"Re-Programming" Terrorists

Research shows terrorists are not typically mentally ill, but have been brainwashed by extremist ideologies. Is an Indonesian program aimed at de-radicalizing convicted terrorists an international model, or does it coddle criminals?

Four months after a small group of Islamist terrorists shattered years of relative stability in Jakarta, bombing two luxury hotels, and one month after top militant Noordin Top was killed by authorities, Indonesia is experimenting with a controversial new “soft” approach to reducing terrorism: using psychotherapy, religion, and promises of social support to “de-radicalize” former terrorists. With terrorism expected to be high on the agenda at President Barack Obama’s Sunday meeting in Singapore with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other leaders, should the Indonesian program be viewed as an international model? Or does it coddle criminals?

The Indonesian approach seeks to co-opt convicted terrorists by treating them with kindness rather than harsh punishment. It provides incentives to those who cooperate with authorities in the form of shorter prison sentences, medical care, schooling for relatives, and even cash handouts to start businesses upon their release from prison. Although the program is mostly focused on economic opportunity, it also includes an in-prison counseling component, in which supposedly “reformed” terrorists seek to de-radicalize their peers through discussions that call into question the use of violent jihad against civilians.

Indonesia provides incentives to terrorists who cooperate with authorities: shorter sentences, medical care, schooling for relatives, and even cash handouts to start businesses.

The initiative is supported by funding from the University of Indonesia and the police’s counterterrorism unit, and implemented in prisons by psychologists, Islamic studies experts, and former terrorists. Non-governmental organizations, such as the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, are helping fund a related project aimed at training prison guards to work with terrorists. Muhammadiyah, the Indonesian reformist Muslim group, has partnered with private businesses to provide religious outreach to militant inmates.

But some terrorism analysts say softer is not better when it comes to dismantling the extremist networks that often continue to spread behind prison walls. Critics say some prisoners have been allowed access to cellphones, which give them the ability to maintain contact with extremist leaders and supporters on the outside. “When you go to prison, you [should] lose certain rights,” said Zachary Abuza, a terrorism expert at Simmons College in Boston.

While Abuza credited Indonesia’s counterterrorism police for their skillful use of intelligence in tracking down suspected militants, he criticized the de-radicalization programs for poor coordination and monitoring. Neighboring Singapore and Malaysia, where draconian security laws allow for lengthy detentions without trials, have had more success with rehabilitating Islamists, Abuza said.

According to a study of Indonesia’s de-radicalization effort by psychologists at the University of Indonesia, getting terrorists to think differently must start with discussions about the strategic benefits of hitting civilian targets, such as the string of hotels and nightclubs the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah has attacked since the 2002 bombing of a popular nightclub in Bali.

The Bali attack, Indonesia’s first real bout with international terrorism, killed 202 people. After the bombing, the counterterrorism arm of the National Police launched the de-radicalization program. Within prisons, police drafted high-profile terrorists who had renounced jihad to speak out against the use of violence against civilians. Those leading the de-radicalization program managed to convince a few leading jihadist figures to join early on, but getting them to discuss their perceptions of Islam proved more difficult.

“Every time we tried to talk about ideology they didn’t want to discuss,” said University of Indonesia psychologist Sarlito Wirawan Sarwono, who began working with the de-radicalization program in 2005, when the police asked him to analyze the personalities of jihadist inmates.

After meeting with 51 terrorists, Sarlito concluded the men were not mentally ill, but did have deeply held radical views about Islam. The best way to intervene, he said, is to take advantage of a rift between jihadists who believe bombing civilian targets is justified and those who say the recent attacks have strayed from the ultimate objective of transforming Indonesia into an Islamic state.

But this year’s July 17 bombings raised concerns about backsliders, offenders who have gone through the prison system and returned to “play the game again,” according to Noor Huda Ismail, a terrorism expert who advises prison officials on dealing with terrorist detainees. Now efforts are being made to compile a database that would distinguish between terrorists at the top of the hierarchy and those who might be more open to rehabilitation—the low-level accomplices who actually carry out bombings.

Supporters say these programs need more funding, to provide inmates with access to books, videos, and other materials that reinforce the message of religious moderation. But critics argue that Indonesia should get tougher with radical Islam, hitting offenders with longer prison sentences and cracking down on the preachers who spread hate.

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According to Alfindra Primaldhi, a researcher at the University of Indonesia, the real issue is not the length of time inmates serve but the quality of the rehabilitation. Prisoners need to learn from a repentant militant with whom they can identify and they need to feel that the people asking them to de-radicalize have legitimacy.

“What we’ve been trying to do is change their mind,” Primaldhi said, “but we need to win their hearts first.”

Get Involved: The International Crisis Group researches Indonesia’s “soft” approach to terrorism. The Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation is a pro-democracy group that advocates for individuals in the criminal justice system.

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Sara Schonhardt is a freelance writer based in Jakarta. She has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for six years and has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University.