KUALA LUMPUR: Indonesia’s foremost Islamic State (IS) ideologue Aman Abdurrahman has spent more than 15 years in jail but no prison wall can seem to stop the spread of his teachings and influence to the outside world.
While in prison, he has managed to publish several books on IS ideology, preach to his followers via smartphones and bestow his blessings to the Syria-bound intent on joining IS.
Aman had several smartphones which were smuggled into prison for him by supporters when they visited him, according to the police.
"He also managed to preach to the outside world during this time using a smartphone where he live-streamed his speeches,” said a senior counter-terrorism source Channel NewsAsia spoke to.
Aman’s ability to exert his influence from behind prison walls underscores how convicted terrorists and militants can exploit flaws in the Indonesian prison system to spread their ideology, recruit new members and hatch terror plots.
Noor Huda Ismail, a counter-terrorism expert and founder of the Institute for International Peace Building, said: “The prison is the weakest link in Indonesia’s counter-terrorism efforts. I knew a group of IS supporters, they have been studying Aman’s teachings for years outside of prison.”
Aman’s influence extends beyond Indonesia and reaches all the way to Malaysia. According to Malaysian police, some IS suspects they have arrested were found to have Aman’s jihadi material on them.
Aman is the founder of IS-linked Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), which was classified as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department in January this year. It was formed in 2015 and is made up of almost two dozen Indonesian extremist groups that has pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
He was first jailed in 2004 for seven years for a failed terror plot in Cimanggis, Depok, West Java. Soon after his release, he teamed up with Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the terror group behind the 2002 Bali bombings. They collaborated to set up a terror training camp in Aceh in 2010.
Police later raided and shut down the camp. Aman was arrested and sentenced to nine years in jail.
According to Huda, Aman used to pass his writings to people who visited him in prison, who would in turn upload them online.
“People who came to visit (him) in prison would bring him Arabic manuscripts on jihadist ideology and Aman would translate and write them down on pieces of paper. He would then pass these pieces of paper to visitors to bring them out of prison to be uploaded online,” he said.
While websites carrying his writings do get shut down every so often, Aman’s supporters are adept at migrating to new platforms, hence his work is always easily accessed by the public, Huda said. One can also listen to his speeches online, he added.
A quick search online will show that Aman’s books and speeches are indeed easily accessible.
ISOLATING HIGH-VALUE PRISONERS
Following the Jakarta bomb attack last year - for which Aman has been implicated - he and four other prominent convicted militants were isolated from the rest of the facility’s population.
Counter-terrorism expert Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, who heads policy at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said: “Isolating such leaders helps stop the violent extremist ideological "virus" from spreading further amongst the prison population.”
But according to Huda, isolation did not go far enough in stemming recruitment and radicalisation in the prison.
Currently, Indonesian prisons only isolate high-value prisoners, leaving the lower ranked militants free to socialise with the rest of the prison population, which Huda said was “dangerous”.
“It is these small and medium-sized militants who provide the networking and who carry out any terror plot,” he said.
In a December 2016 report, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) said the poor physical state of Indonesian prison infrastructure and serious overcrowding facilitates radicalisation.
It said that as of October last year, the total number of inmates in 477 facilities under the Correctional Directorate’s control stood at 201,550. Of these, about 220 were convicted of terrorism, IPAC said.
In Pasir Putih prison on Nusakambangan island in Central Java which has one of the highest concentration of high risk offenders in the entire system, 220 inmates were under the supervision of seven staff at any one time.
Huda said: “The government is trying very hard to reform the prison system but always we are going back to the classic problem of the prison - overcrowding, lack of resources, and also lack of imagination (for) alternative ways to deal with those issues.”
DEFENDERS OF ISLAM IN PRISON
In prison, convicted militants are seen as defenders of Islam and are held in high esteem by other prisoners.
“All these years in prison have been good for Aman. It has boosted his image. He recruited people while he was in prison,” Huda said.
Of utmost importance then are efforts to prevent a person from being radicalised in the first place and countering the IS narrative, he said.
RSIS’s Ramakrishna believes rehabilitation of prisoners needs to be put on a more systematic footing.
“The prison system is a factor but not the only one. Rehabilitation of terrorist prisoners needs to be put on a more systematic footing and better coordinated between relevant agencies. There have been some efforts in this direction though,” he said.
“Anti-terror laws that make it an offence to join IS, as well as stronger laws to criminalise violent extremist speech, are also important.”
He said that steps to improve the prospects of prison service staff and stronger penalties against low-level corruption that facilitates the ability of terrorist ideologues to communicate with the outside world are also needed.
As for Aman, he was freed last Aug 13 after completing his jail sentence at the Nusakambangan island prison but was immediately re-arrested by Indonesia’s counter-terrorism taskforce Detachment88 (Densus88) over the Jakarta bomb attack on Jalan Thamrin which killed eight people, including four attackers.