Reforming terrorists: Indonesia’s deradicalization program

Recent attacks show that recidivism remains persistent. So how does the government up its game?

Reforming terrorists: Indonesia’s deradicalization program AFP Photo/Manan Vatsyayana

The involvement of a former terrorism convict in a botched attack in Bandung, West Java Province, sparked new debate about Indonesia’s deradicalization program. Yayat Cahdiyat, 41, detonated a pressure cooker bomb and engaged in a shootout with police near a local government office on Feb. 27. He later died of gunshot wounds. The attack marked the third terrorism-related incident in Indonesia perpetrated by a convicted militant since early 2016, raising questions about the effectiveness of the government’s deradicalization program.

According to Indonesian police data, out of 1,200 convicts linked to various terrorist attacks across the country since the 2002 Bali bombings, 300 are expected to be released from prison in the coming years. This highlights the need for the authorities to attempt to reform them so they do not return to terrorism and to keep a close eye on all terrorist convicts who are released from prison. The reality is, however, much different, with experts and former terrorist convicts painting a picture of a well-intentioned but poorly implemented effort by the Indonesian government to ensure terrorist convicts do not revert to their old ways.

Effective strategy or myth?

The debate over deradicalization is in the spotlight once again, prompted by Cahdiyat, the convicted militant who detonated the pressure cooker bomb. There were no casualties and Cahdiyat died after being shot in the stomach by responding police personnel. The authorities confirmed he was a supporter of the Islamic State (IS) and had been imprisoned for three years for robbing a gas station in Cikampek, West Java, to help fund a shortlived militant training camp in Aceh in 2010. Cahdiyat was arrested and convicted in 2012, and was released from prison after being granted a number of sentence remissions. Shortly after his release, he joined Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, an umbrella group of IS support networks behind most of the six terrorist attacks that have occurred in Indonesia since the beginning of 2016, including the firearm and bomb assault in Central Jakarta on Jan. 14, 2016, that left four civilians and four assailants dead.

The botched attack in Bandung was the third terrorism-related incident in Indonesia to have been perpetrated by a convicted militant in the same period, raising questions about the effectiveness of the government’s deradicalization program. One of the slain attackers in the January 2016 attack in Jakarta had previously been convicted of terrorism offenses, as was the man responsible for a fatal firebomb attack at a church in East Kalimantan Province, in Borneo, last November.

Early days

The government has operated a deradicalization program in one form or another since the early 2000s, when it woke up to the gravity of the threat from domestic Islamist terrorism after the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists. The early days of the deradicalization effort mainly focused on building ties between law enforcers and convicted militants. One of the initial success stories touted by the Indonesian government was that of Ali Imron. The 47-year-old was sentenced to life in prison 14 years ago for his role in the 2002 Bali bombings.

Unlike his older brothers, Mukhlas and Amrozi, and accomplice Imam Samudra, who were all executed by firing squad in 2008, Imron was spared the death penalty because he was remorseful and cooperative during investigations. Arrested in January 2003 while on the run in East Kalimantan, Imron was tried and convicted of helping to assemble the bombs and sentenced that September. Since then, he has been tapped to help counterterrorism authorities in their investigations and deradicalization efforts. The early successes of Indonesia’s counterterrorism apparatus, and the National Police’s elite Detachment 88 counterterrorism squad in particular, were partly due to information gleaned through reforming and building trust with detained terrorists such as Imron.

However, the police’s early tactics of building trust with militants received some criticism, especially from foreign politicians. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard publicly criticized Surya Dharma, Indonesia’s counterterrorism chief, in December 2008 after Dharma hosted 2002 Bali bombers Imron and Mubarok for breakfast at his house, saying the action was insensitive to victims of terrorism. In January 2006, the authorities arrested terrorists in Poso, Central Sulawesi Province, who then provided information that led to the capture a year later of Abu Dujana, a top operative of the Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah ( JI), who participated in bombings in Bali and Jakarta. Dujana, after his arrest and conviction, cooperated with the authorities and in return the government allowed him to wear street clothes in prison and paid for his children’s school fees, which some critics at the time said went too far.

