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Indonesia: Unlearning Jihad

Recent arrests reveal failure of country's de-radicalization program.

Abudllah Sunata, Indonesian terrorist
An Indonesian policeman stands guard in front of Indonesian militant Abdulah Sunata. Police arrested Sunata June 23, 2010 for plotting bomb attacks. He had previously been released early from prison for good behavior. (Tri Dadang/Reuters)

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.