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case study, jihad/terror, perspective, radicalisation / counter-radicalisation

Indonesian Prisons: A Think Tank for Terrorists

(c) Muhammad Haniff Hassan and Nur Azlin Mohamed Yasin, Counter-terrorist Trends and Analysis, ICPVTR, August 2012

Arresting and placing a criminal or terrorist behind bars exerts a nation’s stance against the unlawful acts committed by an individual. However, without consistent and effective prison systems and management, unlawful acts continue in prison and even permeate into the society.

Since 2000, Indonesia has witnessed a number of high profile terrorist attacks. At the same time, the Indonesian authorities have also arrested almost 600 individuals on terrorism charges. This has made a significant dent on the capability of violent extremist groups in Indonesia. However, this hard approach alone cannot end terror-ism and all activities related to it. In respect of terrorists/extremists detainees, for example, Indo-nesian prisons have become a breeding ground for terrorism related activities. Violent extremist inmates maintain their contacts with the outside world and amongst others, engage in activities subtle yet detrimental to Indonesian security. These activities along with extremist propaganda are aimed at gathering more supporters and sym-pathizers.

Publications from Prisons
Detained violent extremists continue to preach the pro-violence ideology and hatred through various articles and books which are dissemi-nated both online and offline. Online, the materials are sold and at times provided free of charge through websites manned by individuals associated to terrorist groups such as and, and individual blogs and Facebook accounts. Offline, they can be found in Islamic book fairs, and seminars held by extrem-ist media companies such as the Arrahmah me-dia. This way, they continue to contribute to the extremists’ strategy of gaining popularity, accep-tance and sympathy from the public and replen-ish the losses they sustain from the authorities’ actions. The dissemination of the extremists’ propaganda through the radical publishing indus-try and online platforms has seen a number of contributions by incarcerated extremists (Refer to Appendix). There are at least 17 titles from this group of authors. They are under the names of 7 individuals and sum up to a total 1911 pages. Most of these materials are available online at, an Indonesian online library for radical materials.

This represents a paradox. A prison is supposed to rehabilitate its inmates or at least prevent them from influencing and harming the society. Instead, the Indonesian prisons seems to be misused and have become a place for extremist inmates to continue their illegal activities. This represents a chink in the Indonesian prison systems and an Achilles’ heel of the country’s over-all counter-terrorism and counter-extremism efforts. For one, it seems to feed the growing tolerance for extremism and acceptance of the terrorist community in Indonesia. With the existing terrorist narrative that paints an Indonesian government as malevolent and oppressive against the Muslim community, the arrested terrorist would gain sympathy, recognition, admiration and most importantly a support base. This is especially observed in the Bahasa Indonesia Islamist radical websites where arrested and neutralized terrorists are glorified as upholders of Islam vis-à-vis the condemnation of the Indonesian government. This support base provides a convenient start for these terrorists to disseminate their writings.

Historically, materials written by imprisoned movement leaders or ideologues have greater appeal to readers. Examples include Sayyid Qutb’s ‘Milestones’ and ‘In the Shade of the Quran’, Imam Samudra’s ‘Aku Melawan Teroris’ and Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi’s writings found in the website Minbar Al-Tawhid Wa Al-Jihad (

Though the thinkers and ideologues represent a small percentage of the extremist community, the list of titles makes up a small percentage of the total number of Indonesian publications. The potential of such publications to radicalize the broader community should not be underestimated. Moreover, the fact that the authors of such publications are mostly incarcerated terrorists or extremists highlights the failure of the prison system. Many of such inmates have found it convenient to smuggle out radical mate-rials with or without the connivance of the authorities from their cells.

Admittedly, this is not a new issue. Prisons have always been an ideological incubator for many revolutionaries. Many extremist materials have been produced behind bars. However, this should not rule out the importance of tackling the problem at hand.

Prisons as Think Tanks?
The weakness in the prison system has allowed the incarcerated extremists to have the prison function as a ‘think tank’. Time spent in prisons is used to think, research and share their ideas with fellow radicals and Muslims in general.