Another highly touted success story of the early efforts at deradicalization was Nasir Abbas. He was a key leader of JI before becoming a police informant, and then became involved in the police’s efforts to convince jailed Islamic militants in Indonesia – many of whom he helped train in Afghanistan and the southern Philippines – that killing civilians could never be justified. Abbas, a Malaysian national, headed JI’s military training division before his arrest in Indonesia in 2003 on immigration charges. The United Nations placed him on its list of suspected terrorists the same year, but removed him from the list in 2008 as a result of his cooperation with the Indonesian authorities. 

The Program Falters

While the initial efforts at deradicalization won some praise, and were heralded as a model for other countries, even America’s postGuantanamo Bay strategy at one point, the problems and complicated nature of trying to get committed jihadists to renounce their beliefs became apparent in the late 2000s with the emergence of former terrorist convicts in jihadist activity. Experts said the main flaw with Indonesia’s early deradicalization program was that it gave the appearance of genuinely caring about the militants while in police custody, but it largely left them to their own devices once released from prison.

The program in its early incarnation avoided heavy-handed tactics by not attempting to get extremists to break with their radical interpretation of Islamic ideology, but rather to renounce violence. A former senior member of JI who was a participant in the early deradicalization efforts said the initial program’s main problem was a heavy focus on nationalism and Indonesian history. The reformed terrorist, who once served as secondin-command to JI co-founder and imprisoned radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, said there was little effort to debunk the radical ideology that fuels violent jihad.

It wasn’t until he met clerics from Saudi Arabia that he finally felt remorse for his previous militant activities, which included fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan and training with terrorist groups in the southern Philippines.

AFP PHOTO/BAY ISMOYO JI's imprisoned co-founder, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir.

Government interference

Waning integration and enthusiasm for the deradicalization program was also due to denial about the scope of Indonesia’s terrorism problem, underfunding and the alleged influence of hard-liners in the government, issues that observers say still linger today. In one example, Patrialis Akbar, who served as the justice and human rights minister from 2009 to 2011, during the second administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, publicly dismissed reports from respected think tanks warning of problems with convicted terrorists in Indonesia’s prison system. He called the reports “provocation” and said he would encourage and even fund jailed Indonesian militants to carry out “bomb attacks in Israel instead,” raising questions about his support for the government’s fight against terrorism. Akbar, who was arrested in January for alleged bribery in his capacity as a Constitutional Court judge, routinely played down the threat of terrorism in the country and was often

criticized for handing out generous sentence remissions for convicts, including terrorists, on major national holidays.

This sort of thinking was not exclusive to the ministry in charge of overseeing the country’s correctional facilities and the in-prison deradicalization programs. A member of the state-funded Indonesian Ulema Council, Indonesia’s highest Islamic authority, stated publicly in 2008 that deradicalization and counterterrorism programs developed by the government would only break the bonds between Muslims. “Everything that has been conducted by the government for deradicalization contains stigmatism of Islam and Muslims. If they keep doing this, they will always face confrontations from Muslims,” the council’s branch chairman in Solo, in Central Java Province, Zaenal Arifin Adnan, told Sabili, a hard-line Islamic publication.

Even for those in denial about the threat of terrorism, the scope of the problem became evident when militants launched two suicide bombings at the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in South Jakarta in July 2009, killing six foreigners and an Indonesian, the two bombers, and wounding more than 50 others. It was the first major terrorist violence in Indonesia since the 2005 Bali bombings and largely shattered the perception at the time that Indonesia was winning the war on terrorism, including through its deradicalization efforts. At least two men who took part in the hotel suicide bombings were former terrorist convicts, including one previously jailed over the Australian Embassy bombing in Jakarta in 2004. Other terrorist convicts emerged at a short-lived militant training camp in Aceh in 2010, and in suicide bombings in West Java and Central Java provinces in 2011. According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, at least 37 terrorist recidivists were involved in acts of terrorism in Indonesia between 2009 and 2013.

The rise of the BNPT

This data was not lost on the government and counterterrorism officials at the time. One proposed solution was to form a dedicated government body to handle the preventative aspects of counterterrorism. So, in 2010, the Indonesian government created the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) and gave the new body the mandate to manage and improve the state deradicalization program, including construction of a dedicated facility at a future new headquarters just outside of Jakarta. The decision to form the BNPT was based partly on the perception that even though the Indonesian National Police and its crack antiterrorism unit, Detachment 88, retained the main role in combating terrorism, the constantly evolving threat necessitated the use of resources and intelligence from numerous law enforcement and security agencies, including the Indonesian Armed Forces and the State Intelligence Agency.

