The arrests came as fast as drops of monsoon rain. On Feb. 22, more than 100 Indonesian special police raided a terrorist training camp deep in the jungles of Sumatra island. Within days they captured 14 suspected Islamic militants from a shadowy group called al-Qaeda in Aceh that was believed to have been planning an imminent attack. Then, on March 9, the police converged on an Internet café near the Indonesian capital Jakarta and engaged in a firefight that killed Dulmatin, an Afghan-trained explosives expert with a U.S.-designated $10 million bounty on his head. Among other attacks, Dulmatin was thought to have masterminded the blasts that struck two nightclubs on the vacation island of Bali in 2002, leaving 202 people dead, mostly foreigners. By April 12, the police dragnet had nabbed 10 more extremists, including a suspect in the 2004 bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta. Another fanatic, who allegedly decapitated three Christian schoolgirls back in 2005, died in another shoot-out. All told, 48 suspected terrorists were caught within a seven-week period and another eight killed. In May, a further 16 suspects were arrested and five killed as police foiled a plot to assassinate Indonesia’s President and visiting foreign dignitaries. Detachment 88 had done it again.

Indonesia is waging one of the world’s most determined campaigns against terrorism — and much of the credit goes to the country’s American-trained police unit Detachment 88. The horror and audacity of the Bali bombings proved to be an epiphany for Indonesians, alerting them to the homegrown extremists in their midst and helping forge a national consensus against terrorism. The following year, Detachment 88 was set up with the backing of the U.S. and Australian governments; today, it numbers 400 personnel drawn from the elite of the Indonesian police’s special-operations forces — and it has built up an extensive intelligence network to nab terrorists. Undercover operations in which agents pose as itinerant noodle vendors or new members of a Muslim prayer group enable Detachment 88 to track extremists and convince some to inform on others. Once top militants are located, explosives specialists, snipers, forensics teams and surveillance experts take position. “I’ve trained guys all over the world, and this unit is one of the best I’ve ever seen,” says one former trainer of the Indonesian counterterrorism squad.

But Detachment 88 is more than a shooting machine. In the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, cracking down on terrorism isn’t just about cracking heads. Through deradicalization programs, Detachment 88 agents take on the role of spiritual counselors, working to convince militants of the error of their ways. Some convicted terrorists now cooperate with the police in community outreach programs. “You want to know why Indonesia has done well fighting terrorism?” says psychologist Sarlito Wirawan Sarwono, who instructs Detachment 88 officers in interrogation tactics. “We have no Guantánamo prisons. Our police understand the terrorists’ psyches. Other countries can learn from what we do.”

A nation of 17,000 islands spread across more than 5,000 km, Indonesia might seem too sprawling, messy and diverse to efficiently combat terrorism. While its 210 million Muslim faithful are overwhelmingly moderate, a small band of radicals is calling for Indonesia to abandon its secular underpinnings for an Islamic state. Chief among them are members of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the militant group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings, among other attacks. JI and other splinter factions were formed by Indonesians with battlefront experience in Afghanistan and the insurgent-wracked southern Philippines. Most Indonesians display little of the reflexive anti-American sentiment common in a country like Pakistan — witness the suspected role of the Taliban in the failed Times Square car-bomb plot. But the Indonesian mercenaries returned home believing that the West, and the U.S. in particular, was the root of all evil. The fact that Indonesia is neither at war with its neighbors nor harboring a persecuted Muslim minority makes little difference to these hard-liners. “They preach that Indonesians have forgotten the core of Islam,” says Noor Huda Ismail, founder of the Institute of International Peace Building in Jakarta, which aims to deradicalize former terrorism inmates. “Their message is simple: the only way for Indonesians to prove themselves as good Muslims is through jihad against the infidel Americans and their allies.”

