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Op-Ed

Predicting terrorist recidivism in Indonesia’s prisons

Susan Sim and Noor Huda Ismail

Editor’s note: This essay is the second in a two-part series entitled “From prison to carnage in Jakarta: A tale of two terrorist convicts, their mentor behind bars and the fighter with ISIS.”

We may never know what motivated four men to mount last week’s suicide bomb and gun attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia’s first major terrorist attack since the 2009 twin hotel bombings, but not a very successful one. A statement attributed to the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Syam (ISIS) called them “Islamic State fighters” who were “targeting foreign nationals and the security forces charged with protecting them in the Indonesian capital”.

Two of the four militants were known to Indonesian Police because they had previously been convicted and served jail time for terrorism-related offences. Was their re-engagement in violence foreseeable?

Predicting terrorist recidivism (the chances of a previously convicted terrorist returning to extremism or violence) is not a science; recidivism rates are difficult to calculate when there is no national database tracking arrests, convictions and releases in a timely manner. In 2013, the Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency BNPT said 25 out of 300 terrorists released from prison had “gone back to their old terror habits”. We estimate the recidivism rate to be at least 15 per cent now based on the 47 cases in Indonesia we found.

What is of greater concern is what these recidivists have been doing:

  • Five were killed in shoot-outs with police in 2009 and 2010, and two – Sunakim and Muhammad Ali – were killed during last week’s terrorist attack
  • At least six went to fight in Syria under the ISIS banner
  • Several started or joined new jihadi groups that have been targeting Indonesian police officers, including Santoso, currently Indonesia’s most wanted fugitive
  • Two ideologues – Aman Abdurrahman and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir – are even more influential in jihadi circles with their jailhouse publications and fatwas, and especially after they joined the ISIS bandwagon.

Our review of the 47 cases reveals five commonalities.

  1. Most returned to terrorism while on probation for their first offence, i.e. within the first two years of release.
  2. They went back to their old social networks upon release because the ikhwan were the only friends they had. Jemaah Islamiyah as an organization has a strict policy of not including former inmates in closed-door activities in their first two years of freedom (as parolees usually have to report to the authorities during this time). But it did not disavow them or stop them from going to funerals and social occasions.
  3. Their wives supported their continued engagement because their own brothers and fathers are in the network. Some wives are active in their own right, involved in fund-raising activities and a number of online jihad websites.
  4. Prison did not change their ideological beliefs. They continued to believe that jihad is a very critical element in Islamic teaching and they therefore have to keep performing it.  For them, jihad is the legitimate use of violence against the enemy of Islam. The only question is when and how to use it.
  5. Many took on more active roles the second time round, especially if they were not previously involved in violence. Almost two thirds of the terrorist recidivists we studied showed escalation in commitment to jihad and a few took on the mantle of leadership on re-entering prison. These veterans use their higher status to recruit other inmates within their own block and the general population, often through religious discussions. Criminal offenders are prepared to follow them because they provide religious guidance as well as security protection.

Terrorist Trajectories, Redux

Our interviews with a number of terrorist recidivists show that they essentially repeated the trajectory that originally brought them into extremist violence. Or they were pulled back in by one of four drivers: friendship, discipleship, group pressure, or economic pressure.

Loyalty to friends and the group may perhaps be the single most important factor in predicting recidivism. Former terrorism offenders tend to go back in mainly because they hang out and mingle with people who share the same ideas. 

The recruitment process may be a gradual one of negotiation and discussion. But for former prisoners, the process is much faster because their existing social networks – friends, families and colleagues – are linked to active extremist networks and can provide moral justification for their violent acts.

Extremist media outlets, online and in print, also constantly praise released terrorist inmates as mujahid. In post-conflict areas like Poso, in Central Sulawesi, and the island of Ambon, released terrorist prisoners are hailed as heroes and they enjoy a higher social status. Walking away exacts a high cost.

Group pressure to prove themselves can be great for those who were only on the periphery when first arrested. One young man was sentenced to three years’ jail in 2006 for helping Noordin Top, who had orchestrated three terrorist attacks in Indonesia between 2003 and 2005, escape. Although he did not engage in any violence, he was nick-named Joko Jihad, meaning Joko who believes and engages in jihad. On release in 2008, he apparently felt a need to live up to his name and joined a new terrorist cell that called itself Al-Qaeda Indonesia. He was re-arrested in September 2012 after several attacks on police stations in Solo. The group was also alleged to be planning to make IEDs and had acquired bomb making materials.

Breaking the ties that bind

On the other hand, disillusion can set in when inmates see the hypocritical behavior of their mentors and leaders, causing them to revisit their ideological beliefs and come up with a new identity. The sense of betrayal and abandonment by their group leaders has been cited as a key push factor by former prisoners. “Publicly they said that the police are thaghut (evil), but privately some of them asked the police to help their families economically outside the prison,” one inmate who had taken part in a terrorist attack complained to us. Disgusted with his former leaders, he left the network, went back to school, got married and started a new life.