There were concerns before the BNPT was formed that the increased competition among state bodies tasked with counterterrorism could compromise operations, as institutions would vie for funding, try to outdo each other or refuse to share information, which would thwart the original purpose of facilitating interagency cooperation. Little was accomplished in the years immediately after the BNPT was formed. Sources at the BNPT told me that funding problems and a lack of support from within the Yudhoyono administration, especially among Muslim-based political parties, largely hampered progress on plans for a revamped deradicalization program. Deradicalization efforts at the time also came under fire from the increasingly aggressive hard-line Muslim movement, led by notorious groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front and Islamic People’s Forum.

Immediately following the formation of the BNPT, conservative Islamic media outlets published unfounded reports alleging that deradicalization programs were inherently anti-Islam and used methods including brainwashing. Some reports espoused conspiracy theories that the programs represented a front for Christian police officers to convert Muslims to Christianity. Despite the counterterrorism agency announcing plans in the middle of 2011 to build a dedicated deradicalization center at the sprawling International Peace and Security Center complex in Sentul, West Java, just outside of Jakarta, a source said that by 2013 the agency had only secured enough funding to build an entrance gate to an empty plot of land. According to the BNPT’s master plan, the site was supposed to house a maximum-security penitentiary and isolation rooms for convicted terrorists, in particular high-profile terrorist figures and leaders, as well as a halfway house to rehabilitate terrorist convicts.

The effort also faced political roadblocks, including from then-President Yudhoyono, who, despite approving the counterterrorism center’s initial plans, later backtracked, saying the presence of the facility for terrorist convicts could tarnish the image of the International Peace and Security Center, which Yudhoyono had helped to conceptualize and viewed as a major legacy of his 10 years in office. In December 2013, an official at the BNPT told Concord that deradicalization efforts at the time were largely ineffective, as the small staff at the agency was only able to visit one prison every few months, while convicted terrorists were being housed at a number of prisons across the country.

The rise of IS

The change in administration in late 2014 after the election of Joko Widodo as president, and new threats emanating from the Islamic State, breathed new life into efforts to debunk radical ideologies fueling terrorism in Indonesia. The counterterrorism center’s facilities in Sentul were finally completed. The IS-inspired gun and explosives attacks on a police post and nearby café in Central Jakarta in January 2016, which killed four civilians and four terrorist attackers, and wounded dozens, also increased momentum for deradicalization, especially after it emerged that one of the attackers had been previously imprisoned for terrorist offenses. In the wake of the attacks, the government moved to significantly increase the counterterrorism agency’s budget. The agency is also poised to play a greater role in counterterrorism programs and policies, according to proposed revisions to the 2003 Antiterrorism Law that are being deliberated

by the House of Representatives. Article 45 of the draft revision, a copy of which has been seen by Concord, states that the “president entrusts the National Counterterrorism Agency to formulate the policy and preventative steps as well as the operational steps to implement the Antiterrorism Law.”

According to the draft, the BNPT will be granted the authority to compose national policy, strategy and programs in terrorism eradication; coordinate government institutions related to the policy execution of terrorism eradication; conduct policy in terrorism eradication by forming task forces; and conduct terrorism eradication that includes prevention, protection, deradicalization, interception and national awareness preparation.

Mixed results

Despite the renewed focus on deradicalization, the revamped program has so far had mixed results, as seen, for example, by the involvement of former convicts in acts of terrorism since 2016. One former terrorist convict interviewed by Concord last year said that government officials involved in the deradicalization effort continued to fail to understand the root causes of terrorism in Indonesia and were unable to prevent convicted terrorists from returning to jihad once released from prison.

The source said that most convicts in the deradicalization program were only “going through the motions” in a bid to get time deducted from their sentences and to receive government compensation once released from prison. Sources say Afif Sunakim, one of the slain attackers in the January 2016 attacks in Jakarta, was enrolled in the deradicalization program following a conviction for

participating in a militant training camp in Aceh in 2010. Sunakim was allegedly able to deceive the authorities about his commitment to jihad to earn an early release from prison in 2015. He led the Jakarta attack five months later. He also allegedly used compensation funds provided by the counterterrorism agency to help finance the January attack.

