A better way: How rehabilitated terrorists are helping counter extremism

Reformed terror convicts are deploying their knowledge and personal stories to assist in deradicalization programs in Indonesia.

Wulan Kusuma Wardhani

Wulan Kusuma Wardhani

The Jakarta Post


Guidance: Some rehabilitated terror convicts are helping guiding people susceptible to extremist views away from such ideologies. (Shutterstock/Fer Gregory) (Shutterstock/Fer Gregory)

January 14, 2022

JAKARTA – Reformed terror convicts are deploying their knowledge and personal stories to assist in deradicalization programs.

It is never easy, but some rehabilitated terrorism convicts have been trying their best to share their experience and perspectives with people susceptible to extremism so that they can avoid making similar mistakes.

The reformed radicals speak to everyone from followers of extremist clerics to terrorism convicts who still believe in their cause and are waiting to launch another attack.

A better way: How rehabilitated terrorists are helping counter extremism-1

Social reintegration: Arif Budi Setyawan (left) talks to one of his mentees, Wildan (right), at a community engagement event in Singosari, Malang, in December 2019, as a part of a social reintegration program for former prisoners. (Courtesy of Kreasi Prasasti Perdamaian/Outreach Project) (Outreach Project/Courtesy by Kreasi Prasasti Perdamaian)

Saifuddin Umar, widely known as Abu Fida, knows this firsthand. His involvement with the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) led him to harbor fugitive Malaysian terrorists Dr. Azhari and Noordin M. Top in the early 2000s. Special Detachment (Densus) 88, a police antiterrorism squad, arrested him in 2004, although he was quickly released. Ten years later, he was arrested again and brought to court for his past criminal activity. He spent three years in jail and was released in 2017.

Since then, he has turned his life around. He is now a public speaker who helps counter extremist ideas and mitigate terrorist threats.

National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) director of prevention Ahmad Nurwahid acknowledged the importance of including former inmates in prevention and deradicalization programs.

“There’s a saying that ‘only radicals or former radicals understand what goes on in the mind of a radical,’” Ahmad said, adding that the participation of former prisoners in deradicalization programs could help overcome inmates’ reluctance to participate.

“People who were once radicalized are better able to explain to terror convicts the situation they have experienced. Since the rehabilitated terrorists were once radicalized, the prisoners won’t be reluctant [to speak with them],” he said.

Journey to extremism

Saifuddin has been an avid reader since his teenage years. He spent his formative years at the Gontor pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Ponorogo, East Java, where he started reading books espousing extremist ideas.

“These books weren’t used as teaching materials, but they were freely sold in the school cooperative. The books ignited my idealism about how to deal with unjust rulers,” the 55-year-old Islamic cleric said.

Saifuddin believed that all Muslims should live under sharia. His belief grew stronger when he was assigned to the Al-Mukmin pesantren in Solo, Central Java, on a teaching assignment from 1984 to 1985. There, he joined the clandestine Indonesian Islamic State (NII) movement, which sought to establish an Islamic state.

He went to Syria for a year in 1986 to improve his Arabic, then to Jordan for 1.5 years to study Islamic education. Afterwards, he joined thousands of foreign combatants to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the 1990s, he studied at Umm Al-Qura University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, before returning to Surakarta to teach at a JI-affiliated boarding school. It was during this time that he harbored the Malaysian terrorists.

Another rehabilitated terrorism convict, Arif Budi Setyawan, also known as Arif Tuban, shared a similar journey. His radicalization began with an interest in extremist books while studying at the Al-Islam pesantren in Lamongan, East Java. He did not graduate from the school because of health issues and subsequently completed a junior high school equivalency program.

However, he kept in touch with some people from his previous school who invited him to join a religious study group. Several years later, it was discovered that the group was part of JI.

“Suddenly, one month after the [2002] Bali bombings, the group ceased its activities. I was suspicious because the activity was discontinued in various places, not only in one location,” said the 39-year-old Tuban resident.

