By Keisyah Aprilia
A government program to de-radicalize former members of the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen is missing the mark in helping wipe out the Islamic State-linked group, which remains a potent threat in mountainous Poso regency despite being depleted, observers and ex-fighters said.
The program to reform former members of the group also known as MIT and dissuade them from returning to violent extremism is ineffective because it focuses on helping them financially rather than educating them, they said.
“When a de-radicalization project focuses on economics without paying attention to the issue of how to change people’s mindset using theological approaches, [softening someone’s radicalism] is a long shot,” Harits Abu Ulya, a terrorism observer at the Community of Ideological Islamic Analysts, told BenarNews.
MIT isn’t large – not any more. Its members comprise a mere 11, compared with more than 40 in its early years in the 2010s, according to police. Since 2016, many militants have been killed in joint operations by government security forces.
Yet despite massive police and military manhunts targeting the group in Poso, MIT remains lethal. Members of the group crossed into Sigi, a neighboring regency, where they killed four Christian villagers last week, including beheading one of the victims, according to the authorities.
Poso, MIT’s home base in Central Sulawesi province, has complex problems related to a religious conflict that tore the regency apart at the turn of the century, Ulya said.
Many people here haven’t forgotten violence between Christians and Muslims that left more than 1,000 people dead in Pose from 1998 till 2001. By all accounts, the bloodletting spawned MIT.
Even today, the militants’ purported cause – avenging the killings of their Muslim brothers and sisters nearly 20 years ago, and supporting the Islamic State group – still finds support among some in the broader Sulawesi region.
People still are drawn to MIT because the Poso government’s deradicalization efforts are neither holistic nor well thought out, said Adriyani Badra, executive director of the Celebes Institute, an NGO that has studied the insurgency here.
This has resulted in many former MIT convicts relapsing, and, worse, taking new recruits with them, she said.
“There are several former terrorist convicts who have joined the government’s deradicalization programs and later rejoined a radical group. This is an undeniable fact,” Adriyani told BenarNews.
“There is no evaluation and no monitoring to measure what the deradicalization programs have achieved.”
Close to two decades after the inter-religious conflict, many Muslim residents in Poso consider slain MIT members to be “jihad fighters and not terrorists,” Andi Akbar, a lawyer from a group called the Muslim Legal Team, said earlier this year.
Drawn back in
Indonesia’s prison system is also a factor for why extremist groups such as MIT endure, according to counter-terrorism experts.
Eleven percent of former terror convicts in Indonesia reoffend because they are surrounded by a high level of radicalism in prison, according to a report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a think-tank in Jakarta.
In addition, ex-cons are in close contact with a militant family member after their release, or their earlier cause is still a potent draw that reels them back in, IPAC said.
Sukarno Ahmad Ino, a former MIT combatant, cited two examples of failed de-radicalization – Santoso (alias Abu Wardah), the MIT leader who was shot dead by government forces in 2016, and his successor, Muhammad Basri, who was arrested two months after.
Both Santoso and Basri were born in Poso and fought in the 1998-2001 religious conflict. Santoso had been jailed for a year in 2006, for robbery. Basri was in prison, serving nine years for beheading Christians and for other terror attacks, when he escaped in 2013.
“After the Poso conflict they underwent deradicalization programs, but all of them were fruitless as they returned to the path of terrorism,” Ino told BenarNews.
BNPT’s deradicalization programs focus on instilling loyalty to the Indonesian state rather than on giving prisoners, while still in detention or after release, new goals, marketable skills or access to new networks, IPAC’s report said.
Meanwhile, a 2018 anti-terrorism law that has allowed the police to conduct “preventive strikes” against suspected militants, has resulted in the arrests of hundreds of suspects, where offenders are incarcerated for short periods before being released, according to IPAC.
“This means the prisons have become even more of a revolving door for convicted terrorists than they have been in the past, with individuals released after minimal in-prison counseling programs,” IPAC said.
However, Boy Rafli Amar, the head of the BNPT, believes those who are released will be able to reintegrate into society.
“In prisons they have also been provided with assistance so that when they are released they will be able to adapt more easily,” Boy said during a visit to Poso in August.
Seven convicts were released in Poso in 2019 but about 35 are still serving time in various locations, including on Java island and other parts of Sulawesi island, he said.
Ex-con: ‘Everyone wants to make a good living’
Government assistance to former terror convicts and combatants in Poso includes business capital, skills training and access to local government projects to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure works, officials said.
Ino, formerly of MIT, told BenarNews he had participated in some of these activities organized by the government and NGOs.
“Some of my friends, both ex-terrorism convicts and former combatants, have been successful. Some have become entrepreneurs and contractors for a number of [government] projects,” he said.
Still, Ino criticized the government’s deradicalization strategy, which he described as “instant” and solely financial.
“The approach that is purely economic has led to envy among former convicts and combatants [who did not benefit from government programs],” Ino said.
“Because of the inequality, ex-terror convicts and former combatants clash. Some even attack each other’s work.”
Rusli Baco Daeng Palabbi, the deputy governor of Central Sulawesi, dismissed Ino’s claims. He told BenarNews that almost all former combatants or ex-terror convicts in Poso received attention from the government.
He acknowledged that not all of them have access to government projects because some did not meet certain requirements.
“Well, some were given (projects) because they have legal business entities,” Rusli said.
Arifuddin Lako, a former terrorism convict, said he would not take part in government projects, even if he were qualified.
“Everyone wants to make a good living. It’s not that I don’t want to do such a job, but an empowerment method like that is not fair, in my opinion,” Lako told BenarNews.
It isn’t enough to offer financial assistance to former terrorism convicts and Poso conflict combatants, observers said.
They need serious help through education and mentoring, which they don’t get, Adriyani of the Celebes Institute said.
And to be effective, teaching and guidance are measures that shouldn’t just be dispensed from on high, they need to be shared with community leaders, said Mohammad Adhe Bhakti, executive director of the Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies (PAKAR).
Adhe, who has also been involved in a government deradicalization program in Poso, said that all sections of society, including religious bodies, must play a role, not just the government.
“Community leaders are an important element when we talk about Poso. People listen to religious leaders,” he told BenarNews.
Some local government bodies in Poso have taken the initiative to draw in the community into deradicalization efforts, a report by Paramadina Center for Studies on Religion and Democracy (PUSAD) report said last year.
For instance, local government has started to give women a greater role in promoting peace and involved local religious leaders in developing moderate education courses.
PUSAD also said that more and more young interfaith activists have started building bridges between the two dominant religious communities in Poso.
“Unfortunately, there is still inadequate support from some sections of society for such activities,” said PUSAD.
Ronna Nirmala and Ahmad Syamsudin contributed to this report from Jakarta.