From prison to carnage in Jakarta: A tale of two terrorist convicts, their mentor behind bars, and the fighter with ISIS (Part 1)

Editor’s note: This essay is the first in a two-part series on terrorist recidivism in Indonesia’s prisons.

As inmates in two of Indonesia’s largest prisons, Muhammad Ali and Sunakim (alias Afif) could not be more different. One broke out of prison during a riot while the other was quiet and obedient. And yet both died together shooting up the streets of Jakarta on January 14, in homage to a cause promoted by their mentor behind bars and financed by a former cell-mate now fighting with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syam (ISIS).

Sunakim, sentenced to seven years in prison for participating in a terrorist training camp in Aceh, entered Cipinang Prison on the outskirts of Jakarta in December 2011. Unlike several others from the Aceh camp, he gave his captors no trouble. Still the guards should have intervened when he became personal masseur to fellow terrorist convict Aman Abdurrahman, a self-declared takfiri, who denounced all who did not agree with his extremist views as apostate and the Indonesian government in particular as evil.

Muhammad Ali, serving time for being a member of a gang that robbed a bank to fund the Aceh camp, broke out of the Tanjung Gusta Prison in Medan during a riot instigated by his gang leader in 2013. Returned to prison, he was released some time in 2014, just as Indonesia’s jihadi community was finding inspiration in the rising fortunes of ISIS.

Muhammad’s spiritual mentor in Medan was also in jail, but when the preacher decided to abandon violence and help the police instead, Muhammad turned to the sermons being broadcast into his prison cell through smuggled audio recordings and cell phones, and decided he liked what Aman Abdurrahman was saying from behind bars in Cipinang.

In some ways “an accidental terrorist”, Aman has never taken part in a terrorist operation. He was arrested for the first time in May 2004 when a bomb went off while he was giving a sermon; someone else had been conducting a bomb-making class in the house. Sentenced to four years in prison, he began translating the Arabic works of Middle Eastern proponents of violent jihad. Friends posted the translations online. In the barren intellectual field of Indonesian jihadism, Aman Abdurrahman became an immediate star. His translations were turned into books and widely discussed. His talks were recorded, inspiring many passionate new recruits throughout Indonesia, who took it upon themselves to recruit others to their self-defined jihadi cause.

Aman hit the lecture circuit on his release. Invited to take part in the Aceh training camp in 2009, he refused but donated money. When the camp was discovered the next year and all its participants, instructors, and financiers arrested, Aman was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. He was sent to Cipinang Prison, where he was once again united with his followers, including one Sunakim alias Afif, then almost 30 years old.

In Cipinang, with Sunakim ready to massage his tired limbs, Aman received tens of visitors every day, acolytes seeking advice on just about everything. They brought him food, clothes, toiletries, stationery, books, and also typed up his works for publication on a dedicated website.

Prison authorities decided to transfer Aman out to one of the five facilities on Nusakambangan, Indonesia’s Alcatraz-like island prison, in 2012.

Meanwhile Sunakim bided his time in jail, earned his remissions, and was released in 2015 for good behaviour. We now know he went back to his old terrorist network, linking up with other followers of Aman Abdurrahman, who had switched allegiance to ISIS while in prison in 2014 and has since been urging all his acolytes to strike terror in its name.

Sometime late last year, another terrorist cell loyal to Aman and based in Solo, Central Java, reached out to Sunakim, who lived in Kerawang, not far from Jakarta. According to Jakarta police chief Tito Karnavian, who used to lead the anti-terror unit Detachment 88, one Bahrum Naim had sent money and instructions to that Solo network from Raqqa in Syria.

Bahrum, convicted of gun possession and released after two and a half years of jail time, was also an Aman groupie, and thus, an ardent supporter of ISIS. In 2015, he left for Syria, where he is said to have become a leader of the Katibah Nusantara unit of Malay-speaking fighters with ISIS.

