Wulan Kusuma Wardhani (Jakarta Post)
Thu 13 January 2022
Reformed terrorist convicts deploy their knowledge and personal stories to aid in de-radicalization programs.
It’s never easy, but some rehabilitated terrorism convicts have done their best to share their experience and views with people sensitive to extremism so they can avoid making similar mistakes.
Reform Radicals speak to everyone from supporters of religious extremists to terrorism convicts who still believe in their cause and are waiting to launch another attack.
Social reintegration: Arif Budi Setyawan (left) talks to one of his mentees, Wildan (right), during a community engagement event in Singosari, Malang, in December 2019, as part of a social reintegration program for former prisoners. (Courtesy of Kreasi Prasasti Perdamaian/Outreach Project) (Courtesy of Kreasi Prasasti Perdamaian)
Saifuddin Umar, widely known as Abu Fida, knows this firsthand. His involvement in the regional terrorist 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 counter-terrorism squad, arrested him in 2004, although he was soon released. Ten years later, he was again arrested and brought to justice for his past criminal activities. He spent three years in prison and was released in 2017.
Since then, his life has changed. He is now a public speaker who helps counter extremist ideas and mitigate terrorist threats.
National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) Prevention Director Ahmad Nurwahid acknowledged the importance of including former detainees in prevention and deradicalization programmes.
“There’s a saying that ‘only radicals or former radicals understand what’s going on in the mind of a radical,'” Ahmad said, adding that involving former prisoners in de-radicalization programs could help overcome inmates’ reluctance to participate.
“People who have radicalized in the past are better able to explain to people convicted of terrorism the situation they have experienced. Since rehabilitated terrorists have once become radicalized, prisoners will not hesitate [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 Gontor ponderren (Islamic boarding school) in Ponorogo, East Java, where he started reading books espousing extremist ideas.
“These books were not used as teaching materials, but were sold free of charge in the school cooperative. The books ignited my idealism about how to deal with unjust rulers,” the 55-year-old Muslim cleric said.
Saifuddin believed that all Muslims should live under Sharia. His conviction was strengthened when he was assigned to the Al-Mukmin ponderren in Solo, Central Java, on a teaching assignment from 1984 to 1985. There he joined the underground movement of the Indonesian Islamic State (NII), which sought to establish an Islamic state.
He went to Syria for a year in 1986 to improve his Arabic, then to Jordan for a year and a half to study Islamic education. Thereafter, he joined thousands of foreign fighters 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 pardoned 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 Al-Islam ponderren in Lamongan, East Java. He did not graduate from school due to health issues and later completed a high school equivalency program.
However, he kept in touch with people from his old school who invited him to join a religious study group. Several years later, the group was discovered to be part of JI.
“Suddenly, a month after the  Attacks in Bali, the group ceases its activities. I was suspicious because the activity was interrupted in various places, not just one place,” said the 39-year-old Tuban resident.
At that time, many media reported that JI was behind the attacks. Arif decided to visit a preacher who was attending 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 started by helping recruit people to join terrorist paramilitary training in Aceh. Police dismantled the training camp in February 2010, but Arif was not arrested.
In 2014, he was arrested in South Jakarta for 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 reduced sentence.
Densus 88 arrested 370 terrorism suspects in 2021, an increase from the previous year, but experts say these efforts need to be complemented by rehabilitation and prevention programs, including those involving reformed terrorism convicts.
“They have experience and knowledge. In terms of knowledge, there is a program 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 the terrorism prevention organization Ruangobrol.
Boaz added that Ruangobrol has helped “credible voices,” referring to rehabilitated terrorist convicts and individuals who have overcome radicalization, to share their stories.
“Ustadz Abu Fida is one of the important personalities in East Java who plays a role in minimizing the potential threat of terrorism by offering alternative knowledge,” Boaz said.
The BNPT has formed the Coordination Forum for Terrorism Prevention (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 reoffended.
Boaz said that solving the problem of recidivism would require everyone’s help and that it was impossible for the government to act alone.
“Once convicts have completed their sentences, state and non-state actors who engage in terrorism prevention should be able to access them personally. This is not only to maintain security, but also to ensure that they do not return to their past activities,” Boaz said.
Outreach: Saifuddin Umar (right) and Arif Budi Setyawan (second from right) talk to young Indonesians about terrorism in Surabaya in September 2019. (Courtesy Kreasi Prasasti Perdamaian/Outreach Project) (Outreach Project/With l courtesy of Kreasi Prasasti Perdamaian)
Family played an important role in changing Saifuddin’s mindset. “I 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 aimed at helping prevent radicalization. He has also helped terrorism convicts disengage from violence.
“I tried to converse with five to ten convicts in Lamongan and Porong prison. I observed their respective characters as they didn’t all have similar personalities. Finally, their attitude has softened,” said the new graduate of Muhammadiyah University of Surabaya.
In 2020, Saifuddin and several ex-convicts from East Java established a foundation called Fajar Ikhwan Sejahtera (FIS).
“The goal is to build a friendship and make the organization our new world so that we don’t go back to our past activities. We socialize with other mass organizations in East Java because we are not exclusive,” he said.
Arif Tuban, too, participates in the prevention of radicalization and recidivism while maintaining a close relationship with his family.
From 2019 to 2020, Arif participated in the Ruangobrol awareness project. He mentored five inmates convicted of terrorism who had traveled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State (IS).
“Four of them told me, as their release date approached, that they were worried their commercial counterparts were going away,” Arif said.
One convict was hesitant to meet Arif because he feared being harassed by other inmates who remained radicalized.
“Eventually I convinced him that after his release he would not be alone because his fellow ex-terrorist inmates would help him. And [I told him] I would love to be his mentor,” Arif said.
Arif acknowledged that his family had been 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,” Arif said.