Converting Militants
In 1998, Indonesians overthrew a dictator who had ruled for 32 years and ushered in a democratic government. It is precisely the nation’s status as the world’s third-largest democracy that has fueled Detachment 88′s success. Wary of the military, which enabled strongman Suharto for so many years, Indonesia’s parliament gave the police responsibility for the nation’s antiterrorism effort. Instead of imposing an internal security act or other draconian laws that carried the whiff of dictatorship, Indonesia’s newly democratic leaders decided to prosecute terrorists publicly through the normal court system. That meant no indefinite detentions that could nurture further radicalization. And to placate an increasingly vocal Islamic political movement, the government took the most controversial stance of all: to consider terrorists not as intractable criminals but ideologically confused souls. “It is Detachment 88′s policy that suspected terrorists be treated as good men gone astray,” says Sidney Jones, an expert on Indonesian terror with the International Crisis Group, a global conflict watchdog. “When they are fully in police custody, suspects are treated with kid gloves in order to get information on the terror network.”

During interrogation sessions, Detachment 88 officers, the majority of whom are Muslim, allow prisoners to worship, often joining them in prayer. Little tricks, like greeting inmates in Arabic instead of Indonesian, help convince terrorists that the police are not infidels, as they have been brainwashed to believe by radical clerics. On occasion, Muslims with impeccable religious credentials are brought in by Detachment 88 to discuss Koranic theology with inmates. “Many of the terrorists have been taught just a few verses from the Koran that focus on jihad without knowing the context of these passages,” says Muchlis Hanafi, an Indonesian with a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from Cairo’s renowned Al-Azhar University who last year counseled former JI commanders. The careful handling has paid off. Of the 400-plus terrorism suspects in custody, the Indonesian police estimate that around half have either cooperated with police or renounced violence. Sometimes even the simplest incentives work. Those who cooperate with Detachment 88 officers have had their children’s tuition, their wives’ employment and even their prison weddings paid for by the government.

Detachment 88′s biggest conversion to date is that of Nasir Abbas, an Afghan-trained former JI senior commander who gave weapons training to several future bombers. When he was caught in 2003, the Malaysian-born militant busted his best kung fu moves to get the police to kill him, lest he suffer the indignity of being captured by infidels. He broke the leg of one police officer and the arm of another, but the authorities still didn’t shoot. He was too valuable a source to kill.

At first, Nasir answered all interrogation questions with one phrase: “God forgive me.” Then Bekto Suprapto, now an ex-head of Detachment 88, strode into his cell and delivered a rapid-fire biography of the militant. Nasir was intrigued by this man who seemed to know everything about him, including his disagreement with JI’s turn toward killing innocent civilians. He asked if Bekto would be willing to meet him one-on-one. The police chief agreed, even removing Nasir’s handcuffs while they talked for days. “I thought, I could kill this old man if I wanted, but he gave me trust and I couldn’t abuse that,” recalls Nasir. “In Islam, if someone respects you, you must respect them back.” Today, Nasir, who served just 10 months in jail for immigration violations, advises Detachment 88 officers on how to catch his former charges and preaches to terrorism suspects that killing innocent people in the name of Islam is wrong.

Training Days
The pair of fruit-laden trucks rumbling past the rice paddies of Semarang, central Java, illustrate the spectrum of religiosity in Indonesia’s heartland: one vehicle is decorated with a mural of Osama bin Laden wielding an AK-47, while the other is emblazoned with a voluptuous woman in an extreme state of undress. It is near here that some of Indonesia’s most radical clerics spout their hate-filled sermons. It is also where, on a rambling campus complete with mosque and church, Detachment 88 cadets undergo part of their counterterror training. (Antiterror units from other nations like Pakistan and Thailand take classes there too.) The police academy feels like an oversized playground. An airplane sits ready for training exercises in which black-clad officers scale up the fuselage like so many ants. A model hotel and train allow agents to engage in close-quarter combat drills, while an Olympic-sized pool gives scuba-clad cadets a chance to practice water infiltration techniques. State-of-the-art forensic and computer laboratories also encourage indoor education.

