Ideology that fuels violent acts in the name of Islam remains potent in Indonesia despite government efforts to “deradicalize” militants and prevent the spread of religious extremism.
In the decade since the 2002 bombings on Bali when members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI - a Southeast Asian Islamic militant group with ties to Al Qaeda) killed more than 200 and injured hundreds more, some 60 people have been killed and another 500 injured in “terrorist” attacks.
Although the number and scale of attacks have diminished due to police efforts to capture and - in some cases kill - those responsible, attacks by smaller, unknown groups have increased.
According to a recent US State Department “report on terrorism” in Indonesia, militants are increasingly using the Internet to spread messages of religious extremism through the country’s universities and prisons.
Even after almost a decade of fighting extremism, officials are still divided on approaches in a country which is home to some 13 percent of the world’s Muslims.
“We first had the idea to conduct deradicalization work in 2003,” Ansyaad Mbai, the country’s top counterterrorism official, told IRIN. “Back then, no terrorist wanted to speak to us and some even asked us to kill them so they could complete their jihad. As well as [needing to enforce our laws], we knew that radical views had to be neutralized using Islam.”
Jihad, an oft-misunderstood term, is commonly used to describe the struggle - both spiritual and physical - to fulfil religious duties in Islam.
Efforts nationwide to fight extremism remain fragmented, said Mbai, who has headed the country’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) since it was founded in 2010.
“Many government departments, agencies and also mass Islamic organizations have done deradicalization work individually,” he said. “But we are now drafting a national deradicalization plan for next year so we can better coordinate our approaches.”
Since 2002 police have sentenced 600 out of 830 people arrested on charges of terrorism. Two hundred of them have gone through the government’s “deradicalization” programme, of whom 23 individuals “relapsed” and joined their old groups, said the top official.
“We try to make them aware that it is wrong to think jihad means war or suicide bombing, and that what they are doing now is not the obligation of Islam,” he said.
Sarlito Wirawan Sarwono, head of police studies at the University of Indonesia in the capital, Jakarta, runs a not-for-profit programme for BNPT. In it nine former “terrorists” volunteer to, what BNPT calls, “deradicalize” 50 militants, half of whom are imprisoned on terrorism charges and the other half released after serving their sentences.
“Islam is a peaceful religion and it views the biggest jihad as the Muslim’s fight within himself, against his own inner demons,” said Sarwono. “Violent actions toward others are not permitted, unless you are directly threatened. We try to emphasize these ideas.”
Police try to treat detained militants as “friends”, praying and reading the Koran with them as well as discussing family needs, said Sarwono. “Do they want a good education for their children? How will they find jobs after their release?”
Law enforcement helps fulfil prisoner requests, such as medical help for family members or if they want to see wives or children. Workshops, seminars and one-to-one counselling are employed in a process that Sarwono estimates takes three years.
When militants serve their prison terms, BNPT also provides their families with financial support, roughly US$150 per month.
“For us, the most important thing is to change their attitude, not necessarily their ideology,” he said. “We emphasize disengagement. They must disengage with their commitment to violence. This is our target - rather than complete deradicalization, which would suggest a change in their ideology.”
A former military commander with JI, Nasir Abas, 43, served with the Mujahedin (Muslim guerrilla fighters) for three years in Afghanistan, where he became an instructor specializing in weaponry and military strategy. In his twenties he went on to train 200 fighters, some of whom carried out the 2002 Bali bombings.
“I trained them to kill, but this was in a military context,” said Abas, who later rose in JI’s ranks to head one of its four regional units in Southeast Asia, covering Sabah in Malaysia; East Kalimantan, East Sulawesi and North Sulawesi in Indonesia; and the Southern Philippines.
Photo: Peter Fortner/Flickr
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In 2002 the UN’s Al-Qaeda sanctions committee - created in 1999 by the UN Security Council to implement sanctions on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan for its support of Osama bin Laden - placed JI on its sanctions list, citing JI’s links with Al-Qaeda and its aim of creating a state stretching across Southeast Asia based on extremist ideology.
