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Indonesia’s New Method For ‘Curing’ Jihadists

Since the Bali attack of 2002, police in the world’s largest Muslim country pray with extremists as part of program to ‘de-radicalize’ them. With only partial success.

JAKARTA - Harry Setya Rahmadi dreamed of "obliterating unbelievers' or "dying a martyr under a hail of American bullets'. Today he is a different kind of young gun, building his resume in the world of foreign exchange. Yusuf Adirima was an adrenalin-charged fanatic who hunted down Christians on the Maluku islands, now he spends his days roasting ducks at a roadside restaurant.

"If these two militants from the shadowy Islamist network Jemaah Islamiyah have renounced violence, it is because we managed to ‘de-radicalise" them when they were in prison" says Petrus Golose, head of the Indonesian police's anti-terror task force.

Since the Bali terror attack in 2002, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world has launched a vigorous campaign against terror. Created in 2004, Detachment 88 groups together Indonesia's elite marksmen, bomb disposal experts and skilled surveillance and infiltration operatives. It has managed to lock up 600 Islamic militants involved in terrorist networks.

But the aim is to dismantle terrorist groups with more than just repression. "Our role isn't just to track down terrorists, but to act as their spiritual advisers', says Golose, a colossus of a man with fleshy lips, who likes to keep a list of his prey in a little dog-eared notebook. "We have chosen to take a gamble, seeing them not as irredeemable criminals but as tormented souls. Our agents understand their psyches. In order to convince them we are not the infidels described by their fanatical preachers, we acknowledge them in Arabic and interrupt our interrogations so we can pray with them."

The idea is to extract information from these extremists in order to disrupt the network, making use of militant leaders who have renounced hard-line tactics to persuade acolytes of the error of their ways.

And yet, the relapse of several ‘de-radicalized" terrorists has highlighted some of the project's failings. Abdullah Sonata, brandished triumphantly by the police as a model of redemption and released from prison for good behavior in 2009, immediately reverted back to his former self. He was in the process of plotting an attack on several prominent figures in Jakarta, including the Indonesian president, when he was arrested for a second time.

Urwah, who spent four years behind bars for his part in the attack on the Australian Embassy in 2004, also reverted to extremist activity on his release from prison. Several supposedly reformed former inmates were also found in newly-discovered terrorist training camps situated in the Indonesian province of Aceh. But Golose, not wanting to jump to early conclusions about the program, believes this long list of so-called failures "does not negate its effectiveness. De-radicalization, like a weight-loss regime, does not work for everyone".

Of the some 200 militants released after serving their sentences, 20 have agreed to build links with the police. The rest are once again involved in extremist activity. "It is not possible to talk about a systematic de-radicalization of all terrorists, but more about giving preferential treatment to those who agree to become informers', reckons Sidney Jones, expert in Indonesian Islamic extremists and director of the international research institute Crisis Group in Jakarta. "You won't change people's thinking with better rations in prison, paying for their children's school fees or other rewards. At the very most, you will get them to disengage from former behavior."

Harry Setya, the now reformed foreign currency exchange broker championed as a model of the program, says essentially the same thing. "I knew that by collaborating with Detachment 88, I would be given perks in prison" he admits. An economics graduate, he was jailed for sheltering Noordin Mohammad Top, the mastermind behind five terrorist attacks, who was eventually killed by the police in 2009. And even if he has swapped Internet sites calling for Jihad in favor of exchange-rate graphs, he still misses ‘the sense of brotherhood" found at the heart of the sleeper terrorist cell he was once part of.

A passion for guns

Ansyaad Mbai, head of Indonesia's anti–terror unit at the Ministry of Home Affairs, explains how Islamists are ruthlessly efficient: "We are engaged in a competition with terrorists who are able to continue recruiting men held in prison; the recruiters are waiting for them with open arms when these men are released."

The former militant Harry Setya confirms: "The prisons are literally schools of Jihad". Iwan Dharmawan, sentenced to death for the attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004, managed to oversee the training camps of Aceh from death row. Investigators found eight mobile phones in his prison cell. Abdullah Sonata also continued to correspond with his fundamentalist spiritual mentor, Muklash, who entreated him not to renounce his violent ways.

"Detachment 88 has launched itself into a program of prevention, arrests and the de-radicalization of terrorists, but to try and do it all is counter-productive", says Nurhuda Ismail, who runs a rehabilitation organization for former terrorists. "You have to be particularly vigilant about what becomes of terrorists once they are released." Ismail indeed understands the affects of fundamentalist ideas on the psychology of these young people, having himself studied at the Islamic school of al-Mukmin de Ngruki, which counts twenty of Indonesia's most fearsome terrorists as its alumni. "Many of the men we believe have abandoned their radical ideology, still remain faithful to it. At best, I can persuade them to give up action by offering them a skill."

In the outskirts of Semarang, a port town of central Java, Yusuf Adirima, a slight figure in an orange cook's uniform, is considered reformed by authorities. Having undergone combat training in a terrorist camp in the southern Philippines, he was arrested in 2003 in Indonesia with a huge cache of weapons. Freed last year, he now works in a small eating hole at the side of a dusty road. On closer inspection, he handles his ducks like he might wield an M-16. A man of few words, he makes no bones about his intentions. "I would like to take up the fight again. It is my passion. I was only happy when I lived in accord with Jihad."

Having rediscovered a little of his humanity, he explains that he's just had a baby daughter. And her name? He decided to call her Armalite: his assault weapon of choice.

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