How Indonesia coaxes jailed hardliners away from extreme views

Medan, Indonesia — As Indonesia marks 20 years since the Bali bombings, some of those convicted in connection with the attacks, which killed more than 200 people, say they have renounced their hardline leanings, drawing renewed attention to the country’s deradicalisation efforts.

Umar Patek, who was jailed for 20 years in 2012 for mixing some of the chemicals used in the October 12 attacks, which also injured more than 200 people, recently made headlines after it was revealed he might become eligible for parole, in part because he completed a series of deradicalisation programmes while behind bars.

On the same day, Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual godfather of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the hardline group behind the 2002 bombings, attended a flag-raising ceremony as part of Indonesia’s Independence Day festivities on August 17.

Bashir was released from prison in 2021 having served 11 years of a 15 year sentence for funding hardline training camps. He was released after being given standard remission time for good behaviour and although he had been considered for parole before his eventual release, he did not qualify because he refused to fulfil the criteria.

To be released on parole, convicts must renounce “terrorism” and pledge allegiance to the Indonesian state — two commitments seen as a litmus test of whether a convict has been deradicalised.

Part of JI’s ethos centred on a desire to transform Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, into an Islamic caliphate, which meant JI often targeted the police and the army — seen as symbols of the state — in their attacks.

Umar Patek (second left), sentenced for his role in the Bali bombings, takes part in a flag-raising ceremony to mark Independence Day in 2017 [File: Umarul Faruq/Antara Foto via Reuters]

While the Indonesian authorities have used figures such as Patek and Bashir as examples of how individuals can be effectively deradicalised, some remain sceptical.

When reports emerged that Patek might get parole — after serving 11 years of a 20-year sentence — there was uproar in Australia, the home of 88 of those killed in the Bali bombings. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia planned to protest against any potential release. Australian survivors of the bombing also expressed disbelief that Patek could have been successfully deradicalised in such a relatively short period of time.

But experts say deradicalisation is complicated and different for everyone.

“The difficulty is that there is no proper systematic review of the studies that have been done on Indonesian deradicalisation and most people look at a small subset of deradicalisation efforts in Indonesia,” Judith Jacob, the head of Asia for the risk and intelligence company Torchlight, told Al Jazeera.

“Also the term deradicalisation often gets conflated with disengagement and is so nebulous. Does it mean that an individual renounces all beliefs in a group’s ideology or just a commitment to violence? Do they completely leave those networks and what does reintegration into mainstream society mean in that context?” she added.

Evolving approach

Indonesia embarked on deradicalisation programmes in the 1990s in response to the emergence of groups such as JI, which was founded in 1993 by Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar.

Jacob says that in the years since, the Indonesian government and Densus 88, the country’s elite counter terrorism unit, have become better at making the programmes more effective.

“Those programmes were massively underfunded and basically done off the cuff, with no understanding of the process or goals or desired outcomes,” she said.

In 2010, however, Densus 88 was incorporated into BNPT (Indonesia’s National Counter Terrorism Agency) boosting staffing and resources across the board.

Armed Densus 88 officers escort a prisoner in a yellow jumpsuit to Jakarta
Officers from Densus 88 escort a suspected member of a hardline group following their arrest. Densus 88 has refined its approach to deradicalisation in recent years [File: Bimo Satrio/EPA]

Still Jacob, who prefers the term disengagement to deradicalisation to describe the process of trying to get an individual to move away from extreme views, says such programmes are not “a huge priority” for Indonesia.

Since about 2016, the government has outsourced much of the work to civil society groups or prominent ex-fighters.

One former JI member, Arif Budi Setyawan, who was jailed for three years, told Al Jazeera the “coaching” programmes he followed in prison — provided by the jail, BNPT and Densus 88 — helped him change his ways.

He spent two years and two months in prison after remission and was released in 2017.

“Deradicalisation from the prison uses a personal approach that works with the inmates every day, little by little,” he said. “This method, although slow, is effective enough for some convicts to change their way of thinking, from hating the state to being willing to accept and make peace with the state.”

The programme from BNPT was more structured, he said, involving experts and academics from the fields of psychology, sociology and religion.

Unfortunately, Setyawan said, BNPT only hosted about two or three activities per year, while Densus 88 carried out more intensive activities through dialogue and discussion with convicts every month.

“These three deradicalisation development models are relatively effective for convicts who are starting to open their minds while incarcerated. However, not all convicts are open-minded, because when they are imprisoned, they hate the state even more and do not want to join the coaching programmes,” he said.

Assessing success

Risk analyst Jacob cautions that it is also difficult to assess the relative success or failure of a programme using data alone.

“If you’re expecting former group members to totally renounce beliefs and reintegrate into “moderate” society, that’s a tall order and not realistic. What you should be looking at for success is reoffending rates or people committing acts of violence having been through national government programmes, civil society ones or local government courses,” she said.

A police officer inspects a burnt out vehicle, ruined buildings and debris after the 2002 attacks in Bali
The 2002 attacks in Bali killed more than 200 people and forced Indonesia to confront the growth of hardline groups within society [File: AP Photo]

According to data from BNPT, 50 of the 850 people who had been jailed for terrorism-related offences and were released after apparently renouncing their hardline views, reoffended between 2002 and 2019, giving a recidivism rate of just less than 6 percent.

Jacob says the criteria used to measure such data is vague, not only about the type of action that constitutes reoffending, but also the numbers of people subject to a programme and the kind of elements included.

In ordinary criminal cases in 2019, the Ministry of Law and Human Rights said the recidivism rate was 21 percent for property crimes, 13 percent for drug offences and 4 percent for petty crime.

Rizka Nurul, a researcher at Ruang Obrol, an online platform that focuses on deradicalisation in Indonesia through journalism and community building, told Al Jazeera there is usually a marked difference between government deradicalisation programmes and the schemes run by civil society organisations (CSOs).

“CSOs prefer to call them reintegration and disengagement programmes. While the government still uses the term deradicalisation. The government’s deradicalisation programme is now very diverse and different from the previous one which was more ideological or financial in nature,” she said, adding the government saw better success with high-profile JI members when it used a more flexible approach rather than engaging in ideological debates with former radicalised individuals.

“Nowadays they tend to focus on community formation and psychological support. For example, the process of ‘deradicalisation’ of ideological figures such as Abu Bakar Bashir, is often achieved by humanist public discussion and is no longer focused on religious debates.”

She adds, however, that while smaller, more grassroots programmes may provide a more tailored approach to deradicalisation, these kinds of programmes also have issues that can hinder rather than help an individual’s progress.

“CSOs take a more diverse approach because they are more flexible, but their weakness is they may not be sustainable for a variety of reasons including limited funds,” she said.

“Unsustainable programmes have the potential to spark recidivism because the individual may need more time but the programme can no longer accommodate them.”

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