ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Does Indonesia’s Deradicalization Program Work?

Recent terror acts are raising questions about the efficiency of the rehabilitation program run by the Indonesian National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT).

By Ulta Levenia and Alban Sciascia for
Does Indonesia’s Deradicalization Program Work?
Credit: Pixabay

On June 20, Karyono Widodo attacked the deputy chief of police of the Karanganyar Regency, Central Java, with a knife. Widodo was a member of the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) network. He had previously been sentenced in 2016 for his role in Jakarta’s terrorist attacks in January 2016, where he supported JAD to procure weapons and equipment. During his time in jail, Widodo refused to follow the rehabilitation and deradicalization program, which has been set up by the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT).

It was not the first time that a terrorist convict decided to not follow such a program. As a matter of fact, our field research with both law enforcement officers and former terrorist inmates shows that the current program deserves to be audited. Some argue that very idea of the program and its approach is not well adapted to its audience. It is also important to keep in mind that deradicalization in prison is not a mandatory program, and the inmates can refuse to participate.

BNPT and selected NGOs are running the in-prison deradicalization and rehabilitation programs. They have developed at least two approaches to doing so. The first one is a personal approach, which relies on former inmates considered to have been successfully rehabilitated. Both BNPT and the NGOs assume that the ex-inmates will have similar perspectives and be personally closer to those serving time in prison for terrorism, which will be useful to entice the inmates to participate in the deradicalization program. This approach was applied with some success to moderate inmates, those whose ideology is seen as “weak” and who only sympathized with the terrorist group’s cause as they were convinced by subjective narratives spread by the terror groups.

However, this approach did not have much success in reshaping the ideologies of more hardline terrorist convicts. As an example, in 2016, a famous former terrorist was employed as consultant by the deradicalization program in Malang prison. When faced with prisoners with strong ideological backgrounds, the ex-terrorist was beaten by the inmates as he was considered a traitor. Instead of accomplishing the program’s mission, relying on former terrorists will only increase the anger of the most radical inmates. Few will be willing to participate in the program if by doing so they will also be deemed as traitors by their own networks.

The second approach is to propose lucrative opportunities if the inmates are willing to participate in deradicalization programs. In theory, the deradicalization program provides inmates with opportunities to get parole (Pembebasan Bersyarat or PB), communication with their families and visits during their time in prison, and economic support after release. All these advantages are denied to the inmates who refused to participate in the program.

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Nevertheless, this approach shows also weaknesses and can backfire. During our research in Surabaya after the 2018 bombings, we met with a man named David, a convicted terrorist who has been released from Nusa Kambangan prison. While David followed the deradicalization and rehabilitation program, he expressed how desperate he was when none of the promises made by BNPT to support him were delivered. To make things worse, a team from BNPT visited him on several occasions, promising more help that never materialized. Later, David fell back into the path of radicalism and joined his old terrorist network, which offered to provide financial support for David and his mother. Fortunately, a local police officer who was in charge of monitoring David decided to approach him and offered his support to help him to cut ties with his former terror cell. David’s case shows the weakness of this approach, and the clear need for accountability within the BNPT deradicalization and rehabilitation program. This is far from the only such case where promised rewards have not been delivered.

The successful rehabilitation of former terrorist inmates is crucial for Indonesia’s, regional and global security. As seen in early 2019, “rehabilitated” people such as Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, the couple behind the suicides bombings at a Jolo cathedral, have managed to reach other jihad battlefields. While Rullie and Ulfah reached the south Philippines after following a short-term rehabilitation program, several other former inmates managed to join Islamic State in the Middle East and are now in prisoner camps in Syria.

A reflection on how the program is proposed and delivered to inmates is urgently needed. In prison, radical ideology can be strengthened by a group of terrorist convicts; it also can spread to other inmates. This trend is even more worrying after recent information received from several prisons, suggesting that the inmates took advantage of the deradicalization program as a way to get the incentives offered by the program, without engaging in good faith. This strategy was part of a sermon from JAD leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir last year, encouraging inmates to reap the benefits of the deradicalization programs without solemnly following it.

Setting up and running an effective deradicalization program is indeed arduous work. However, evaluating the program and maintaining it could improve the effectiveness of deradicalization in Indonesia. If not, we can only expect more recidivism from ex-inmates. Individuals such as Juhanda (the Samarinda church bombing), Chalid Basemele, Rullie and Ulfah (the Jolo church bombing), Harry Kuncoro, Karyono Widodo (Karanganyar attack), and those former inmates who are currently in Syrian camps are enough evidence that the deradicalization and rehabilitation program led by BNPT is not addressing the issue as intended. While extra funding is needed in Indonesia’s counterterrorist strategy, it is necessary to make sure that the extra budget will be used in an efficient way.

Ulta Levenia is the lead researcher of Galatea on Terrorism and a consultant for Semar Sentinel Pte Ltd.

Alban Sciascia is the director of Semar Sentinel Pte Ltd. He is also an author for Galatea.