Indonesia pulls new strings to tackle terror
By Sara Schonhardt
JAKARTA – Nasir Abas’ easy smile grows when asked to explain the aims of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the radical Southeast Asian terror group he once led and which stands accused of plotting some of Indonesia’s most deadly terrorist attacks, including the 2002 bombing of a Bali nightclub that took more than 200 lives.
JI has long called for the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Muslim areas of Southeast Asia, including across Indonesia, but that objective has over the years come at the expense of civilian
lives. Nasir remains at heart a jihadi, but he now uses words rather than weapons to challenge Islamists about the killing of other Muslims.
Over a plate of sushi and a cup of Oolong tea, Nasir spoke with Asia Times Online on his views about the diminished threat of Indonesian extremism, why the creation of an Islamic state would never work in Indonesia and how talking with terrorists is the best way to stem the spread of violence and radicalism.
After his arrest in 2003, Nasir was the first JI leader to provide assistance to Indonesia’s special counter-terrorism task force, Detachment 88. The unit was formed by the national police in the wake of the Bali bombing and has received technical assistance and training from US and Australian authorities.
Tasked with rooting out JI and its terror networks, Detachment 88 has succeeded in co-opting former radicals like Nasir, who said then-counter-terrorism head, Brigadier General Bekto Suprapto, won him over by speaking to him as an equal, commander to commander.
“He gave me trust, so I decided I should give him trust,” said Nasir, who detailed his own time in detention to explain why programs aimed at de-radicalizing terrorists require dialogue and religious guidance.
Nasir currently leads discussions with prisoners convicted on terrorism charges and trains Islamic clerics on how to relate better to former and current JI members. The foundation he assists, Ikrar Bina Umat, or Human Development Pledge, has also approached the children of convicted terrorists to help them understand why their family members have been imprisoned.
A recent study conducted by the University of Indonesia’s psychology department, in collaboration with Nasir, challenged inmates convicted of terrorism in a debate over the use of violence that involved Islamic leaders and psychologists. Prison de-radicalization programs in Yemen and Saudi Arabia also use theological debate as a tool of reform, but critics say mere discussion fails to change fundamentally extremists’ mindsets.
“When [terrorist inmates] start to have discussions, it means they are opening their minds to accept other ideas,” said Nasir. “The dangerous people are those who don’t want to sit down and talk.”
Indeed, therapeutic conversation doesn’t always work; some inmates who have participated in rehabilitation programs have later returned to their radical networks. At a counter-terrorism conference held in Jakarta in November, Detachment 88 chief, Usman Nasution, spoke to the need for more vigilance in post-release monitoring of former terrorists.
He raised the case of Urwah, a JI member arrested and jailed for four years in connection with the 2004 Australian Embassy bombing who on release took part in last July’s J W Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotel attacks.
Nasir argues that such recidivism occurs because of a lack of funding and effort in government de-radicalization programs. He believes that most JI members are not criminals, but rather people who have been misled. It takes time and effort to gain the trust needed to get extremists thinking differently, Nasir said.
That’s because the JI movement has deep ideological and historical roots. JI splintered from the Darul Islam, an Islamic group that had for decades sought the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia. After forming in 1993, JI carried on DI’s mission, until, in 1998, al-Qaeda go-between and JI operations chief, Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, carried a message from Osama bin Laden that called for revenge against the United States and its allies.
The message didn’t resonate well with Nasir and other JI leaders who believed a tit-for-tat battle with the West was counterproductive to their overarching goal of creating an Islamic state. Bin Laden often referred to scriptures in the Koran to justify terror attacks against soft targets, Nasir said.
In recent years, terrorist targets in Indonesia have varied, waged sometimes against what radicals consider an infidel government since it does not operate according to Islamic law, and other times against Western interests, evidenced in the July bombings of Western-owned and frequented hotels.
Despite disagreeing with some of bin Laden’s ideas, Nasir said he still respects the al-Qaeda leader for leading a life that is pure and sacred. “Osama is a good person, but he committed a crime,” said Nasir, referring to the terror leader’s advocacy of attacks on innocent civilians.
