administration and budgeting.

Commission I of the DPR holds periodic hearings with the head of BIN, retired police general Budi Gunawan, but it is a rather cosy relationship that has shown no sign of scrutinising the agency’s budget, operations, or conduct. Members of the commission recently went so far as to obtain their own uniform so that they could obtain a “more compact” relationship with the BIN leadership. These meetings are understandably held in closed sessions with little press coverage of their findings, except that, when questioned, one commissioner replied that they discussed almost all the articles on the front page of the newspapers. Such comments are hardly reassuring that rigorous oversight is being exercised.

Apart from historical events, a soon-to-be-published report by Conflict Armament Research (CAR) provides an example of why BIN’s actions may need more rigorous oversight. On 10 October last year, a helicopter dropped modified mortar bombs on and near four hamlets in Papua’s Kiwirok district. No casualties were reported, but over 400 villagers fled. Some of the mortars failed to explode, and CAR was able to use photographic evidence from the scene to investigate the nature and origin of the munitions dropped.

It transpired that the bombs were part of an order for 2480 81 mm mortar rounds acquired by BIN from Serbia. The order was placed in late 2020, along with 3000 electronic initiators for explosives and three timing devices shipped via the UAE. BIN, as the declared end user, later provided a letter of receipt.

However, the bombs dropped around Kiwirok had been modified in Indonesia. This was necessary because mortar bombs need the inertia provided by being fired from a mortar tube to activate the fuse, so a simple percussion fuse was fitted. In addition, the original tail fins that contain the firing cartridge and propellants for launching the bombs from the mortar tube were replaced by a similar but inert tail fin, designed to stabilise the round when dropped. It may also have been designed to hold bombs in an ad hoc dispersal device fitted to a helicopter or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

The number of policy and technical questions this report raises is overwhelming. In terms of policy, for example, we must ask ourselves why would BIN be ordering ammunition used by the TNI and manufactured by PT Pindad in Indonesia? Who authorised the purchase and for what reason? Were BIN’s actions consistent with its role and presidential guidance? Have any civil laws been breached in BIN’s acquisition and use of these explosives? Were the bombs dropped from TNI or BIN aircraft? If dropped by TNI aircraft, it was in breach of the purchase agreement with the Serbian manufacturer. If from BIN aircraft, was the bombing authorised and coordinated with Police/TNI operations during the National Sports Week being held in Papua for the first time? Was the use of mortar bombs consistent with the rules of engagement, and if so, in accordance with any related conditions? What was the reason for the operation, and did it achieve its objectives? What use is to be made of the remaining 2000 or so mortar bombs and the 3000 electronic initiators for explosives and by who?

On the technical side, did the relevant air safety authority authorise the use of this modified munition from the aircraft involved? What safety devices were incorporated in the modified fuses, and could the modified bombs be stored, transported, and used safely? Where is BIN storing the remaining bombs and does that storage meet authorised standards?

Given that BIN has publicly denied that it maintains special forces units, it should have no need for mortar bombs. One might think that the attack was retaliation for the shooting of BIN Chief Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha in April last year, but this hypothesis doesn’t track — the bombs were acquired beforehand. As BIN is the declared end user, the munitions should not be transferred to third parties, either in Indonesia or overseas, without the prior approval of Serbian authorities. If the purchase was to allow their use in Papua with some form of deniability, that obviously has not worked.

Given that Indonesia’s democratic ranking has been in decline in the last few years according to Freedom House, keeping the security forces on a short leash is a prerequisite for any attempt at stabilising — if not improving — that ranking. Given the current administration’s policy of minimising the use of force, in particular indiscriminate force, in pacifying the people of Papua, ensuring that all security agencies are working in unison under centralised command will be a key element in its success or failure.

Robert Lowry is a former president of AIIA’s ACT branch, and worked as a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Jakarta 2001. He is the author of The Armed Forces of Indonesia (1996) and Fortress Fiji: Holding the Line in the Pacific War, 1939-45 (2006).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.