Has Indonesia’s deradicalisation program done enough to combat terrorism?
14 Jun 2023|

As anticipated for several years, an increasing number of Indonesian prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offences are now completing their prison terms. For Indonesian authorities, this represents a particularly prickly policy challenge. At the centre of this challenge is the need for a greater understanding of the efficiency and effectiveness of Indonesia’s deradicalisation program and post-sentence risk assessments. The success of these programs will determine the future security of Southeast Asia.

In December last year, Indonesian authorities granted the early release of Umar Patek—the chief bombmaker for the 2002 Bali bombings—after a series of sentence reductions for good behaviour. Resentment about the decision has been aired in both Indonesia and Australia. The Bali bombings remain the worst terrorist attack Australia has ever experienced.

Prison-sentence durations are often opaque in the Indonesian justice system. Patek has been held up as a model of rehabilitation by Indonesian authorities, with his reported remorse and efforts to counsel his fellow prisoners lauded as a win for Indonesia’s reform programs.

Since 2000, Indonesia has arrested around 3,000 offenders for a range of terrorism-related offences. While the government has proposed a policy of prison segregation and higher security for terrorists, overcrowding in prisons has made that virtually impossible.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesia’s prisons housed 270,000 inmates, despite having the facilities for only half that number. Rising arrests exacerbate the problem, since prisons lack the resources to supervise convicts. As a result, terrorists meant to be in isolation have mingled with hundreds of other prisoners, and riots have led to deaths and prison escapes. Overcrowding has turned Indonesia’s jails into potential ‘schools of crime’; if inmates weren’t radicalised before, they might be now.

Since 2012, Indonesia’s deradicalisation program has played an integral part in its counterterrorism strategy. A series of courses facilitated by state institutions, civil-society organisations and individual prisons provide life-skills training for the post-prison world, such as financial management. They also offer theological seminars, often run by former terrorists.

Inmates can choose to participate in any of these courses or avoid the program entirely. While participant consent does encourage buy-in, the program can fail to reach individuals who desperately need it. The opt-in system has allowed individuals like suicide bomber Agus Sujatno to refuse participation, serve out their sentences, and return to the outside world even more invigorated than before.

Sujatno was a repeat offender. First exposed to radical ideas in school, he officially joined the terrorist group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah in 2015. In March 2017, he was sentenced to four years in the high-security Pasir Putih prison for building the bomb used in a suicide attack. However, overcrowding and understaffing meant the prison was far from high security. Sujatno refused to participate in the prison’s deradicalisation program or engage in dialogue with officials. Instead, he served his four-year sentence and was released without parole. In December 2022, angered by Indonesia’s new criminal code, Sujatno launched a suicide attack at a police station in Bandung, killing himself and an officer and injuring 10 others.

Sujatno’s case is not an outlier. Between 2002 to 2020, around 100 former terror convicts reportedly reoffended, and those are just the ones that authorities know about. They don’t know how many are spreading their training or ideology under the radar, but at least 11% of all of those released reoffend. The majority of reoffenders are in the community for less than two years before their next run-in with authorities.

This is a failure. Before his release, Sujatno was placed on a red list of militant convicts for his behaviour in prison. After the suicide attack, officials admitted that they were not caught off guard by his relapse and instead lamented that they could not read terrorists’ minds. Even though the executive director of the Jakarta-based Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies, Adhe Bakti, requested that police urgently monitor those on red lists, the combination of overworked officers and limited resources allowed Sujatno to slip through the cracks.

The next few years are critical. They will test the effectiveness of deradicalisation programs and post-sentence risk assessments. Will individuals like Patek revert to their old ways, or will they become successful contributors to society like former terror convict Ali Fauzi Manzi?

Ali Fauzi is the youngest brother of Mukhlas, Amrozi and Ali Imron of the Bali bombings. Mukhlas and Amrozi were executed, while Ali Imron is serving a life sentence. Through family and friendship ties, Ali Fauzi joined terror group Jemaah Islamiyyah along with his brothers. He was arrested in the Philippines in 2004 and extradited to Indonesia to serve a three-year sentence. Humane treatment from police and the deradicalisation program helped him reform his views. He then founded the Circle of Peace Foundation in 2017, working to help deradicalise former fighters and reconcile with the victims’ families, including those from the Bali bombings. In February, Ali Fauzi received a doctorate in Islamic education for his research on religious moderation for former terrorists. He is focused on bringing necessary reforms to Indonesia’s deradicalisation program.

Australia and the US may be just shifting their focus from fighting transnational terrorism in other countries to domestic terrorism, but countries like Indonesia have focused on domestic terrorism for decades, building deradicalisation programs and programs to counter violent extremism. Australia continues to improve at this, such as its reassessment of the use of a violent extremism risk assessment, which determines potential court orders for extremists completing prison sentences. Although no system is perfect, countries would do well to share and learn from each other’s experiences.

The Bali bombings brought Indonesia and Australia closer together in the fight against terrorism. During the eighth ‘2+2’ meeting on 9 February, the Australian and Indonesian foreign and defence ministers committed to ‘continued dialogue on the progress of deradicalisation programs in the region’.

Perhaps the next chapter of this relationship is for Australia and Indonesia to work together to strengthen deradicalisation programs and post-sentence risk assessments to further protect communities from terrorism. These strategies will determine the security landscape of not only Indonesia and the Pacific, but the world.