DEPOK, Indonesia — A day after Islamic State followers seized part of a high-security terrorist detention center and killed five guards, the country was left on Thursday with no shortage of questions.

The logical first one: How could this have happened?

Located in the sleepy West Java town of Depok, south of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, the detention center is in a sprawling, heavily guarded compound of the local headquarters of the Mobile Brigade Corps, a paramilitary unit of the Indonesian National Police, and it was guarded by elite counterterrorism officers.

The uprising began with a riot Tuesday night in a section of the detention center holding 156 terrorism suspects and detainees, many of them accused of being violent, radical followers of the Islamic State’s ideology. The detainees managed to seize dozens of weapons, attacked guards and then took several of them hostage.

It ended Thursday morning with a mass surrender of the detainees after counterterrorism officers began blasting apart walls and firing tear gas into a cellblock where the men had holed up.

By the time the smoke finally cleared, five guards and one detainee were dead, the Islamic State gleefully had claimed responsibility, the Indonesian government was scrambling for answers, and the country’s prison system was — once again — forced into an uncomfortable spotlight.

For years, the detention center held only police personnel being prosecuted for crimes, but in 2013, it began housing convicts and detainees suspected of terrorism who were believed to be violent and dangerous.

The detainees were housed in three blocks within the center, sometimes 10 men to a cell, which went against government regulations.

Firearms, ammunition and other gear that the Indonesian police say was seized from guards and used by prisoners during the riot.Credit…Indonesia’s National Police, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images (retrieved from

“This detention center was not designed as a maximum-security facility to hold large numbers of high-risk terrorist inmates,” said Leopold Sudaryono, an Indonesian doctoral scholar in criminology at Australian National University.

“The Ministry of Law and Human Rights had issued a regulation in 2017 requiring high-risk offenders be detained in isolation with very minimum physical interaction with other inmates or guards,” he said. “This requirement cannot be carried out in this police facility. No wonder within a period of six months, two riots by terrorist inmates happened.”

In November, a group of terrorism detainees incited a riot when guards searched cells for contraband including cellphones. Temporarily holding the guards at bay, the detainees took photographs and video of themselves brandishing the black flag of the Islamic State and shouting, “God is great.”

Gatot Goei, program director of the Jakarta-based Center for Detention Studies, said this week’s uprising showed that the guards, while members of a Western-trained antiterrorism unit, did not have the skills to handle violent outbreaks by prisoners.

“Their emergency response system fell apart when they were challenged — they lost the ability to begin an emergency response,” he said. “In prisons, they have emergency response teams in case a guard is hurt.”

Mr. Goei also noted that the detainees had been able to break doors and smash through walls to take over one of the detention blocks and seize weapons from their guards.

“The physical facilities were weak,” he said, saying they were “different than most prisons in Indonesia that are under the Ministry of Law.”

As the uprising was unfolding on Wednesday, the Islamic State’s media arm uploaded graphic videos and photographs from inside the detention center, showing the bodies of dead guards who had been repeatedly stabbed and in some cases shot.

Counterterrorism officers on Thursday after the uprising at the detention center ended.Credit…Mast Irham/EPA, via Shutterstock (retrieved from

Photographs showed detainees brandishing weapons, raising the Islamic State flag and pledging allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

By Thursday morning, all 155 terrorism detainees were being transported under heavy guard to the maximum security prison island of Nusakambangan, off the south coast of Java Island, where the authorities separate high-risk prisoners from one another.

President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, speaking at the presidential palace in Jakarta on Thursday, said the government and public “will never be afraid and will never give room for terrorism and actions that will disrupt the country’s security.”

However, the Indonesian authorities apparently did not see or heed warnings about the police detention center’s vulnerability. In February, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta-based research organization, warned in a report that the center was “a disaster waiting to happen” because of overcrowding in the detainee blocks. It also said there was no effort to offer counseling against violent extremist ideology to new arrivals.

In a 2016 report, the institute had warned that despite some successes by the Indonesian government in managing extremist prisoners, “structural problems of the prison system and inadequate staff continue to defeat efforts at deradicalization, disengagement and rehabilitation.”

Noor Huda Ismail, founder of the Institute of International Peace Building, which works to reintegrate former convicted terrorists back into Indonesian society, said the police detention center suffered from the same problems plaguing hundreds of state prisons across the country: overcrowding, lack of infrastructure to monitor high-risk detainees, and a shortage of human resources.

“Inmates always find ways to smuggle phones in, therefore they could live-stream the incident and mobilize support from outside the prison,” he said.

Asked whether terrorist detainees among those involved in this week’s uprising could ever be rehabilitated, Mr. Ismail said: “Well, at least we can disengage them from violence, but it will take a very long time to deradicalize them.”

By Joe Cochrane