Indonesia: Prison Reform Can Counter Terror Risks
Indonesia: Prison Reform Can Counter Terror Risks
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Indonesia: Prison Reform Can Counter Terror Risks

In light of the Jakarta bombings, much has been made of the hundreds of radical Muslims who have been released from Indonesian prisons after serving sentences for terrorist activity. Does the danger of a new attack grow with these releases?

It is risky to assume the answer is yes, because then the solution would be to keep people locked up indefinitely with some Indonesian version of an internal security act. Instead, it would be useful to focus on post-release programs for prisoners and look at ways to determine who should be considered high-risk and how to ensure that they receive special attention once they are free.

As examples, we can look at four men recently released who might be categorised as high-risk for different reasons. One was a top Jemaah Islamiah leader; one was an impressionable youth who threw himself into defending the faith; one was a drug dealer who was radicalised by JI cellmates; and one was a close assistant of Noordin Top, the man believed to be behind the July 17 bombings.

The first is Thoriqudin, alias Abu Rusdan, who effectively took over from Abu Bakar Bashir as JI emir in 2000 and formally assumed the position in April 2002. Arrested a year later on charges of harbouring Mukhlas, one of the Bali bombers, he was sentenced to 3½ years in prison in February 2004 and released in late 2005. He did not co-operate with the police "deradicalisation" program, but he did make it clear that from his understanding of Islamic law, targeting civilians is wrong.

He is opposed to democracy and committed to the application of Islamic law but has become a force for moderation within JI. His message is not one of tolerance but it is very much against indiscriminate violence, and his early release probably has been beneficial.

The second is a young man who idolised those who gave their lives for Islam. He went to Ambon, the site of intense Christian-Muslim fighting, in 2000 at the age of 19 as a member of Mujahidin KOMPAK and returned with a desire to avenge Muslim deaths there. When Noordin Top was looking for partners in the Australian embassy bombing, this man served as a courier, delivering messages between Noordin and KOMPAK leaders, who in the end refused to take part. He was arrested in 2005, sentenced to seven years in 2006 and released three months ago.

Once in prison, however, he eagerly responded to the chance to turn his idealism to a different purpose. Police let him take an online business course, and he is now running a microcredit program for poor villagers under close supervision.

The third, Safrizal, was a recidivist drug dealer from Aceh who was jailed for the second time in 2004. He was put in a cell with the head of JI-Medan, whose bank robbery in May 2003 was meant to help fund the first Marriott bombing, except that the robbers got caught before the money could be used. Safrizal was released in 2007, thoroughly indoctrinated. He started a small Islamic school in a village in Bireuen, Aceh, and on May 12 robbed a bank with a gun he had borrowed from another JI cellmate who had been released about the same time. He was never inducted into JI, but he went into prison as a small-scale marijuana dealer and left as a jihadi.

Finally, there is Budi Bagus Pranoto, alias Urwah, the man who introduced Noordin to the men who became the field operatives for the embassy bombing. Urwah was arrested in July 2004, before the attack took place, and was released in March 2007. He immediately started a video production company, repackaging al-Qaeda material on CDs with Indonesian subtitles. He re-established connections with Noordin, and in early 2008, delivered a letter from Noordin to a man who himself was arrested shortly thereafter and revealed the communication during his trial. By any measure, Urwah was likely to be a post-release problem.

But it is unlikely that even someone as unreconstructed as Urwah would be used in a bombing operation because the risks would be too great.

Former prisoners have been exposed and could well be under surveillance; they surely would be considered liabilities. Such men, however, can play a role in recruitment and indoctrination, and Urwah was an active advocate of "jihad by the pen", disseminating Indonesian translations of jihadi exhortations.

From these four cases, it is clear that draconian legal solutions allowing indefinite detention would be misguided. Indonesia rightly has prided itself on upholding the rule of law in handling terrorist prisoners. The commitment to bringing suspects to trial quickly in fully open courtroom sessions has been a welcome contrast to counter-terrorism practices in many other countries. What Indonesia needs now is a system that can identify the potential problems and distinguish the Abu Rusdans from the Urwahs, in terms of JI prisoners; channel idealistic young jihadis into more constructive activity; and understand that some ordinary criminals, like Safrizal, can be converted inside.

The vast majority of released jihadi prisoners are more like Abu Rusdan and the young credit manager than they are like Urwah and Safrizal, but a thought-through corrections program, before and after release, can help counter-terrorism efforts. Indonesia has been working on prison reform, and some important advances have taken place, although much more needs to be done.

The danger of new attacks remains, but good prison management can reduce the likelihood of releases being a factor.

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