It is not yet clear if Bahrum roped in Sunakim himself. The two had briefly shared a police detention cell in Jakarta while awaiting transfers to other prisons.

Apart from shared prison experiences, the key thread linking all the attackers and Bahrum is their blind acceptance of and fealty to the virulent ideology of hatred spawned by Aman Abdurrahman, the most important booster for ISIS in Indonesia today.

Taking up residence in Indonesia’s version of Alcatraz has not stopped Aman from writing and publishing his pro-ISIS screeds, and urging his followers to fight for ISIS, in Syria, or at home.

Prison dynamics and terrorist recidivism

In the last few years, we have been studying how terrorist convicts affect inmate dynamics in Indonesian prisons and the motivations and factors that influence decisions by convicted terrorists to re-involve themselves in violence upon release. We have visited several of the 25 Indonesian prisons and detention centres that hold terrorist convicts, including Cipinang and Nusakambangan, reviewed the case histories of 40 known terrorist recidivists, and interviewed prison officials, inmates, as well as recently released prisoners. Our findings are profoundly depressing.

In the prisons where there are sizable numbers of terrorists serving jail time, they answer to no one except themselves, deciding on their own routines and complying with prison regulations and participating in so-called de-radicalization workshops only when it suits them. Prison staff, untrained and unprepared, are content to leave them be, for riots invite too much scrutiny, and terrorist inmates have instigated prison riots.

Our interviews reveal that for Indonesian jihadists, a spell in prison, rather than being an intervention stage, is seen as a way station to further glory. Many leave prison not only unreformed, but also more influential in local jihadi circles.

Who’s in charge?

Enter an Indonesian prison and among the first thing a visitor sees is the standard operating procedure (SOP) governing visits, framed and hung prominently on a wall. Every visitor is to show identification, register, record the name of the inmate, allow guards to pat him down, search any hand carried bags, and retain his cell phone in a locker.

SOPS are, of course, good only if they are followed consistently and guards are well trained in search procedures. Some prisons like Cipinang make a greater effort to stop contraband from being smuggled in, but visitors are always free to bring in bags of foodstuff and other gifts for inmates. These are searched in a cursory manner.

In terms of security, Indonesian prisons, mainly built during the Dutch colonial era, have all the requisite controlled access, high walls, barbed wire, watchtowers, and CCTV coverage. Escape is not impossible but curiously rare. What the building layouts do not facilitate is segregation. Neither does over-crowding.

Cipinang Prison, where some of Indonesia’s leading jihadis have at one time or another been incarcerated, is one of the few prisons that technically segregates terrorist inmates from other criminal offenders. Block D is the special block for terrorist inmates, who have their own sports facilities, and a cell converted into a musholla (small mosque).

But Cipinang Prison is perpetually over-crowded, and with no extra manpower, prison staff simply allow inmates from all blocks to mingle freely during day light hours. There is nothing to stop terrorist inmates from going into other blocks to conduct religious study sessions or to engage in business enterprises with them. Indeed, the terrorist inmates have more privileges. They can be visited freely by families, friends, and relatives almost every day except on Sundays. The visits are not monitored, allowing free exchange of information. One former inmate recalled getting visits from Jemaah Islamiyah members who brought him books on suicide bombing and tried to match-make him with a woman from the network.

Three types of terrorist leaders control prison dynamics:

• Ideologues who enforce takfir (excommunication)

• Those in the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) hierarchy trying to preserve their authority and organisation

• Charismatic prison veterans who offer protection in return for force

The ideologues refuse to have anything to do with prison officials, and their influence transcends prison boundaries; there are Aman Abdurrahman groupies in every prison who refuse to cooperate with prison staff or even to pray in the main prison mosque because it represents the government.

