The recent suicide bombing by a terrorist with a previous arrest record and ties to militant groups has raised concerns about gaps in Indonesia’s counterterrorism and de-radicalization approach.
By Umair Jamal
On March 28, a married couple with links to militant groups blew themselves up outside a church in Indonesia during a Palm Sunday service, wounding at least 20 people.
Police said in a statement that one of the attackers was known to authorities due to his previous arrest and ties with a militant group, the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD).
“The person concerned is part of a group of several perpetrators who we arrested some time ago. This group is part of, or is related to, groups that carried out operations in Jolo in the Philippines,” National Police Chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo said in a statement after the attack.
The attack has raised suspicions about loopholes in Indonesia’s counterterrorism policy whereby many offenders are released for merely cooperating with authorities but then go on to join or re-join militant networks.
Perpetrators of the attack were known to police
The male perpetrator of the attack was arrested before as part of a crackdown against the JAD. Earlier this year, around 20 people with ties to JAD, including the perpetrator of the Palm Sunday bombing, were arrested for allegedly planning attacks in Indonesia. However, many of them were released as police reportedly couldn’t hold them due to insufficient evidence.
They were released despite the fact that law enforcement agencies could have held them for a longer period for further interrogation under the 2018 anti-terror law. Indonesia’s parliament approved tougher anti-terrorism laws in an effort to give the military and other law enforcement agencies powers to detain suspects for a longer period and prosecute those who may be involved in recruiting for militant groups. After the group of alleged JAD affiliates were released, law enforcement agencies didn’t keep tabs on them. This raises further suspicions that Indonesia’s counterterrorism policy doesn’t keep hardcore extremists in prison or ensure that they are watched after release. This also means that security agencies may have inadvertently allowed more militants to rejoin their networks and plan further attacks.
Earlier this year, the former leader of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), Abu Bakar Bashir, who allegedly orchestrated the 2002 deadly Bali bombings, was freed from jail.
Bashir may not be the leader of JI anymore but he is highly respected in the group and in the county’s wider militant landscape. While authorities said that Bashir will undergo a deradicalization program and will be watched closely, his release is likely to inspire others to take the same path of violent extremism.
Many militants who are released after completing their sentences end up joining their extremist groups again. In 2013, the Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) said that 25 out of 300 extremists had “gone back to their old terror habits” after release from prison.
Why aren’t Indonesia’s de-radicalization efforts working?
Since the Bali attacks in 2002, the scale and intensity of militant attacks in Indonesia has declined, mainly due to the country’s operations against militant groups. However, Indonesia has not been able to get rid of militancy as the country’s counterterrorism approach came too late and has been far from effective.
“We first had the idea to conduct de-radicalization work in 2003,” Ansyaad Mbai, then the head of the BNPT, told IRIN. The BNPT was formed in 2009 after the Jakarta hotel bombings and marked the first time that all the major intelligence agencies in the country came together to formulate a coordinated counterterrorism strategy.
However, Mbai said that Indonesia’s counterterrorism efforts were still disorganized as “many government departments, agencies and also mass Islamic organizations have done de-radicalization work individually” without coordinating nationally.
Some analysts believe that Indonesia has followed a reactive counterterrorism strategy since the Bali attacks, meaning efforts have focused on preventing terrorist attacks rather than addressing their root causes.
Others warn there is a risk of radicals in counterterrorism programs influencing or coopting individuals in police and local governments. In some cases, police officials that interact with offenders in detention centers have themselves been known to then ask the extremists for religious guidance. In other cases, politicians seeking to avoid conflict with militant groups and their followers have gradually appeased radical leaders. Offering captured militants a way out after completing rehabilitation courses or a nominal prison sentence is arguably one of these ways of appeasing them.
Since the Bali attacks, Indonesia’s government has released over 650 militants who served their sentences. The government has also made efforts to help them reintegrate back into their communities. However, the impact of these reintegration programs is hindered by the fact that the national counterterrorism agency does not have enough officials to keep track of these individuals.
Another area of challenge in this regard is that “risk assessment for terrorist inmates remains underdeveloped in Indonesia and violent extremists mostly follow the same procedures as for regular prisoners,” writes Cameron Sumpter in an article for the International Center for Counterterrorism.
“Counterterrorism police hold exit interviews with the highest-risk individuals, but the majority return to their communities without such an assessment. Overburdened parole officers subsequently attempt to keep tabs on them when they are out of prison. With many officers loaded with around 100 clients, most ‘check-ins’ are conducted over the phone,” he said.
Moreover, the amount of money the government offers to militants as part of the de-radicalization plans is not sufficient to keep them interested. For instance, the government could offer a single militant around US$350-700 to start a business or offer them support in-kind like a sewing machine, a wheeled cart for selling street food or a fridge to sell cold drinks.
“Material is not sufficient,” said one militant about the government’s support. “We need training. They give us the fishing rod but we also need the fishing pond. If they give us the rod but we cannot fish, then we are lost. It would be different if we were experts at fishing.”
A study published by the Brookings Centre for East Asia Policy Studies examined 47 cases involving terrorists in Indonesia who re-engaged in violence once released from prison and noted that these offenders “essentially repeated the trajectory that originally brought them into extremist violence. Or they were pulled back in by one of four drivers: friendship, discipleship, group pressure and economic pressure.”
“Extremist media outlets, online and in print, also constantly praise released terrorist inmates as mujahideen, or warriors,” the study authors wrote. “In post-conflict areas like Poso and Ambon, released terrorist prisoners are hailed as heroes and enjoy a higher social status.”