Such scenarios have security officials worried. The BNPT recently admitted that more than 400 former members of terrorist groups in Indonesia had not yet even begun the deradicalization program. “Currently, only 184 former terrorists in 17 provinces have attended,” Maj. Gen. Abdul Rahman Kadir, the BNPT’s deputy chairman for prevention, protection and deradicalization, told the staterun Antara news agency. He said one challenge was that not all terrorism inmates were willing to participate in the program. “We cannot do anything because it fully depends on them, on whether they want to join the program or not,” Abdul said. In addition, out of 1,200 convicts linked to terrorist attacks in the country since the 2002 Bali bombings, hundreds more are expected to be released in the coming years, according to the Indonesian National Police.AFP PHOTO/AGOES RUDIANTO/CITIZENSIDE -  A government worker paints over an Islamic State flag on a wall in Surakarta, Central Java.

While recidivism rates for terrorism are much lower than for other crime categories in Indonesia, it is likely that at least some of the terrorist activity here in recent years could have been prevented if better monitoring and reintegration programs were in place for those convicted of violating the Antiterrorism Law.

Some progress is apparently being made on that front. In February, the first batch of seven terrorist convicts were transferred from the maximum-security Pasir Putih Prison on Nusakambangan Island, off the coast of southern Java, to the long-awaited dedicated deradicalization facility operated by the BNPT in Sentul. The new deradicalization center will act as a “halfway house” for terrorist convicts before they are released back into society. Psychological counseling is reportedly part of the program, something which is poorly addressed in other prisons in Indonesia. While that effort, if successful, could help prevent some convicted militants from reverting to their old ways, little has been done to address the hundreds of other violent jihadists who have gone through the legal system.

No matter what action the authorities decide to take next on the deradicalization front, it will likely bear little fruit unless there are reforms in the management of Indonesia’s prison system. Hana Hanifah, a researcher on radicalism at the Jakarta-based Habibie Center, an independent think tank, told Concord that poor management of the prison system has been a major hindrance to reforming convicted militants. “Terrorism convicts operate like a gang inside prisons,” she said. “Terrorists in prisons are very influential among other inmates. The guards are also scared of the terrorist convicts.” They also usually have the financial resources to bribe other inmates and even guards to reject programs like deradicalization. Indonesia’s prison system is notoriously corrupt, with militant convicts known to have access to cellular phones and even computers with which they keep in contact with their networks and associates on the outside.

Cleaning house

Recidivists such as Sunakim, who took part in last year’s attack in Jakarta, Juhanda, who was responsible for the fatal firebomb attack at a church in East Kalimantan Province last November, and Yayat Cahdiyat, who detonated a pressure cooker bomb in Bandung in February, receive wide media attention for their previous convictions, but there are said to be just as many success stories from the deradicalization program. The question is: how does Indonesia improve on that success rate?

While researchers such as Hanifah see promise in the BNPT’s current strategy of “rehabilitation, re-education and reintegration,” it is clear that much more effort and funding are needed before deradicalization becomes a beneficial component of the country’s counterterrorism strategy. Deradicalization and preventative programs have yet to match the performance of the Detachment 88 antiterrorism squad in stopping Islamist militancy. Simply enrolling terrorist convicts in the deradicalization effort is clearly no guarantee of success, although it can be said the authorities are at least attempting to deal with potential threats. If the effort is to succeed, the BNPT will need to collaborate more closely with related organizations, civil institutions and foreign governments to formulate a program that not only addresses the jihadist mind-set for those behind bars, but also provides assistance long after convicts are released from prison.

It is also essential that the government lead communities in reducing the level of support for radicalism – a gateway to violent jihad – and not turn a blind eye. Convicted terrorists can hardly be expected to “reform” when the government and its law enforcement apparatus often appear to be doing little to counter the growing trends of intolerance and extremism within Indonesian society. The government has to accept responsibility for its part in this process and get its own house in order before it can expect too much from other elements of society.


Todd Elliot is a Jakarta-based terrorism analyst for Concord Consulting.
Dwinda Adrianto is a public relations consultant at Edelman Indonesia.

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