On one scorching day in April, two dozen Detachment 88 cadets toting M4A1 assault rifles crouch in formation near their target. After a quick prayer session, they breach a wall and shimmy toward a house where a hostage is supposedly being held. Officers attach explosives to the door and then lob flash grenades inside. Police snipers man the perimeter. The training exercise goes well, but reality is far more dangerous. Just weeks after completing training, one Detachment 88 officer was charged with tackling a militant wearing an explosives-rigged vest. He survived, but more than a dozen police have died in other sieges. “Of course I was scared,” says one 30-year-old agent who last year participated in a raid against a terrorist who worked undercover as a florist at the Jakarta Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which was bombed last July. “But my job as a policeman, as a Muslim, as an Indonesian, is to capture people who distort Islam and use it to kill.”

The difficulty for any counterterrorism force is that even as one cell is smashed, new Hydra heads can regenerate with ever-changing plans of attack. The recent spate of arrests in Indonesia can be viewed as a law-enforcement success — or as a cautionary tale of how quickly jihadis can proliferate in remote parts of the archipelago. Although Detachment 88′s record in getting extremists to cooperate through savvy interrogations and prison perks is impressive, jails have become breeding grounds for terror. One prison guard in Bali was even swayed by a death-row terrorist to smuggle in a laptop to raise funds for another attack. Two militants tied to last year’s Jakarta twin hotel bombings, which killed seven people, had earlier participated in Detachment 88′s deradicalization program. “We must give credit to Detachment 88 for their successes in disrupting Indonesia’s terror network,” says Huda of the Institute of International Peace Building. “But they try to do everything: preventing terrorists, catching terrorists, deradicalizing terrorists. One unit can’t do it all.”

Huda is particularly concerned about what happens to terrorists once they are released from jail. Some may be involved in ad hoc Detachment 88 projects to give former inmates jobs, but there’s no comprehensive strategy to track released prisoners. Huda has a unique insight into the terrorists’ minds. For six years, he attended the infamous Al Mukmin Ngruki Islamic boarding school in central Java that educated more than 20 Indonesian terrorist recruits. To prevent recidivism, Huda has arranged employment for 10 convicted terrorists. “Most of these guys aren’t poor and can get jobs on their own,” he says. “But what I want to do is pair them with moderate people who can influence their thinking.”

One of Huda’s charges is Harry Setya Rahmadi, a charismatic university economics graduate who was jailed in 2006 for sheltering Noordin Mohammed Top, the Malaysian jihadi who was killed in a police shoot-out last September after having orchestrated five major anti-Western attacks on Indonesian soil. “I knew that if I cooperated with Detachment 88, I would be treated well in jail,” says Harry, who was released early and now juggles two jobs, managing a prawn farm and trading foreign exchange online.

The War Goes On
Another of Huda’s ex-prisoners elicits more concern. Yusuf Adirima first learned about jihad from a video about the war in Bosnia. He ended up at Camp Hudaibiyah, a JI-run training base in the southern Philippines where Nasir once taught. Yusuf fought for two years with one of the local Muslim insurgent groups. “I lived in the jungle and killed many Filipino soldiers,” he says. After returning to Indonesia, he reunited with other Camp Hudaibiyah veterans but was arrested in 2003 in connection to a massive arms cache in Semarang.

In jail, for whatever reason, Yusuf received no visits from the newly formed Detachment 88, no special prison perks. The first two years of his internment were spent in solitary confinement in a darkened room. After Yusuf’s release last year, Huda got him a job at a barbecued-duck restaurant. But he worries about this man with the tight-set jaw and alert eyes. Yusuf shows no repentance for his past life. He recently named his new daughter Armalita, after a favored assault rifle. One evening, after finishing his night shift, Yusuf sits back to read a book on jihad in the southern Philippines, pointing out diagrams of his favorite weapons. “I would like to go fight again,” he says, the only time he looks a female American journalist squarely in the eye. “That is my passion.” Detachment 88′s work is never done. — with reporting by Jason Tedjasukmana / Jakarta