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Indonesia’s Terrorists: Weak but Still Active
‘Deradicalization’ doesn’t always work
Although terror attacks have decreased in recent years and major groups such as ISIS have been destroyed in their home country, radical organizations in Indonesia haven’t completely vanished. They include Jemaah Islamiyah, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, and the East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT), which continue to accumulate strength. More disturbing, the members who haven’t been “deradicalized” by National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) efforts in prison are some of the most dangerous, often leaving prison to resume their actions, authorities say.
The anti-terrorism squad Detachment 88, widely known as Densus 88, recently arrested a bomb maker known only as S, who fomented a December 2022 suicide attack on the Astanaanyar police station in Bandung. The perpetrator leads the Bandung branch of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). S learned his trade from Neril Shogir, a bomb-maker involved in the killing of nine including the suicide bomber, and wounding 150 others. In addition to S, Densus 88 arrested four others. The bombing was carried out by Agus Muslim, a former terrorism convict who was released from prison in Nusakambangan in September 2021.
Densus 88 categorized Agus, who blew himself up, as "red" after he refused to undergo deradicalization. That reopened discussion about the implementation and effectiveness of deradicalization, a unique method that seeks to awaken terrorist convicts from their extreme belief in religion which leads to acts of violence. Based on BNPT data, 5-7 percent of 1,290 former terrorism convicts still have "red" status – maintaining their radical thoughts.
It is estimated that as many as 10 percent of terrorist convicts who have been released in Indonesia return to commit or support acts of violence, according to the findings of an independent institution involved in handling terrorism issues, Kreasi Prasasti Perdamaian. One of the contributing factors is that the government is seen as not having a mechanism to force terrorism convicts to take part while in prison or after being released. Limited resources are also considered a major obstacle to closely monitoring former terrorists who have returned to society. In fact, as long as the ex-terrorists receive support from and depend on terrorist networks, they find it difficult to break away.
A small group led by S used personal funds and public donations collected through charity boxes distributed in shops and restaurants, a method often used by radical groups to finance operations, including terror attacks, regeneration, and training. In December 2020, the police revealed that more than 20,000 such charity boxes spread across Indonesia were used by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), linked with Al-Qaeda, as a source of funding.
Terrorism expert Noor Huda Ismail said that such groups now obtain funding through formal channels such as establishing NGOs, foundations, and educational institutions, and by using new technologies such as cryptocurrencies. Citing data from the World Giving Index 2022 released by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), Indonesia has been named the country with the most generous people in the world. "It is undeniable that this generosity is a loophole that certain groups take advantage of for their interests," said Huda in a discussion in Jakarta recently.
The results of the analysis by the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center (PPATK) in 2023 revealed several forms of funding for terrorist groups, including misappropriation of donations by foundations that claim to be engaged in social, humanitarian, and religious fields; fundraising through legitimate businesses; moving cash across borders and using new payment methods; distribution of weapons and explosives along with training in their use; and financing of travel to and from locations of acts of terrorism.
Munir Kartono, a former ISIS sympathizer, confirmed that funding is the lifeblood of terrorism besides ideology. "At a time when acts of terrorism are decreasing, the financing of terrorism continues to be carried out underground, looking for loopholes and new ways to continue," said Munir.
The BNPT notes that terrorist attacks have decreased in the past five years, from 18 attacks in 2018 to only two in 2022. The agency claims that this success is due to the effectiveness of early detection and arrest of suspected terrorists before they can act. Although Densus 88 is widely acclaimed for its success in preventing terror attacks, their method of arrest, which is often accompanied by violence and carnage, has drawn widespread criticism and tainted their success.
In May 2018, for example, Densus 88 responded to a series of terrorist acts that took place almost two weeks ago by making large-scale arrests of 74 suspected terrorists, of which 14 were shot dead. The series of terrorist acts began with riots and hostage-taking by a number of convicts in the custody of the National Police Headquarters in Depok, which resulted in the death of one terrorist and five police officers. The violence continued with suicide bombings at three churches and police stations in Surabaya and Riau.
Many think that even though the terrorists have targeted the police and their methods endanger the safety of the personnel, none of this can justify the human rights violations, a chronic problem with police. And since these terrorists use propaganda as ammunition, any violation by Densus 88 only undermines its credibility.
Apart from JI and JAD, another with the potential to carry out extremist activities is Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT), according to a June report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC). Poso, the city where this group is based, remains vulnerable to a return to radicalization because extremist networks still exist and because some former members are dissatisfied with the government's rigid counter-terrorism measures.
Poso in South Sulawesi was the site of conflict between Christians and Muslims during 2000-2001 which killed thousands and forced many to flee. The conflict also attracted radical Muslims from all over Indonesia to set up their movement base. MIT, one of the most prominent militant groups, has repeatedly attacked police and Christians, often beheading victims. In late 2015, the police and military adopted a lethal policy and not allowing militants’ bodies to be buried in their home villages.
IPAC's report argues that the government's focus on law enforcement comes at the expense of addressing the root causes of extremism. The government should work to promote peace between Christian and Muslim communities, the report argues, strengthen existing deradicalization programs, provide more support to ex-militant families, and work with local communities.