Study: Extremists still flourishing in Indonesia’s prisons

February 9, 2018
FILE - In this June 6, 2011, file photo convicted militant Muhammad Syarif Tarabubun, right, who was sentenced to 15 years for his role in a karaoke club attack that killed two Christians in Maluku islands, speaks during an interview outside of his cell in Porong Prison in Sidoarjo, East Java, Indonesia. Indonesia's overcrowded prisons are ill-equipped to deal with Islamic militant inmates, hampering efforts to prevent the spread of violent radicalism, a new study has found, adding to years of warnings by experts that the country's prisons have become a jihadist training ground. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim, File)

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia’s overcrowded prisons are ill-equipped to deal with Islamic militant inmates, hampering efforts to prevent the spread of violent radicalism in institutions that have become known as jihadist breeding grounds, a study has found.

The research by University of Indonesia psychologists, which adds to years of warnings by experts, found that prison staff lack the ability to identify “high-risk” prisoners who could recruit other inmates because they’re given limited information and little specialist training.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, has arrested and imprisoned hundreds of Islamic militants in a crackdown that followed an attack on the island of Bali in 2002. Yet many remained committed to violent extremism — both during and after their incarceration — and used their time in prison to radicalize others, who went on to commit acts of violence.

The eight-month study at the four largest Indonesian prisons found staff who have close contact with inmates don’t know how to limit the influence of hard-line ideologues or identify the less ideologically committed who could be disentangled with simple interventions, said Faisal Magrie, coordinator of the research, which was released Thursday.

The problems in the prison system are often defeating efforts to turn convicted militants away from radicalism, he said.

The challenges are exacerbated by poor coordination among government agencies and non-government organizations, which leads to duplicated efforts and unclear de-radicalization programs, Magrie said.

“As a result, inmates are confused by the program, bored, and eventually refuse to participate,” he said.

Irfan Idris, director of de-radicalization at the National Counter-Terrorism Agency, said the radicalization of ordinary criminals by militants who support the Islamic State group continues to be a nightmare for police and prison officials.

He said at least 18 former prisoners have been involved in extremist cases in Indonesia since 2010, and most were radicalized in prison.

Efforts have since been made to isolate high-profile militant leaders to prevent the spread of violent ideology.

Two such ideologues in prison are Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the Southeast Asian radical network Jemaah Islamiyah, and Aman Abdurrahman, the main Indonesian translator for IS propaganda and the leader of Jemaah Anshorut Daulah, a network of almost two dozen Indonesian extremist groups formed in 2015.

Both Bashir and Aman have followings in and out of prison. Aman inspired those who staged a 2016 attack in Jakarta that left eight people dead, including the four perpetrators. After that attack, the two were isolated from other prisoners and visitors were restricted.

Yudi Zulfahri, a graduate of Indonesia’s civil service training college who later became radicalized in an Islamic study group, said he was talked out of radicalism by convicted Bali bomber Ali Imron, who cooperated with police and recanted his extremist beliefs.

“Imron opened my eyes and my heart to the truth of Islam and what we did in the past is wrong,” said Zulfahri, who spent five years in prison for attending a jihadist training camp in Aceh. “De-radicalization would be more effective if done by the former radical himself.”

In prison Zulfahri said he witnessed how easy it was for criminals to be radicalized but added it could be easily prevented by separating militant prisoners from the general prison population.

Overpopulated prisons are the main reason de-radicalization efforts are struggling, said Bahrul Wijaksana, a senior program manager of Search for Common Ground, a non-government organization based in Washington that works with Indonesia’s Directorate-General of Corrections.

Currently, he said, the 477 prisons in Indonesia, which were built to accommodate 115,000 inmates, are holding about 254,000 prisoners. In big cities, prisons are four to five times overcapacity. Jakarta’s Cipinang Prison, built to hold 900 inmates, has nearly 4,000 prisoners.

Meanwhile, at current staffing levels in prison, there is one officer for every 55 inmates, making it difficult if not impossible to closely monitor all prisoner activities.

“The deradicalization program is not going to be effective unless some of these issues are addressed,” said Wijaksana.

Zainal Arifin, an official at the Justice and Human Rights Ministry, said a “grand design” for handling high-risk inmates is being implemented.

A “one man one cell” prison, located in the Nusa Kambangan area, is under construction and will be able to hold 124 convicted militants when completed this year, he said.

Arifin said the ministry is assessing 276 militant inmates scattered across 108 prisons to decide which should be separated from the general prison population.

“Deradicalization is a big job and we cannot work alone,” Arifin said.

The effort even needs to include the public, he said, because released militants are known to return to jihadist networks because they’re often ostracized and unable to find work after release.

“People are urged not to exclude those who are released to prevent them from returning to their old habits,” he said.