Indonesia: Unlearning Jihad

SEMARANG, JAVA — A pitched argument is unfolding between convicted terrorists and high-level criminals detained in a prison in Central Java, where police have been raiding suspected terrorist hideouts since February.

It’s a power play, and as their voices gather strength one man leaps from his seat and jabs a finger in the face of his rival. Other men squeeze in, adding to the cacophony. An unarmed guard stands in the corner, indifferent.

Then suddenly a deal is brokered, and laughter and applause break out. What has taken place is a simulation, part of a de-radicalization program run by a collection of nongovernmental organizations headed by the U.S.-based Search for Common Ground.

It is Day 4 – negotiation and mediation – and the participants are given a real-life scenario where one young and marginalized gang must negotiate with powerful, entrenched elites for more freedom and safety in the jail. Life in prison often mimics life outside and the program is teaching participants to respect differences and make positive choices.

The prisoners are clearly engaged. They lean forward in their chairs, scribble notes on small blue pads and nod to show they’re listening. This is not what police and lawmakers mean when they say Indonesian prisons are becoming schools for terrorism.

On June 23 police arrested Indonesia’s latest most-wanted man, Abdullah Sunata, who police suspect is responsible for setting up a network that was plotting attacks on the Danish Embassy and a July 1 police parade.

Sunata had already served part of a seven-year sentence for his role in the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy, but he was released last year for good behavior. What troubles police and security analysts is that Sunata appeared to be open to rehabilitation.

“He was my good boy in the past because he didn’t want to carry out attacks,” said Noor Huda Ismail, head of the International Institute for Peacebuilding, which is assisting in the de-radicalization program. Noor Huda said he still does not understand why Sunata decided to play the terrorism game again, but he realizes that washing away radical ideologies means more than just denouncing violence.

It also means more than forming good relations with police or having occasional conversations with Islamic preachers — both activities at the heart of the program Indonesian lawmakers say has failed to de-radicalize inmates.

Of the 73 suspects police have arrested or killed since the discovery of a secret paramilitary training camp in the country’s northernmost province of Aceh in February, 15 have returned to criminal activity after being released from jail.

National police spokesman Edward Aritonang recently told reporters that jails need a new system for de-radicalizing inmates. The real problem, say analysts, is the belief that such a program ever existed.

“What the police have been doing is not de-radicalization and I don’t think it would work if they tried,” said Sidney Jones, a senior analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Abdul Aziz is a case in point. The 34-year-old was co-opted into a jihadist cell by an acquaintance who asked him during an Islamic teaching forum if he would be interested in designing a website about the struggle for jihad.

The group’s commander was Noordin M. Top, the mastermind behind the 2002 bombing on the resort island of Bali. Aziz said he did not know about Noordin’s connection to the project, nor did he know a plan was in the works to set off another Bali bomb. But shortly after a blast rocked the island, killing 26 people, Aziz was sentenced to eight years in jail for giving sanctuary to Noordin.

Aziz still believes in jihad, which he defines as the struggle to defend Islam. But he does not agree with Noordin’s methods because there will always be “missed targets,” he said, referring to the term for innocents killed as a consequence of striving for jihad.

“It’s fine to have radical thoughts, as long as you don’t put them into action,” said Noor Huda. And that is part of the reason he prefers to call the program one of disengagement, rather than de-radicalization.

He said he decided to start his own discussion in the prisons when he saw that the police were working on an individual level, usually by offering inmates and their families economic incentives, such as money for school or to start a small business.

The program’s trainers recognize that it is not a sure-fire solution.

“It’s a very, very soft approach,” said Farah Monika, from the International Institute for Peacebuilding. “It teaches them to resolve conflicts without violence and to understand each other’s differences.”

And that, she said, makes it more of program aimed at conflict resolution rather than one geared specifically against terrorism.

The program now runs for five days and since it’s in a pilot stage it will conclude after the eighth session in as many different prisons. Monika said five days is not enough but it will help them understand what they need to move forward.

Participants must know how to read and write, they must wield some influence inside the prison and they must have time left on their sentence so they can help spread the program’s message, she said.

The problem at present is that not everyone’s participation is voluntary. On the first day many of the participants held back, so rather than push them to join, the trainers tried to ease the tension through games and role-play.

Program officer Wakhit Hasim said it helps that he went to an Islamic boarding school and has a similar background to many of the detainees.

“I know about their world, what they know. And the terminology of jihad is familiar,” he said.

At the front of the room where the classes are held someone has taped a paper to the wall that reads: “Training Principles: 1) Empowerment, 2) Positive Choices, 3) Respect for other humans.”

Aziz said he has learned a lot from the training — though he admits he had already begun to re-evaluate his position on jihad before Search for Common Ground came in.

Still, he is candid when he says that the parole board’s decision to deny him early release has left him conflicted. When he talks about police abuse his words become clipped. Aziz has a long beard and wavy hair, a sign of his Yemeni heritage. He said he comes from a hard, Arabic tradition and he can be just as tough with police as they are with him.

He believes the government treats terrorists as enemies of the state, and he speculates that recent attempts to target the police are a means of redemption for the way they have treated former terrorist detainees.

That could make Search for Common Ground’s program more relevant than ever, since it also works to train prison guards and staff on how to interact and monitor terrorist prisoners. While guards cannot become counselors, Monika said, terrorist convicts still remain a threat behind bars and someone has to make sure they’re not radicalizing others.