Indonesia and the threat of violent extremism
28 Apr 2018|

Bruce Hoffman, a premier terrorism scholar, has suggested that there are around 3,000 al-Qaeda members in Indonesia. The number of Daesh supporters, sympathisers and followers remains unknown.

That estimate—it’s unclear how Hoffman arrived at his figure—should raise alarm bells in Canberra and across the region because the presence of a small coterie of violent extremists in Indonesia may indicate that Salafi-jihadists are re-energising and reorganising in the world’s largest Muslim country.

The 2002 Bali terrorist attack in which 88 Australian tourists lost their lives led to a revision of Indonesia’s counterterrorism architecture. That included establishing a specialist anti-terror police unit (Detachment 88, also known as Densus 88), the National Agency for Combating Terrorism and the Directorate General of Correction. Between 2010 and 2016, Densus 88 foiled 54 terror plots.

The unit’s success is attributed to its modus operandi of using clandestine intelligence operations to infiltrate groups. Members of Densus 88 join chat rooms and engage with militants online. In 2017, Turkish authorities had detained around 430 Indonesians for either joining Daesh or for trying to join. It’s also believed that around 20 Indonesians fought in Marawi.

It was recently revealed that a team of Indonesian researchers who sat in mosques and Quran reading groups to get a sense of what was preached and studied had found that 41 mosques in 16 Indonesian provinces are promoting Daesh ideas and recruiting for the group.

Saiful Muhtorir, known as Abu Gar, is on trial for his involvement in the 2016 Jakarta bombing. He had also been involved in establishing a Daesh branch in the Moluccas. He recently admitted that Iwan Darmawan Munto (also known as Rois)—who’s been on death row in Indonesia for 13  years for his involvement in the 2004 Australian embassy bombing—orchestrated the Jakarta bombing  from his cell.

Abu Gar also revealed that Rois has used cell phones that were smuggled into his prison, and that the two communicated via Telegram, an online secure messaging application.

The case highlights both the role of encrypted communication in enabling violent extremism and the state of prisons in Indonesia.

The prison issue is complex.

First, Indonesia has 477 prisons holding more than 254,000 inmates. That’s twice the number of inmates that the prisons are meant to accommodate. The prisons have one officer for every 55 prisoners.

Second, while Indonesia has a ‘prison deradicalisation program’, there’s little coordination between government agencies, as well as a lack of clarity about what the program aims to accomplish.

Third, prison guards aren’t well paid, and aren’t trained to identify individuals who are being radicalised.  Radicalisation itself isn’t well understood. Instead, it’s seen as ‘everything that happens before the bomb goes off’.

Consequently, guards don’t know when or how to intervene. For example, Sunakim, who was involved in the 2016 Jakarta attack, became Aman Abdurrahman’s personal masseur even though both were connected to a terrorist camp in Aceh. Sunakim had trained there and Aman had donated money to the camp.

Fourth, in prison the Islamists aren’t afraid to defy prison authorities and demand that their rights be respected. It’s worth recalling the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi was imprisoned on terrorism charges in Suwaqah prison. While in prison he elevated his physical standing (he spent a lot of time bulking up) and then compelled other prisoners to accept him as their leader (he engaged in fights). Once he had sufficient support, he was able to provide ‘carrots’—extra food rations, medical assistance and so on—to other inmates.

Most importantly, Zarqawi defied prison authorities, including refusing to wear prison clothes and using his followers to create disorder. His continued defiance won him and his cohorts special status within the prison, which attracted more recruits.

Aman Abdurrahman has also used his incarceration to elevate his own position in Salafi-jihadi circles by translating and distributing Daesh’s online publications. As a result, he has been able to circumvent rules despite being in a maximum security prison. In 2014, for example, prison guards found six mobile phones, two headsets and a world map in his cell. In 2015, another search of his cell yielded three phone SIM cards, five violent ideology books, a list of phone numbers and more.

These systemic shortcomings help explain why Abu Bakar Bashir, a dangerous ideologue, has been able to receive hundreds of visitors in Gunung Sindur prison.

The 2002 bombing encouraged greater Indonesian–Australian cooperation in counterterrorism, a relationship that has blossomed over time. In February 2017, the two countries established the Australia–Indonesia Partnership for Justice – II, a five-year partnership under which Australia has committed $40 million to ‘strengthen the rule of law and the security environment in Indonesia’. The program also promotes prison reform and religious tolerance, and aims to counter violent extremism.

Indonesia has made great strides in challenging violent extremism, but terrorists innovate and imitate—they look to other groups to see what works and what doesn’t. So it’s vital that security services not only remain vigilant, but also adapt.

The Indonesian security services, just like ours, are facing new challenges as Daesh comes to terms with the loss of its caliphate and al-Qaeda continues its rebuilding program. The memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Cooperation to Counter International Terrorism, which was signed during the March 2018 ASEAN–Australia Special Summit, underlies our commitment to work with our regional partners to counter violent extremism and terrorism.

Pull and push factors remain ambiguous, especially in the post-caliphate period, which is why Indonesia and Australia should devote more attention to research rather than relying on anecdotal evidence to assess Daesh and al-Qaeda, so that we don’t adopt legislation that would be counter-productive.