ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s Vicious Cycle: Terrorist Convicts Making a Comeback?

Despite the government’s deradicalization programs, a small but alarming number of terrorist convicts has reoffended after their release from prison.

Indonesia’s Vicious Cycle: Terrorist Convicts Making a Comeback?
Credit: Depositphotos

One might argue that law enforcers need to succeed at all times, but for terrorists, all it takes is one successful attack. On December 7, Agus Sujatno (alias Abu Muslim) blew himself up at a police station in Bandung, West Java. The suicide bomber was reported to have been affiliated with Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and was previously released in 2021 after being convicted for his role in a terrorist attack plot in 2017. Cases of relapsed former terrorist convicts are in fact not uncommon in Indonesia. Between 2002 and 2020, at least 94 former convicts – or 11.39 percent of the total released – have returned to terrorism-related activities.

More worrisome are the recidivists that were deported after attempting to join IS abroad, given the greater threat that they pose compared to non-combatant returnees. They might get frustrated that hijrah (migration) is no longer a viable option, while closer targets are more visible. Based on the Supreme Court’s records, 15 out of 40 former returnee convicts relapsed by attempting to migrate for the second time (three cases) or plotting more terror attacks (12). And 11 terror plots were planned in West Java and North Sumatra targeting police stations, voting stations (TPS), and the offices of the Election Supervisory Body (Bawaslu).

It is interesting to examine the vicious cycle of radicalization up until the point that it manifests as a terror attack. First, as in Agus’ case, more than half of the aforementioned relapsed deportees took less than two years to get radicalized again. Furthermore, the digitalization of the Indonesian public sphere has allowed pro-IS communities to thrive on social media. This growing online network provides everything from propaganda and professional expertise (such as bomb-assembling guidelines) to opportunities to undertake hijrah. Online terrorist networks can also play a role as a safe haven for former convicts after their release from prison.

Second, when it comes to the motives behind the attacks, it seems that the government and counterterrorism (CT) observers have different opinions. The police linked Agus’ motivation to the call to jihad by the new IS leader after the death of Abu Hasan al-Hasyimi back in October 2022. Meanwhile, observer Harits Abu Ulya questioned why, if the JAD was politically motivated, did it not take advantage of the G-20 event in Bali? It is possible that Agus saw the recently passed revised criminal code as taghut – an act of worship against Allah. It is also possible that he was driven by a desire for revenge against the police after they killed Agus’ partner, Yahyat Cahdiyat, in the 2017 Cicendo Bombing plot.

Third, the chief of the Indonesian National Police, Listyo Sigit Prabowo, stated that during Agus’ time in prison, he refused to take part in deradicalization program run by the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT). Agus was thus classified as uncooperative. This could be explained by the fact that other terrorists have described him as kafir – a non-believer who commits serious idolatry against Allah – for joining the program. One of the few other reasons is that terrorist convicts feel a greater pressure to maintain a good relationship with their counterparts, due to the fact that old networks usually support the convicts’ families outside of prison.

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It is also important to keep in mind that Agus spent his four-year sentence at the not-so-high-security Nusakambangan Prison in Central Java. The prison is known for being understaffed with overworked security guards. Without following any deradicalization program, Agus’ beliefs might have been reinforced by his interactions with other terrorist inmates. And as Agus was released without parole, the already-overworked officers were unlikely to have monitored closely his reintegration  into society.

It seems that the government has a lot on its plate in terms of evaluating the current counterterrorism measures. One way to start is to stop pointing fingers. For example, the head of BNPT, Boy Rafli Amar, stated that the authorities were not “caught off guard” and that they cannot “read the terrorists’ minds.” Irfan Idris, the director of BNPT’s Deradicalization Program of BNPT, stated similarly that the process of reintegrating former terrorist convicts is not exclusively the government’s domain. However, the people’s participation in counterterrorism efforts is unlikely to have much impact if the systemic problem of Indonesia’s deradicalization and disengagement programs is left unsolved.

The first concern is the lack of a legal basis for making the deradicalization and disengagement program mandatory for all terrorist convicts. As the programs are not part of the country’s penal code, the authorities have no choice but to accept an inmate’s refusal to participate. Another program that needs a legal basis is out-of-prison aftercare for inmates that have served full sentences. Unfortunately, only individuals on parole receive supervision from the government, including during the reintegration process.

The ineffectiveness of the deradicalization and disengagement programs can also be explained by the lack of coordination between relevant institutions. The “ego wars” are still prevalent between BNPT and the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, as prison authorities are reluctant to use BNPT’s guidelines and methods in fostering terrorist inmates from the counterterrorism agency. A counterterrorism researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Alif Satria, has argued that although the National Action Plan on Preventing Extremism has covered the establishment of a coordination forum, the reality on the ground shows that state and non-state stakeholders still coordinate on a case-by-case basis.

Deradicalization and disengagement programs should also be implemented in close coordination with crime and border control. With little to no room to fight with guns and bombs due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, terrorist groups have been refocusing themselves in rebuilding a stronger network by infiltrating government institutions and raising funds. However, given that travel restrictions in Indonesia and its neighboring countries have been lifted, the option to undertake hijrah is back on the table.

Based on the travel history of the aforementioned 40 deportees, terrorists are able to pass the immigration system undetected by obtaining false travel documents. For example, terrorist convict Uzair Cholid managed to apply for a new identity card and passport without further background checks through a middleman who has access to a government data center, despite having been deported previously. Thus, dismantling the illicit market that provides false identities and travel documents is important, as the current method of rejecting terrorist convicts’ passports and/or visa applications has proven to be insufficient.

Secondly, terrorists are aware of the departure points with the least security controls. With this knowledge, they would intentionally avoid Jakarta’s busy Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, preferring to depart from airports in North Sumatra, East Java, Bali, or North Kalimantan.

The case of the 2019 Jolo Cathedral suicide bombing is an interesting example of “stealth” travel. Rullie Rian Zeke and his family took the sea route from Keningau (Malaysia) to Jolo (southern Philippines) with help from illegal channels. Furthermore, according to the Indonesian consulate in Davao City, the family’s real identities were not recorded in the system, indicating that they managed to enter the Philippines with fake identities.

All in all, the high rate of recidivist terrorist convicts is a problem that should be taken seriously. Records of their profiles, plots, and successful attacks reflect the vulnerability of Indonesia’s counterterrorism efforts at many levels, from crime control and immigration to deradicalization and disengagement. As a huge wave of terrorist mobility is expected following the end of the COVID-19 restrictions situation, the government needs to evaluate its counterterrorism measures as soon as possible.