Indonesia is considering amending its counter-terrorism laws to respond to the phenomenon of returned foreign fighters from Syria.
But fighting terrorism purely through security measures will not be enough. Indonesia should devise policies to rehabilitate and monitor former convicted terrorists to prevent recidivism. The government should also work with civil society to counter the spread of extremism online.
Preventing recidivism by ex-terror convicts
The Indonesian police have arrested more than 1200 people on terrorism charges, according to data from the counter-terrorism unit. Some convicted terrorists seemed to become more radical behind bars. At least 40 convicted terrorists have re-offended after release.
Afif Sunakim was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to seven years in jail for his role in a militant training camp in Aceh. In prison, he became the masseuse for Aman Abdurrahman, one of Indonesia’s most influential jihadi ideologues and a vocal promoter of Islamic State (IS).
My series of interviews with terrorist recidivists suggests that the majority of them believe that jihad is a religious obligation. In a purely linguistic sense, the word “jihad” means struggling or striving. It can refer to the internal as well as external struggle to be a good Muslim. However, for terrorists, jihad means to fight against Indonesia’s secular regime.
There is a common understanding among jihadists that if they are imprisoned, they are simply taking leave. Upon release, they will be ready to rejoin the movement. With this kind of belief, no matter the situation former terrorist inmates face, there is a big chance they will return to their terrorist groups and carry out further attacks.
A prominent terrorist, convicted in 2004, is an example of such recidivism. He was released in 2008. He was then involved in weapons training in Aceh in 2010. In his opinion, as long as what he believes in is right, he will have no other option than to act, whether inside or outside prison. He said, "A committed mujahideen will not be limited by any condition or situation beyond himself."
Additionally, there is a desire among convicted terrorists to experiment or retry what they failed to achieve. A convicted terrorist now on the run after a prison break in Medan was involved in the Lippo Bank robbery in Medan in 2003 and again in the CIMB Niaga Bank robbery in 2010. He said, "If jihad acts fail, it is most likely that improved jihad acts will be tried again later."
The choice for a released convicted terrorist is stark. Do I return to the pathway of jihad or do I re-enter society to follow a normal life? If he lives in a difficult social and economic situation, with a lack of education and a family that does not support him, it is most likely that a former terrorist inmate will return to the jihadist community, where he will be protected and cared for.
A 2013 report by the Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict showed that Indonesia’s judicial system has insufficient funds, infrastructure and resources to handle the successful rehabilitation of former terrorists. This lack of post-detention care leaves terrorist inmates at risk of returning to violence, because they are not being properly assessed. They do not receive sufficient re-programming to prepare them to return to mainstream society.
Indonesia needs to set up special placement, supervision, development and rehabilitation programs for former terrorists. The government must train corrections officers to actively engage with former inmates, to support them in finding a new calling in life and to mentor them while doing so.
Countering radical narratives online
The second challenge is to stop IS spreading extremism over the internet.
IS propaganda has created a hype and fad among Muslim youths around the world about a fantasy idea that violent armed struggle against non-Muslims and Muslims identified as “enemies of Islam” is a “jihad” that requires urgent participation.
IS has also created a false hope and a perception that the perfect government system based on the purest Islamic principles has been implemented and is working – but that it still requires Muslims from “impure” Muslim and non-Muslim lands.
Until now the Indonesian government – let alone civil society – has made no systematic effort to challenge the arguments of jihadists on social media. The jhadists are cleverly targeting individuals at risk, mainly young people. These at-risk people tend to spend their time online rather than offline and enjoy being “liked” on Facebook.
If extremists have successfully employed social media to spread their message on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we also need to create a campaign on social media to counter their movement. We can take a closer look at how “creative” extremists use technology to spread their ideology by monitoring their videos and reading their tweets and online posts.
With the help of civil society, the Indonesian government could launch campaigns on social media to challenge the extremist narratives.
Terrorism is rooted in a belief in an extreme ideology. If we want to prevent acts of terror from happening again, we should strive to prevent the young from being won over by extremists’ messages. We should also find a way to change the minds of those convicted of terrorism so they will not return to their old ways.
Noor Huda Ismail is a PhD candidate in politics and international relations at Monash University.