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IN FOCUS: How Indonesian prisons are battlegrounds for deradicalisation

Around 600 terrorism inmates are currently held in Indonesia's prisons, where attempts are made to turn them away from a life of radicalism and violence. CNA explores the competing dynamics behind bars, and how COVID-19 has curbed some initiatives to get prisoners to reject their extremist past.

IN FOCUS: How Indonesian prisons are battlegrounds for deradicalisation

Police escort one of a group of 19 terror suspects that were being transferred to Jakarta from Makassar, at the Sultan Hasanuddin airport in Makassar on Feb 4, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Indra Abriyanto)

JAKARTA: Dete Aliah has been involved in deradicalisation efforts for almost a decade in her capacity as the executive director of Society Against Radicalism and Violent Extremism (SeRVE), a not-for-profit organisation in Indonesia.

One particular inmate by the name of Siti (not her real name) has been on her mind a lot lately.

She saw Siti for the first time in 2017 at a Social Affairs Ministry facility in Jakarta, shortly after the latter was deported by Turkish authorities for trying to enter Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Siti, a mother of three, at the time was ill and bedridden when Aliah was at the facility to interview another female deportee. The two locked eyes but Aliah never spoke or formally introduced herself to Siti.

Siti was later arrested for financing terrorism-related activities and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.

It was when Siti was behind bars that Aliah's work began.

Despite the jail term, the woman had become more engrossed in her radical ideology. She saw nothing wrong with leaving her husband and three children behind to join ISIS, according to Aliah.

“She was a hardened radical. She refused to participate in prison activities and cooperate. Prison officials were scared of her and didn't know what to do with her because there have not been that many terror convicts at the women’s prison,” Aliah told CNA.    

Dete Aliah, a deradicalisation expert and executive director of the Jakarta, Indonesia-based not-for-profit organisation, Society Against Radicalism and Violent Extremism. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

Later, Aliah met Siti again and the latter began to open up slowly. It would require more meetings before Aliah could persuade Siti to leave behind some of her radical beliefs.

“Building trust and a relationship does not happen in a day,” Aliah said. “It happens through months or years. We need to constantly forge that relationship.”

According to the Ministry of Justice, there are around 600 terrorism inmates currently serving time in Indonesian prisons. Out of this, 150 are due to be released sometime this year.

Prisons are key battlegrounds in Indonesia for the deradicalisation of terrorist inmates. 

Lining up in the fight to get them to turn away from a life of extremism are government agencies and activists, which work together in a battle for hearts and minds. 

Against them are extremist groups, which have attempted to keep members dedicated to their cause even while they are behind bars.

And in recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the challenges of deradicalisation, after prison visits were suspended as clusters began to emerge in jails across Indonesia. 

Without face-to-face interaction, which they say is crucial to breaking down barriers, activists and experts say that they are fighting an uphill battle. 

Nonetheless, the battle has continued, with the government saying that COVID-19 has not hampered overall deradicalisation efforts, with lectures and seminars still being held.

READ: Terror cells in Indonesia continue to recruit and plot attacks amid COVID-19, says senior counterterrorism official


The prisons are an important arena in terms of winning hearts and minds. The authorities have official deradicalisation programmes while non-government organisations pay regular visits to the inmates, hoping to guide them back to the right track. 

Wartoyo recalled how he refused to cooperate initially and even spat at a National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) officer who was trying to engage him.

The 44-year-old was sentenced to jail in 2011 following a foiled plan to poison the food at a police headquarters cafeteria.

Wartoyo used to be a street thug before he was radicalised. For his fourth conviction, he spent four years in prison for trying to poison food served at the Jakarta police headquarters' cafeteria. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

He had hatched the plan together with friends from a religious discussion group, which he joined with the intention of becoming a good Muslim but became radicalised instead after being exposed to sermons by radical ideologues like Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Before he was detained, Wartoyo would visit convicted terrorists in prison with the group as a show of support.

So strong was Wartoyo’s conviction during his jail term that JI decided to appoint him as the leader of 13 terrorism inmates who were incarcerated at the Cirebon prison in West Java.

His turning point came one night when Wartoyo was trying to fall asleep, hungry after all the cells were locked. He did not have enough to eat that day.

“I called out to the cell next door, politely asking if anyone there had some food to spare. A voice replied, asking me to extend my hand. This person then handed me a plastic bag filled with rice and instant noodles,” he said.

“The following morning, I immediately went to the cell next door. I needed to know who gave me food last night. It was a Chinese Christian man who was there for a drug offence,” he said.

“I hugged him for he had saved my life. He was helping a fellow man. He didn’t care whether I was a terrorist or that I was taught to treat non-Muslims as enemies. His act of kindness completely changed me.”

