The Buzz

Indonesia's De-Radicalization Blueprint

The picture of Sunakim (alias Afif) reloading his gun while maneuvering with an expression of menacing intent will be an enduring image of the Jakarta attack in mid-January.

Having served five years of a seven-year sentence for attending a jihadi training camp in northern Sumatra in 2010, the West Java native was released from prison less than six months before his involvement in the deadly assault in Central Jakarta.

Remissions for good behavior are common in the Indonesian justice system, though according to a former prison-mate, Afif had pledged allegiance to ISIS, refused to participate in prison programs (including communal prayer sessions) and was known to have struggled with anger issues.

This failure to recognize warning signs has put a spotlight on Indonesia's efforts to manage convicted extremists and the government’s recently announcedplans to boost funding for so-called prison-based 'de-radicalization' programs. But where are existing efforts focused, and how would extra resources best be spent?


The Blueprint

Initiatives to engage with incarcerated extremists have been operating ad hoc for over a decade in Indonesia, though the first attempt to institutionalize a project came in 2013, when the national De-radicalization Blueprint was published by the National Counterterrorism Agency (Badan Nasional Penaggulangan Terorisme, BNPT).

The 122-page booklet outlined the agency's strategy for reforming prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offences, and presented the task as an ideological struggle with a strategy incorporating four stages. 

First, the identification phase is meant to involve collecting data and determining each prisoner's level of ideological commitment. This is followed by a process of rehabilitation, which aims to “develop moderate understandings and attitudes” among prisoners and their families, so they “become inclusive, peaceful, and tolerant” citizens. 

The somewhat Orwellian sounding re-education stage is next and seeks “transformations of thought, understanding and attitudes,” yet the description of the process is largely identical to that of the rehabilitation stage. 

Finally, re-socialization aims to reintegrate prisoners with society upon the completion of their sentence, which also comprises lengthy duplications from the previous two stages, but highlights the need to involve communities to “remove suspicion and fear on one hand and develop empathy and mutual respect on the other hand.”


Arguing Away ideology

The Blueprint suggests the inclusion of vocational training and the promotion of personal development, but the priority appears firmly placed on a “persuasive approach” whereby “discussion and dialogue” attempt to alter the mind-set of prisoners. 

Yet research has shown processes of radicalization are wide-ranging and involve social and emotional forces that are often antecedent to the adoption of an ideological framework, which in many cases is only partially understood anyway.

Factors such as the pursuit of status or personal significance, the camaraderie of belonging to an underground network, the desire for revenge or adventure, and the adolescent development of identity have all been identified as recurring themes. Ideology may facilitate these processes, but it's not necessarily the source of motivation for initial involvement. 

A problem with targeting ideology during interventions is the likelihood of backlash. Kurt Braddock has drawn upon Psychological Reactance Theory (first developed by Jack Brehm in the 1960s) to describe how persuasion-based de-radicalization efforts can prove counterproductive, as participants may entrench their positions in the face of a threat to their perceived autonomy. 


Changing Behavior

Instead of challenging ideas, some practitioners endorse approaches centered on behavior. Such interventions are seen as more likely to bring positive change because they focus on practical issues such as promoting constructive life goals and reducing negative emotions. 

One respondent in a study conducted last year by Zora Sukabdi on rehabilitating extremists in Indonesian prisons appeared to support this theory: “Changing our heart and love for Allah and jihad is impossible, but changing our behaviour so we stop bombing is possible, in fact we can.”


Personalized Projects and Effective Management

Interventions need to be targeted appropriately to make this approach effective. The 2013 Blueprint stated that its identification phase sought to pinpoint the individual circumstance of each prisoner, yet the little available information about how programs are actually run suggests that broad-brush strokes have been applied more often than personalized engagement.

This point was even raised by a participant in Sukabdi's research: “. . . the brothers cannot be all counseled in the same way. We are all different . . . It is ridiculous that all brothers are ask [sic] to be waiters or cooks, it does not match their talent, it is a waste of money.”