Dialogue over destruction
The former JI commander Nasir laughs when talking about the intellectual rather than jihadi debates he now prefers to wage. He says he frequently makes house calls to his former JI colleagues or holds coffee conversations that range from the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims in Malaysia to the US-led war in Afghanistan.
“People believe Afghanistan and Pakistan have a right to be against America because the Americans invaded them,” said Nasir, who claims he is no longer part of JI but needs to stay integrated in its culture to maintain credibility among those he wishes to reform.
That also means not aligning himself too closely with the police: “I’m not working with the police. I’m not cooperating, I’m assisting. The wording is very important to me.”
Nasir’s job has become easier as al-Qaeda’s increasingly brutal tactics, including attacks on hotels and other public places, have isolated Indonesia’s already small segment of extremists. The idea of using dialogue in the war against extremism has also recently gained traction in government with the formation of an agency that will coordinate across ministries and the departments of Education, Social Affairs and Industry.
To be sure, few terrorists imagine a life after jihad that involves selling kebabs, raising chickens or providing herbal medicine to poor Muslim communities. But that is the goal of some civil society groups in Indonesia working with government to provide jobs and economic assistance for convicted terrorists after they are released from prison.
“The idea is that terrorism is not dealt with only by combat, but also by winning the hearts and minds of terrorists,” said Rhousdy Soeriaatmadja, coordinator for international cooperation at the Security Ministry’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinating Desk. The elevation of that desk to agency status, whose head reports directly to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is part of the government’s 100-day plan to supplement its use of force and intelligence with terror prevention techniques.
If all goes to plan, the agency would diminish the current ad hoc nature of counter-terrorism efforts and improve cooperation with civil society groups looking to improve the lives of the poor and marginalized who are most easily persuaded by radical propaganda, said Dharmawan Ronodipuro, spokesman for the head of the Counter-Terrorism Desk.
According to Rhousdy, that would include post-release monitoring not only by the police, but also by local people in areas where terror convicts are released. His desk has led an education program that uses wayang puppet shows to teach people the dangers of terrorism.
The initial training, which involved 103 puppet masters in Bandung and another 107 in Central Java, provided puppeteers with information and materials about terrorism. Five performances took place in 2009, but the ministry has been muted about its involvement for fear that people would be less accepting if they felt the show was government propaganda.
“De-radicalization efforts need to come from the government, but socialization should be tied to other sources,” said Rhousdy.
So far, counter-terrorism operations have focused mainly on intelligence-gathering, which led to a series of successful operations last year. For instance, a raid in September killed JI mastermind and bombing expert, Noordin Top, but it also raised criticism from human-rights groups that accused the police of using excessive and disproportionate force in their operations.
To dismantle JI’s ideological infrastructure, including the schools and radical publishing houses that give rise to and disseminate extremist ideologies, police and military officers have called for stronger anti-terrorism laws similar to those in use in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.
Yet draconian detention laws fuel the grievances and resentments created by indiscriminate police sweeps in search of those involved in plotting terrorist acts, said Noor Huda Ismail, whose Institute for International Peacebuilding runs a pilot de-radicalization program in some of the prisons where Indonesia’s 148 terrorist inmates are held.
Security analysts and foreign governments continue to monitor Indonesia’s brand of extremism to determine how deep the roots of terrorism run in the world’s largest Muslim country. Detachment 88 chief Usman has said that Indonesia is still at risk from attacks by new cells that formed in the wake of Top’s assassination. Even the likes of Nasir say they would return to jihad if Indonesia were threatened by an attack from outsiders.
But the ideological drive to create an Islamic state seems to have cooled among former extremists, according to Nasir. He notes that an Islamic state has been achieved in Aceh – the one province in Indonesia that operates according to strict sharia law.
But with Muslims still discriminating against other Muslims, “There is no guarantee they could establish a good Islamic state here,” said Nasir, referring in particular to recent clashes between conservative Muslims and an Islamic sect viewed by hardliners as heretical.
While some believe that JI has lost strength through recent arrests and assassinations of its top members, the ideology of jihad lingers. And as long as those ideologies persist, said Dharmawan and others, the threat of terrorism in Indonesia is still clear and present.
Sara Schonhardt is a freelance writer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for six years and has a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University.