Wartoyo soon began opening up to deradicalisation efforts by activists and the government. “It got the other terrorism inmates angry. They saw me as their enemy,” he recalled.

Wartoyo said although he participated in the deradicalisation programme, he refused offers of parole and remissions, as he felt that he deserved his four-year sentence.

Another former terrorist who was deradicalised in prison is Gilang Nabaris, 27.

While studying computer engineering at a polytechnic, he began to engage with Islamic groups, as he wanted to see if they had any programme to send humanitarian aid workers to the Middle East.

He was told by a group to send money to an account in the Philippines to prove his loyalty. The money was eventually used to purchase weapons used in the Marawi conflict and he was arrested under charges of financing terrorism activities in August 2017.

While in prison, Nabaris gradually saw things differently.

“I realised that while they appear to be united outside of prison, inside the prison system there are animosities, arguments, divisions and suspicions towards one another. It got me thinking: ‘Are these the people who are supposed to run an Islamic state?’” Nabaris recounted.

Computer engineer Gilang Nabaris was just 24 when he was arrested and later convicted of financing terrorism activities. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

“I also observed that the edicts coming out of Syria were becoming more and more absurd. We were told not to eat food served by the guards. We were told not to conduct trade with non-Muslims. We were told to label our parents as infidels if they do not share the same view as us.”

Nabaris then decided to enrol in the BNPT’s deradicalisation programme. He only served three years of his four-year sentence.

READ: Indonesia police hunt suspected IS-linked militants after four killed

Khariroh Maknunah, the outreach director at International Peacebuilding Institute noted terrorists have time to reflect on their past while incarcerated, and require moral support.

“They spend a lot of their time being locked up inside their cells. They long for connection, especially terrorism inmates who are sometimes isolated or even ostracised by the rest of the prison population. They have more time to reflect on their past and contemplate on their future,” she said.

“That is why it is relatively easier to reach out to terrorism inmates, to make that connection, to build a relationship and create trust during their time in prison compared to when they are released.”

Maknunah said that once trust is built, counsellors can begin to challenge the radical views and over time, inmates become more receptive to new ideas and concepts. 

“It will be very difficult if that initial process of trust building only begins when they are out of prison,” she said.


One reason NGOs often feel they have a significant role to play in reaching out to terror inmates is that the government's official deradicalisation programme in the prisons is not compulsory for the inmates.

BNPT’s deradicalisation programme mostly attracts prisoners who have already decided on their own to distance themselves from radical ideas.

The deradicalisation curriculum has been criticised by some for relying on seminars and discussions with vague topics like patriotism and religious harmony, presented in the form of lectures with little room for interaction.

However, the BNPT also provides entrepreneurship classes and psychological counselling sessions. Additionally, participation in the programme might allow inmates to access government aid after they are released. Inmates are also rewarded with sentence reduction and early release if they join the programme.

Indonesian inmates at a Jakarta prison talk via video to family members after visits were stopped because of coronavirus fears. Authorities have now gone further, and are releasing tens of thousands of prisoners in a bid to stop the spread of the virus in overcrowded jails AFP/HANDOUT

The promise of government aid and early release may not be appealing enough to hardened terrorists. In 2018, the BNPT revealed that 630 terrorism prisoners had been released up until then. Out of this, 325 had chosen to take part in the deradicalisation programme.

"We cannot force them. If the inmates are not cooperative and resist our efforts, what can we do? Sometimes, they even threaten us. Even though we have made it clear to them that there are consequences (for not participating). They will be ineligible for sentence reductions or early parole if they don't," BNPT’s deradicalisation director Irfan Idris said when interviewed by CNA. 

READ: Indonesian government to step up efforts to tackle radicalisation among civil servants

"You have to be patient with these people. We keep persuading them to join the programme. We believe that even the most hardcore militants who are steadfast in their radical ideology can change and some people have. It takes time, but slowly they can change," he added.

He declined to divulge how many are currently participating in the programme. 

“The number fluctuates and is very dynamic. Even if I give you a number now, it will no longer be true the following day, because there are those being released and those joining the programme for the first time, he said.


With COVID-19 clusters emerging inside prisons, the justice ministry’s directorate general of corrections has decided to bar NGOs and visitors from visiting detention facilities across Indonesia.

The NGOs are now cut off from the inmates they used to counsel and those they wish to reach out to.

“The pandemic has made our jobs more difficult because we cannot visit prisons and meet these inmates personally, particularly inmates who we have never met before,” Maknunah from International Peacebuilding Institute said.

Machmudi “Yusuf” Hariono, a terrorist who had denounced his old ways, could attest to the importance of the personal touch.

He was a foreign terrorist fighter with the Abu Sayyaf armed rebel group in the Southern Philippines for two years, and was arrested back in Indonesia when the police discovered that the JI stashed explosives in his rented house in the city of Semarang.

