An Integrated Approach to Terror Suspects in Indonesia

Anti-terror forces parade at the National Monument in Jakarta on March 11. (Photo: Bay Ismoyo/ AFP-Getty Images)

The so-called war against terror is a war of ideologies. It can be won only by changing extremists' beliefs in the use of violence, an Indonesian expert in extremism says.

Noor Huda Ismail, executive director of the Institute for International Peacebuilding, a private think tank that aims to rehabilitate former terrorists, believes terrorism can be rooted out of society, particularly in Indonesia, but that the government and civil society should place more emphasis on "deradicalizing" extremists.

Since the 2002 Bali bombings, the Indonesian government has implemented a deradicalization program that consists of using former Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militants such as Nasir Abas to talk to terror suspects and convicts in prison. After their release from prison, these former terror suspects receive economic assistance to start a business.

Huda notes, however, that the program still has much room for improvement. For example, more than 450 terror suspects have been charged or tried in courts of law on terrorism charges, 200 of whom were released after serving sentences; but these men are prone to recidivism.

According to "'Deradicalization' and Indonesian Prisons," a 2007 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, this program has succeeded in encouraging two dozen former members of the JI—a militant Muslim organization with the goal of establishing an Islamic state in Indonesia—to cooperate with the police. But other former militants who were involved in the government's deradicalization program have again become involved in extremist activities with the JI.

For example, Urwah, a JI member who served four years in prison for his involvement in the 2004 Australian Embassy bombing, took part in the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotel bombings in July last year following his release from prison.

According to Huda, the families of former combatants who were arrested or killed should also be involved in the deradicalization program, as they are also prone to radicalism.

"For instance, look at Muhammad Jibril, Abu Jibril's son," Huda said. Abu Jibril, now a cleric in Pamulang, a small sub-district near Jakarta, was a treasurer for the JI.

Abu Jibril spent three years in prison for being a hardliner in the early 1980s. He played a role in supporting sectarian conflicts in Poso in Central Sulawesi until he was arrested by the Malaysian government, which held him from 2001 and 2004 under the country's Internal Security Act for promoting radicalism. His son Muhammad was arrested in August 2009 for allegedly helping finance the attacks on the two hotels last year.

This example demonstrates how radicalism can be passed on from parents to children.

Huda also noted that there had not been any systematic "reprogramming" or deradicalizing of convicts in the last few years. "The important thing is implementing a curative approach [rather than repressive methods]. From the moment terror suspects are arrested, they should be enrolled in the deradicalization program, and we have to know what actions they take after their release," he said.

The ICG stated in its report that deradicalization programs in Indonesia had largely been viewed in isolation from other developments.

"There has been little attempt, for example, to assess whether more people are leaving [extremist] organizations than joining them; whether the men joining the program were already disposed to reject bombing as a tactic; or whether the initiative has created any backlash in [extremists'] ranks. There has been almost no public discussion about where the appropriate balance should be between leniency toward perpetrators, in an effort to prevent future attacks, and justice for victims," the report stated.

Huda said the task of deradicalizing former combatants should not rest only with the police. In a report he co-authored with Carl Ungerer for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Huda claimed that the best way to counter radical ideology might be to encourage militant leaders who are no longer hardliners—and "whom the fringe group continues to trust, such as Afghanistan or Philippines veterans, who are now lying low"—to work with the government.

He added that civil society organizations, such as the popular mainstream Muslim organizations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, should be more active in countering radical ideologies that might be spreading in local communities where these organizations are active.

NU's executive leader Hafidz Usman said the organization did not have a specific division in charge of approaching former terrorists, but has worked with the government to support its deradicalization program.

National Police deputy spokesman General Sulistyo Ishaq concurred with Huda, saying that in order to be effective, the deradicalization process had to involve many of the relevant parties but, overall, "the point is to offer a new [perspective] to terrorist convicts and their families."

Prodita Sabarini is a journalist with The Jakarta Post. This article was distributed with permission by the Common Ground News Service: