JAKARTA: The looming release of hundreds of militants from Indonesia’s prisons, hotbeds of radicalism where influential Islamists openly preach extremist ideology, is ringing alarm bells and raising fears some will join forces with the Islamic State (IS) group.
More than a decade after Indonesia vowed to dismantle terrorist networks to stem a series of attacks, neglect of jails has allowed top detainees to promote their views behind bars, and even beyond thanks to smartphones and laptops.
About 200 convicted militants are due for release in the next two years, and experts say inadequate deradicalization efforts mean many will leave jail with their ideology intact.
“Prisons are still the epicenter of terrorism in Indonesia. The most dangerous militants are behind bars and recruitment is going on,” said terrorism expert Taufik Andrie from the Jakarta-based Institute for International Peace Building.
The alarming trend in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country comes despite authorities’ growing concern about Islamic militancy and in particular Islamic State, which has declared an “Islamic caliphate” across swathes of Syria and Iraq.
Authorities say about 60 Indonesians are believed to have joined IS, although most analysts believe the true figure is up to 200, and concerns are mounting that they could return and revive sophisticated militant networks.
Singapore has said that IS jihadists from Malaysia and Indonesia have formed their own group—Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiyyah, or Malay Archipelago Unit for the Islamic State—which poses a clear security threat to Southeast Asia.
Indonesia began a long clampdown on extremists following the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people on the resort island, mostly foreigners. That attack and others were blamed on the Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which has since been severely weakened.
The government has banned support for IS, while other nations, including Britain and Australia, have tightened counter-terrorism laws to prevent nationals joining or supporting IS and other jihadist outfits.
But experts say such efforts in Indonesia are being undermined by a failure to tackle the prisons problem.
IS pledges behind bars
Abu Bakar Bashir, the former spiritual leader of JI, was photographed pledging allegiance to IS in jail. The photos were posted on radical websites almost in real-time.
Aman Abdurrahman, an influential Islamist cleric, is Indonesia’s main translator for IS and has been able to disseminate information online from inside a maximum-security prison, including the group’s recent call on Muslims to kill Westerners indiscriminately.
Their oaths were followed by a wave of IS pledges by large radical groups, as well as by 23 inmates imprisoned with Bashir, according to Jakarta-based think-tank, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).
The government’s deradicalization schemes remain so ad-hoc and poorly targeted that they barely make up a program at all, critics say.
Irfan Idrus, head of deradicalization at the national counter-terrorism agency, admitted there was no system in place to identify those who have developed extremist views and need post-release monitoring.
When Haris Amir Falah was freed after serving three years for terrorism offences, he went straight back to his Bashir-led extremist group.
Falah was convicted of funding a militant training camp that was planning gun attacks on “enemies of Islam,” including the president.
Before that he had fought with JI in parts of Indonesia during bouts of religious conflict, a source with knowledge of his case told Agence France-Presse. Falah claims he went to give aid.
Just three deradicalization sessions were held during his time in prison, involving dialogue with moderate Islamic clerics.
“It was interesting enough, but it didn’t change anything about the way I think,” he said.
Falah is now a senior figure of another offshoot group, and says that while IS is “too extreme” he supports jihad in Syria and backs the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front.
“There have not been useful program on a national scale inside the prisons that you can point to clear impact,” said IPAC director Sidney Jones, adding that Indonesia’s deradicalization drive was “vague” and a “bit of a mess.”
She pointed to a program to educate convicted terrorists about the “Pancasila” —Indonesia’s five-point state ideology that celebrates “unity in diversity” —to inculcate a sense of nationalism in them.
“But it wasn’t as if these prisoners didn’t feel Indonesian, so it was the wrong solution to the problem. A lot of these program have been equally misguided,” she added.