Could the use of the words ‘think tank’ risk exaggerating the description of the problem? Could cells in prisons really function as a place for one to research, think and write? An analysis of the works produced in the prisons validates the appropriateness of the term used. They are not just personal diaries that were produced as an emotional outlet to cope with prison life, (titles no.5, no.6, no.7, no.8, no.13 and no.15 in Appendix) many of them contain researched con-tents that require serious thinking and decent resources (titles no.1, no.2, no.3, no.4, no.9, no.10, no.11, no.14, no.16 and no.17 in Appendix). These titles seek to legitimize and propagate the author’s worldviews, theological orien-tation and violent tendency which revolve around a radical narrative and interpretation of Islam. Some were produced in response to critics or to deflect counter-ideological works that are targeting them. The objectives are to win over more followers and instigate actions (terrorism), exemplified by Imam Samudra’s ‘Aku Melawan Teroris’.
Samudra was the operational leader of the cell that executed the first 2002 Bali bombing. He wrote the book while in prison and got it published and was available publicly. In the book, he insisted on the importance of the use of violence, justified terrorism and called upon others to emulate his actions as a response to what he considered repression against the Muslim community.

These publications have been effective in the radicalization and reinforcing of radical ideas to individuals including real terrorists on the ground. For example, the terrorists in Cipinang prisons are reading Aman Abdurrahman’s articles and citing his ideas on the concept of takfiri (to accuse others of apostasy) in interviews conducted by the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) researchers. Cirebon terrorists and Solo based Lashkar Hisbah terrorists were also influenced by both his sermons and articles he wrote while he was in prison in 2010 and 2011.

This could be a systemic failure of prison management or collusion among the inmates and prison authorities as a consequence of wide-spread corruption in the system. If the titles were produced direct from the memory of the authors, which is doubtful, the question will be why they were allowed to pen down their ideas and get them distributed outside prison? If the titles were produced by referencing to reading resources, the question will be how and why these referencing materials are made available to the authors?

Life in the prison provides an inmate ample time to reflect on their wrongdoings. They should be guided towards rehabilitation or at the least be prohibited from writing and glorifying their actions for which they were incarcerated. The former could be realized with comprehensive rehabilitation programmes.

Despite the best intentions of the government, the problems in the prisons persist. Indonesian prisons would continue to be a “think tank” for extremists, and remain a haven where they could continue their contribution to the extremists’ long term strategy. Countering this problem is a challenge for the resource scarce country. The international community should therefore assist the Indonesian government the same way it helped the country establish Detachment 88, the elite counter-terrorism unit that is largely responsible for breaking up the operational capabilities of violent groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). A special prison facility can be built un-der an internationally-assisted program where all incarcerated violent extremists are placed to serve their sentences. In this context, studies on the Saudi and Singapore detention centres where terrorists are placed in a special facility away from other inmates could be used as models. Such a facility should be one that would implement rehabilitation programmes and impose a strict restriction on inmates so that they will not be able to continually propagate their views to the society at large.

The information in the list is gathered primarily from Maktabah Al-Tauhid Wa Al-Jihad (12 titles), an Indonesian online library of radical materials, and open sources (5 titles). It is not exhaustive and does not include books written by authors who use aliases to cover their true identities. Their prisoner status is identified via the website or open sources. Click here.


About Muhammad Haniff Hassan

Muhammad Haniff Bin Hassan is a Fellow. He holds a PhD and M.Sc. in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (previously known as the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies), Nanyang Technological University. He received his early education in Aljunied Islamic School. He then continued his tertiary education at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, National University of Malaysia, with honours in Syar`iah and Civil law. Mr. Haniff is also active in social activities as a member of the Islamic Religious Council Appeal Board, HSBC Insurance Islamic Advisory Board from 2000 to 2014, Association of Islamic Religious Teachers and Scholars of Singapore (PERGAS) and Management Committee of Al-Irsyad Islamic School. He writes extensively in Berita Harian (a local Malay newspaper) and has also published articles in The Straits Times. He has published six books in his name, co-authored a monograph and helped publish two books for PERGAS and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. His personal website in Malay is at



  1. Pingback: List of my short articles in English from 2004 – 2012 | - December 20, 2012

  2. Pingback: Indonesian Prisons: A Think Tank for Terrorists « counterideology 2 - December 20, 2012

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