Indonesia’s terrorist quagmire

Country walks fine line between rehabilitation and punishment

Indonesian police secure the area following the Jan. 14 terrorist attack in Jakarta. (Photo by Siktus Harson)

The return of former terror suspects and the role that each played in the Jan. 14 attack in Jakarta, and those still in the pipeline, opened the eyes of the Indonesian public that efforts to bring the jihadists back to mainstream Islam is not as successful as originally claimed.

The Indonesian police recently reported that more than 30 people were allegedly involved — directly or indirectly — in the attack, including terrorists still in prisons in Nusakambangan in Central Java and Tangerang in Banten province. They are linked to the terror groups East Indonesia Mujahedeen and West Indonesia Mujahedeen.

The most prominent figure is Muhammad Bahdun Naim from Surakarta who was arrested by an anti-terror squad in November 2010 for possession of hundreds of bullets allegedly for terror attacks. He was then sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2011.

While in jail, Naim was among the terror suspects who took part in a rehabilitation program to re-embrace Islam’s teaching of peace. But it seemed he didn’t take the government’s good intentions seriously: soon after his release he joined the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

Surprisingly, the police named him the mastermind of the brazen attack in Jakarta.

According to Tito Karnavian, former commander of anti-terror squad Dettachment 88 and now the Jakarta police chief, Naim is the leader of Katibah Nusantara, an arm of the IS in Southeast Asia responsible for the recruitment of militants in Malaysia and Indonesia. He is in charge of planning, organizing, funding and monitoring operations of the extremist group in Indonesia, and vying for leadership of the IS in the Southeast Asian region.

Old problem, new solution

As the manhunt for jihadists continues, the pros and cons on the transparency of deradicalization programs remain in focus. This soft approach against jihadists for some was a failure, wasting time and money. But for others — particularly the government — it is the most appropriate path to cutting the circle of violence.

Everyone might be in agreement with the government’s “no eye for an eye” approach, which is in accordance with Christian and Islamic teachings on love for peace and mercy.

However, efforts to convert the jihadists back to mainstream life seem rather absurd and are creating an environment that allows extremism to flourish.

Terrorism is not new to Indonesia, and its rapid growth has its genesis in the permissiveness of people toward radicalism, and the absence of a law that vigorously regulates acts of terrorism.

The Indonesian government, for that goal, has drafted a revision of a terrorism law that is now being processed by parliament.  

Attorney-General Muhammad Prasetyo, as quoted by The Jakarta Post, recently said that the proposed revision of the 2003 terrorism law provides a more comprehensive and detailed approach to counterterrorism, such as prohibiting the sale of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons.

He also points out that the proposed revision restricts Indonesians from pledging allegiance to radical groups or joining military training overseas, such as camps operated by the IS.

Experts have long warned that radicalism and the spread of radical teachings remain the root of terrorism. But Prasetyo said the revision bans people from adopting radical Islamic values, recruiting or sending people to carry out attacks, or funding and assisting terrorist movements.

Many Indonesian jihadists could easily join military training camps in Syria and Afghanistan if there was no restrictions on their travel documents. In response, the proposed law suggests the urgency of an early warning system — for immigration, travel agents, airports, airlines services — to detect suspicious travel.

A stringent and comprehensive law is what Indonesia needs at this time. Besides providing more detailed measures in counter terrorism, it will make deradicalization efforts work as expected — preventing ex-terrorists returning to their nest to plan more attacks. 

However, since rehabilitation is a complex issue, all state bodies — executive, legislative, judicial — must have equal understanding that fighting against terrorism is the fight of all, not only the government or police. 

To bear fruit, a larger responsibility should be embraced by civil society groups — particularly Islamic organizations. Deradicalization is not only about the rehabilitation of imprisoned terrorists, but also those who join radical groups, which remains high in Indonesia.

This commentary by Siktus Harson was published in UCA News on March 4, 2016

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