Our interviews with former terrorism offenders suggest that during their first year of release, many calculate the costs and benefits of returning to their previous group versus starting afresh. Those able to get help from family, friends or NGOs outside the extremist network stand a better chance of slowly disengaging from militancy and creating new social networks. Cutting themselves off from their old friends is not an option many can make immediately. The extremist group was their spiritual home; they felt protected and cared for. The new world is frightening, especially if it means they have to act worldly rather than according to their faith.

Recently released prisoners shared with us dreams of becoming entrepreneurs, envisioning that a small enterprise would not only allow them to raise their families, but give them freedom to develop as they wish. A number of former terrorists have attempted to start a new life by hawking herbal medication, cooked food, and other sundries – small businesses that require no overheads other than ingredients for the products they sell. But these are the lucky ones who have been able to find someone prepared to stake them the seed money to start their businesses. Their guardian angel has usually been a family member or a local NGO. None have received any help from any government program.

The temptation to return to a life of militancy will always be there, especially if the community in which they live constantly equates violence with religious faith, like in Solo where many of the former prisoners live, the region having been a traditional recruiting ground for extremist groups. Those with military skills acquired from JI-run training programs, or battle-hardened from fighting with the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) in the Philippines, occasionally get requests from aspiring jihadists to share their skills. They need reasons to say no, especially when they tell us that fighting alongside their fellow mujahidin was the best time of their lives. One former prisoner who had a good job said he rejected such requests because it would mean giving up his new life and his new identity as an entrepreneur.

What deradicalization programs?

Until now, the Indonesian government has not found the political will to provide adequate rehabilitation programs for inmates in prisons, or to fund the perpetually under-staffed Parole Office to provide meaningful aftercare services.

In October 2013, an Indonesian corrections chief complained that he did not have a budget for a comprehensive rehabilitation program for terrorist inmates. He did not even have funds to train his prison officers to deal with such prisoners, he told the Indonesian media.

The warden of a large prison was more blunt. He told us in an interview that his staff, most of whom had only high school education, “still hold an old mindset that a terrorist is just like another type of criminal”. He summarized the problem thus:

In a nutshell, our knowledge and skills are only a meter high but the terrorism problem is three meters high. We are now struggling to jump to reach three meters.

Currently, our approach to them is mostly security approach [sic]. Just make sure they follow prison regulations. That is it. With our limited resources, especially budget, we face enormous challenge to deal with them. Densus 88 [the Indonesian Police counterterrorism unit] does not share much information about them. BNPT [the Indonesian National Counter-terrorism Agency] only comes here for certain projects. They just come and go.

The BNPT projects were attempts at deradicalization, experiments using conflict management training, traditional wayang kulit puppet shows and something called Klinik Pancasila, a program to replace terrorist ideology with the principles of the state philosophy that most Indonesians associate with state indoctrination from the time of the Suharto regime. Not surprisingly, the prison officials doubted the effectiveness of these programs, especially since they had not been trained to administer them.

Despite their lack of rigor, these programs were scrutinized intensely by the terrorists themselves. The inmates made clear to us that they saw the deradicalization programs in terms of their benefits versus costs. If a program offers them benefits, they will agree to participate in it to receive the reward. However, if a program might harm them as an individual or as a group, then their argument is that as a mujahid, it is taboo for them to accept any kind of program from thagut, in this case, the Indonesian government.

The prison ideologues took no chances. They used fatwas and peer pressure to prevent their fellow inmates from joining the BNPT programs as well as publications to counter the government’s counter-radicalization arguments. In this narrow worldview, the pro-ISIS ideologue Aman Abdurrahman’s books are treated as knowledgeable sources of discourses on jihad within and beyond the prison walls. Supporters hold book discussions outside jail, which are written up by the extremist websites as irrefutable truth.

Aman has also forbidden his followers from having anything to do with the government, prison officers, police officers, BNPT, and anyone implementing deradicalization programs. But with participating in such programs a condition for early release, this has become an ultimate test of wills. Thus far, the prospect of early freedom seems more enticing than staying in prison under Aman’s rule; many are still applying for remissions, as Sunakim did.

It remains to be seen if the Jakarta attacks will create new resolve in the Indonesian government to implement evidence-based rehabilitation programs for terrorist inmates before releasing them. Local and foreign NGOs can help develop skills training programs and provide seed funding for released prisoners to ”unlock the second prison,” to quote Singapore’s Yellow Ribbon Project. But continued monitoring of these budding entrepreneurs is a job for the authorities, and again the resources are lacking.

In the end, there is no substitute for good public policy and governance in countering violent extremism.

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