When the Indonesian police located Abas in 2003, he resisted arrest and initially refused to talk. “I had always taught others that it was better to die than to be arrested, and I was worried that if I did talk I would be called a traitor,” he said.
According to Abas, when the police appealed to his sense of being a good Muslim, it encouraged him to talk. “They removed my handcuffs and the chain around my neck, and the commander ordered all other officers from the room,” said Abas. “As a Muslim, when someone respects you, you should return that respect. So this is what I did with the commander, because he respected me.”
Abas not only talked to police, he has helped police arrest key JI leaders and spoken to 300 “terrorists” on behalf of the government to “neutralize” their extremist beliefs. He said cooperating is his duty as a Muslim to prohibit bad deeds, even if he disagrees with the term “deradicalize”.
“For me it is more about disengagement. They can still have their dreams of establishing an Islamic state, but they must pursue it peacefully, not through bombings and killings.”
Moderate versus radical partners
But according to Taufiq Andry, director of research at the Jakarta-based Yayasan Prasasti Perdmaian (YPP) - a local NGO that has worked with former militant prisoners since 2009 - BNPT is not going far or fast enough to stamp out extremism.
“BNPT’s resources should go to the heart of the radicalization,” he added, referring to radical groups like Jemmah Ashorut Tauhid (JAT), the Indonesian Mujahedeen Council (MMI) and Islamic Society Forum (FUI).
Andry also questioned whether Nasir Abbas and other “Afghan alumni” - Indonesians who fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s - can influence young militants.
“Modern jihadis [those who subscribe to violent jihadi ideology] who fought in conflicts in Ambon [Indonesia’s Maluku Province] and Poso [Central Sulawesi Province] in the late 1990s see that the alumni are now engaging with the government and are not really acting [as jihadis] any more,” said Andry.
The government’s Mbai acknowledged the need to partner with key radical figures to reach more militants, but conceded the state has had problems penetrating larger extremist groups.
According to an April 2011 International Crisis Group report, large jihadi organizations provide the inspiration and community for smaller groups to form and carry out attacks, even if they publicly disavow involvement.
JAT’s spokesman in Jakarta, Son Hadi, said its group refuses to cooperate. “The BNPT’s deradicalization programme considers Islam a national enemy. It views…jihad [as] the source of radical beliefs, whereas jihad is the essence of Islam. We are forbidden from cooperating with those who try to insult Islam in the name of Islam.”
Mbai said one way around stonewalling is by using moderate Muslim intermediaries. “In the mindsets of radicals, all government officials are infidels so we need to empower our mass moderate Islamic organizations - both Nahdlatul Ulama [NU] and Muhammadiyah - to engage directly with extremism and terrorism,” he said.
NU is the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, claiming 50 million members who run 6,000 Islamic boarding schools, 40 universities and carry out charitable work. Muhammadiyah is a similar, smaller Indonesian organization that claims 29 million members.
However, according to Sarwono, using moderate Muslim scholars to broach deradicalization has had mixed results.
“Terrorists can question the scholar’s commitment to jihad. They ask him where he was when they were fighting and dying against their perceived enemies,” said Sarwono. “Sometimes, in the eyes of the terrorist, the scholar is not credible.”
Schools of thought
Meanwhile, Mbai said not enough is being done with the general public, particularly schools, which he said remain prime areas for the spread of extremist ideas.
“The Internet is also dominated by radicals trying to incite people to commit attacks,” he said, adding that there was no programme in place in Indonesia to combat these ideas online, unlike in other countries fighting religious extremism.
Saudi authorities have encouraged clerics to establish their own websites in order to monitor radical websites, prepare statements to rebut radical ideology and answer public questions, according to the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence.
Prisons are “schools of radicalism” where more work is needed, added YPP’s Andry. “There are many ideologues inside who spread their ideas to other inmates and can even upload written work on jihad to the Internet while incarcerated.”
Even with its limited access to reaching and influencing hardened radicals, former JI military commander Abas said BNPT has tried to make communities safe from extremism.
“But [extremist] ideas are still here and they can still be accessed easily through magazines, websites and preaching. It’s one thing protecting communities and another to kill the virus itself.”