He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, although he only served six years before he was paroled. 

Reformed terrorist Machmudi "Yusuf" Hariono posing in front of his house which doubles as a secretariat for an organisation he founded, Persadani Foundation. The group provides emotional support to fellow reformed terrorists and reaches out to militants to counsel them. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

In January 2020, Yusuf and Wartoyo, the former JI-member, founded a formal organisation called the Persadani Foundation for reformed terrorists to talk to and support each other. It now has 30 members with more expressing interest in joining.

Yusuf said his approach varies depending on the inmate. Sometimes, he said, all it took was to fulfil the inmate’s personal needs.

"I once met an inmate who was still very deep in his radical beliefs. Since he was arrested, he did not get a chance to meet his wife and kids. They were in Malang (East Java) while he was incarcerated in Nusa Kambangan (Central Java)," he said.

Yusuf raised money to fly his family members to the nearest airport in Yogyakarta. He then drove the family to the prison for a reunion.

"After that, he approached me. 'Brother, can you tell the police to put me into (the government's) deradicalisation programme so I can go home fast?' … He was released early and renounced his (radical) beliefs."

Yusuf added that his status as a reformed terrorist gave him credibility in the eyes of prisoners and ex-convicts, including those who still hold on to radical ideologies.

He wants to reach out to more terrorism inmates but the pandemic has made his mission virtually impossible.

“Before the pandemic, I can visit Nusa Kambangan (high-security prison) 10 times a year. Now, I cannot do that. It’s slowing us down and the only option left is to focus our work to help those who are free as well as the prisoners’ families,” he said.

READ: Abu Bakar Bashir, Indonesian cleric linked to deadly Bali bombings, freed from prison


Noor Huda Ismail, a terrorism analyst and a visiting fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), concurred that the pandemic is a roadblock to the deradicalisation efforts.

“The only people with access to these prisoners right now are the guards. The government can train them so they can act as mentors and counsellors. However, some prisoners see prison guards as someone they can’t trust, unlike NGO workers and reformed terrorists whom they would still listen to,” he said.

“The future of the deradicalisation efforts is looking bleak right now. This pandemic is not going away anytime soon and social distancing, strict health protocols and various restrictions are becoming the new normal.”

Reformed terrorist Machmudi "Yusuf" Hariono, posing in front of a house in Semarang city, where he once stashed a tonne of explosives. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) ​​​​​​​

Robi Sugara, the executive director of non-profit Indonesian Muslim Crisis Centre, added: “Various studies have shown that approaching terrorism inmates on a personal level, conducting a kind of social intervention programme and helping them reintegrate back to society are the most effective ways to deradicalise someone."

“During the pandemic, we are limited to staging online discussions and seminars and we still don’t know how effective they have been. No one has so far come up with the right formula on how to address these challenges and gauge whether these formulas will be just as effective as the personal, face-to-face methods.”


The government says otherwise.

Idris, the deradicalisation director of BNPT, noted that the pandemic has prevented NGOs from personally engaging the prisoners. However, COVID-19 has not hindered the agency’s deradicalisation programme, he insisted. Lectures and seminars are still being held, he said.

“Since March 2020, we have been limited physically to conduct deradicalisation because of the coronavirus. But we continue to conduct deradicalisation by phone or virtually through virtual conference with terrorism inmates in prisons as well as outside of prisons,” he said.

“In fact, outside of prisons, the intensity is higher because we can do it over the phone or online ... In some ways, we can do it more efficiently because our mentors can stay at home.”

He said that in prisons, the inmates are not allowed to have mobile phones. "But we are facilitated by prison guards. So, there is just some hindrance in terms of ways we can do it, but the material is still conveyed."

As for concerns that terror groups may be able to influence the prisoners, Idris pointed out that those who are open to the deradicalisation programme are segregated from the others who opted out.

He added: “We are monitoring these former inmates, whether they participated in our programme or not.

"We have forged strong relationships with the military, local police and local government. They are the ones actively monitoring these ex-convicts, building communication and preventing them from returning to their old network or be in touch with groups that are still exposed to radical ideologies.”

READ: Commentary - Who bears responsibility for the children of Islamic State?

READ: Indonesia jails two leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah on terror charges

Meanwhile, Aliah is still worried about Siti, who is due to be released in July. She hopes that Siti would not commit more acts of terrorism or influence those around her.

“If it weren’t for COVID-19, I would have gone to see her every chance I could. This woman needs to be deradicalised. I need to meet her face to face to change her mind and she was just starting to soften up,” Aliah said.

“Inmates are most vulnerable when they are in prison. They have more time to reflect on what they have done and they need someone to talk to. Their time in prison is a golden opportunity to build trust and change their mindsets. When they are free, it is next to impossible to forge similar ties and gain their trust.”

Source: CNA/ni


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