At that time, many media outlets reported that JI was behind the bombings. Arif decided to visit a preacher who participated in the group’s activities to ask about it. “He said, ‘We are Jemaah Islamiyah,’” Arif said, quoting the preacher.

Instead of trying to disengage from JI, Arif sought to support the terrorist group’s aspirations. He began by helping recruit people to join terrorist paramilitary training in Aceh. The police dismantled the training camp in February 2010, but Arif was not arrested.

In 2014, he was arrested in South Jakarta on charges of delivering weapons to a terrorist group in Poso. He was sentenced to four years and ten months in prison, but only served three years and four months after being granted a remission.

Ongoing responsibility

Densus 88 arrested 370 terror suspects in 2021, an increase from the year before, but experts say these efforts must be complemented by rehabilitative and preventative programs, including those involving reformed terrorism convicts.

“They have experience and knowledge. In terms of knowledge, there is a course of study called terrorism and security studies. However, they have more experience because they were inside the [terrorist] networks,” said Boaz Simanjuntak, a researcher at terrorism prevention organization Ruangobrol.

Boaz added that Ruangobrol helped “credible voices”, referring to rehabilitated terror convicts and individuals who overcame radicalization, to share their stories.

“Ustadz Abu Fida is one of the important figures in East Java who has a role in minimizing the potential threat of terror by offering alternative knowledge,” said Boaz.

The BNPT has formed the Coordination Forum for the Prevention of Terrorism (FKPT) to help prevent radicalization at the provincial level. The organization has invited reformed terrorism convicts to speak at certain events.

A 2020 report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) titled Terrorism, Recidivism and Planned Releases in Indonesia found that of the 825 men and women convicted of terrorism and released in the country from 2002 to May 2020, 94 had repeated their offense.

Boaz said solving the problem of recidivism would require everyone’s help and that it was impossible for the government to act alone.

“After convicts finish serving their sentences, state and non-state actors that engage in terrorism prevention should be able to gain access to them personally. This isn’t just for the sake of maintaining security but also to ensure that they don’t return to their past activities,” said Boaz.

A better way: How rehabilitated terrorists are helping counter extremism-2

Raising awareness: Saifuddin Umar (right) and Arif Budi Setyawan (second right) speak to young Indonesians about terrorism in Surabaya in September 2019. (Courtesy of Kreasi Prasasti Perdamaian/Outreach Project) (Outreach Project/Courtesy by Kreasi Prasasti Perdamaian)

Family first

Family played an important role in changing Saifuddin’s mindset. “I have had many conversations with my siblings. They didn’t judge me,” he said.

Since his release, Saifuddin has been invited to speak at various events that aim to help prevent radicalization. He has also helped terror convicts disengage from violence.

“I tried to converse with five to 10 convicts at Lamongan and Porong prison. I observed their respective characters because not all of them had similar personalities. Finally, their attitude softened,” said the fresh master’s graduate from Muhammadiyah University in Surabaya.

In 2020, Saifuddin and several former inmates in East Java established a foundation called Fajar Ikhwan Sejahtera (FIS).

“The purpose is to form a friendship and turn the organization into our new world so that we don’t return to our past activities. We socialize with other mass organizations in East Java because we aren’t exclusive,” he said.

Arif Tuban, too, has been participating in the prevention of radicalization and recidivism while maintaining a close relationship with his family.

From 2019 to 2020, Arif took part in Ruangobrol’s outreach project. He mentored five inmates convicted of terrorism who had travelled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State (IS).

“Four of them told me, when their release date was approaching, that they were worried that their business counterparts would walk away,” said Arif.

One convict was reluctant to meet with Arif because he feared he would be harassed by other inmates who remained radicalized.

“Finally, I convinced him that after he was released, he wouldn’t be alone because his fellow former terror inmates would help him. And [I told him] I’d gladly be his mentor,” Arif said.

Arif acknowledged that his family was instrumental in his decision to leave the terror network. After his arrest, he began to reconsider the consequences of his actions.

“When I was arrested, my family also suffered because of what I did. Their misery made me wonder about the impact of what I had fought for. The negative effects outweigh the positives,” said Arif.

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