When the Indonesian Government introduced Regulation No. 99 / 2012 stipulating that prisoners wishing remission of sentence and parole must meet several requirements such as signing a declaration of loyalty to Pancasila, the state ideology, and the Republic of Indonesia, and be willing to assist the Government to uncover their group’s networks (i.e. be “justice collaborators”), Aman Abdurrahman and former Jemaah Islamiyah leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir both issued messages rejecting the conditions. Aman declared that Muslim brothers who applied for remission and gave their oath of loyalty to the state would be considered infidels and apostates of Islam. Their messages spread to all the prisons, creating tensions among inmates who desired early release.

These ideological leaders do not, however, have free run of the prisons. They face competition for influence from the JI hierarchy who are more interested in preserving JI as an organisation. Ironically these JI leaders receive help from prison staff, who prop them up in hopes that they will help the guards maintain order; challengers to their authority are transferred to Nusakambangan. Jailed JI leaders thus control more than half of the terrorist inmates in Cipinang prison, and are seen to be cooperative, readily sending their followers to prison-run workshops.

Further competition comes from prison veterans on their second or third stints. They use charisma and their personal knowledge of prison rules and relationships to assert control while appearing to cooperate with prison authorities. Even when transferred to different prisons to break their grip, these leaders simply attract a new set of followers by offering them a sense of protection and material comfort, as well as defiance and excitement.

Whether seen as rejectionist or cooperative, these leaders are playing for the long haul while awaiting release; as one terrorist leader, and recidivist Abdullah Sunata told us, he is “taking a day off from work,” work in his case being violent jihad.

Who controls prayers controls the prison

Terrorist inmates told us that prison provides them with time for intimacy with God. They have time to pray, review interpretation books, and study Arabic. This opportunity to practice their religion and deepen their study of Islam has led them to become more confident in their beliefs about the value of jihad. This is important, as many did not have an adequate understanding of Islam to begin with.

The religious activities also allow the terrorist inmates to show their religiosity, leading the prison staff and other inmates to mark them as good Muslims, and therefore a good person. They are thus shown respect, and the social status of terrorist inmates in general rises through the prison population.

Indeed, prison staff believe they can trust the more religious terrorist inmates and therefore involve them in programs to teach Arabic and recite the Koran in the prison mosques. An appointment as an official instructor gives terrorist inmates two advantages: official cover to socialize and interact with non-terrorist inmates, and favorable review of their applications for remission and early parole.

More importantly, the religious activities nurture the spirit of brotherhood among the terrorist inmates in an environment where their solidarity is otherwise challenged. The spiritual bonds often translate into emotional bonds, making it easier for inmates to band together to deal with problems with prison staff.

In major prisons where terrorist inmates are housed in special blocks, leaders use group prayers and Islamic studies to consolidate their power. They control the prayer schedule, the roster of inmates to give sermons, the schedule for Islamic study sessions, and even the schedules for cooking, cleaning, and exercise. Members are also expected to show their loyalty by following their leaders in fasting regularly.

The Islamic study sessions are a sort of ideological course for terrorist inmates devised by group leaders. When he was in Cipinang Prison, Aman Abdurrhaman used to conduct regular lessons on jihad every morning and evening. Almost all the inmates in Block D attended his lessons, including those who did not subscribe to his ideas.

Aman also dictated attitudes toward opponents, such as prison staff, and how they organized themselves. He would declare as infidel anyone he considered acting against his group. When terrorist inmates became involved in drug trafficking in a Medan prison, for example, they received calls from Aman chastising them for not behaving like mujahidin.

Now in Kembang Kuning Prison in Nusakambangan, Aman has fewer followers among fellow inmates. But his influence has not abated. Twice a week, his followers come from all over the country, taking long bus rides, and then the prison ferry to the island, smuggling in Arabic manuscripts downloaded from the internet for Aman to translate. They also record his sermons and distribute them as MP3 files for sharing via email or text messages. The audio files are also distributed from prison to prison, so that other terrorist inmates become familiar with his ISIS ideology, even if they have never met him.