Indonesia is Arresting More Terrorists Than Ever Before, and That's Creating a Huge Problem

Over-crowded prisons are about to get even more packed.
August 20, 2018, 4:15am
Photo by FB Anggoro/Antara Foto/via Reuters

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia

The National Police's Mobile Brigade (BriMob) detention center was already a ticking time bomb when a riot broke out on 8 May involving 30 convicted terrorists, many of them affiliated with the now-banned terrorist organization Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). The facility in the outskirts of Jakarta was overcrowded, under-staffed, and packed with highly organized inmates who shared a common ideology.


The situation isn't going to get any better. Police have gone on an arrest spree in recent months, detaining more than 300 alleged terrorists after Indonesia's new, and controversial, anti-terrorism laws awarded the authorities wider latitude when it came to making arrests.

But, while the country figured out how to arrested would-be terrorists and their supporters, it hasn't figured out where to put them all. That BriMob detention center was only built for 150 inmates. It was over-crowded at the time of the riot and, since then, these terrorists have been sent out to prisons in other parts of the country.

A recent report by the Institute for Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) found that the country's prison system was fast marching toward a future where its maximum security prisons hit capacity.

"Indonesia does not have enough maximum security facilities to hold a dramatically increased number of extremists before and after trial," the IPAC report read. "The number of incarcerated extremists has skyrocketed since the bombing attacks in Surabaya on 13-14 May 2018."

Indonesian authorities detained about 400 alleged terrorists between January and August of 2018. There were already 289 convicted terrorists in the prison system, said Suhardi Alius, the chief of the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT). About 70 terrorist convicts finished their prison sentences during the same period out of a total 144 slated for release in the near term.

Watch our documentary about the school rehabilitating the children of convicted terrorists:

All these new inmates are raising concerns among experts who study Indonesia's terrorist networks, and its prisons, where a significant amount of radicalism occurs.

"The prison system was already overburdened," the IPAC report read. "With many more coming in than going out, and most of those likely to receive heavier sentences than in the past, it is not clear how already overburdened detention centers, prosecutors, courts and prisons are going to cope."


The thing is, even without all these additional terrorist arrests, Indonesia's prisons were already over-crowded, short-staffed, and prone to riots. There are some 230,000 inmates throughout the country, spread across 512 prisons, according to Yasonna Laoly, the country's law and human rights minister. There are 14,600 prison guards and inmates on staff, which means that, on average, one guard has to watch 20 inmates.

There are only five maximum security prisons in Indonesia, including those in Nusakambangan, the prison island off the coast of Cilicap, Central Java. Dangerous convicts, like terrorists, are often placed in isolation cells with no contact with the outside world in order to reduce the chance that they would continue preaching their radical views to the rest of the world. Each prison is built to hold about 120 inmates. There are already 100 terrorist convicts there, and the police just arrested four times that amount in recent months.

Authorities moved a lot of these dangerous convicts out of the BriMob detention center in the wake of May's riot, an incident that left five dead. But right when it closed down that detention center, the number of arrests made possible by the new anti-terrorism law spiked. These detainees are now being held in regional jails, and a new maximum security facility is being built in Bogor, West Java. But none of these are seen as a long-term solution, one that could cope with a dramatic increase in inmates sentenced to longer prison sentences than ever before, the IPAC report found.


"With all of the makeshift arrangements in place, it will be nothing short of a miracle if there are no escapes or escape attempts by some of the suspects arrested since May," the report read.

Then there's the concern of further radicalization in prison. Under the new anti-terrorism law, authorities have begun to arrest both hardcore militants, and those who support them with cash or preaching as well. These softer radicals, many of them mere members of a terrorist organization, but not actually involved in plotting a direct attack, could become more hardened behind bars, and a bigger threat upon their release.

"With the 2018 law now permitting arrests on much broader grounds, such as membership in a terrorist organization, there may be more peripheral players taken into custody than ever before, making it all the more important that these individuals are not further radicalized in prison," the report read.

Indonesia will need to expand its deradicalization and rehabilitation programs as well in the wake of all these new arrests, Rohan Gunaratna, the head of a terrorism research organization at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Indonesia, at the moment, relies too heavily on crackdowns and punishment, and not enough on understanding, and countering, the roots of radicalism.

“With rehabilitation program, we can fight terrorism without militaristic approach. However, the process often takes a long time and requires patience and dedication,” Rohan told VICE. “It’s impossible to make one rehabilitation program as a standard. The government could develop any rehabilitation model, but it can’t be used as a solution to handle all terrorist groups. Every rehabilitation program should be done using community perspective.”


Prisons themselves need to be built with rehabilitation in mind as well, Rohan said. This means putting an end to a dark history of torture and other human rights violations that occur immediately after arrest, and constructing facilities that allow them to establish a sense of community, outside their terrorist networks.

"Most prisons and detention centers have no rehabilitation center,” Rohan stated. “Those who need to undergo rehabilitation must be placed in an open rehabilitation center and that use a community-based approach.”

The BNPT has been a key player in countering terrorism since 2010 and it has built rehabilitation and deradicalization center in Sentul, Bogor. The facility, which was built in 2013, has 48 rooms that can house three prisoners each. Now, it is used as a place to hold Indonesians who just came back from Syria. But a lack of proper facilities has hampered deradicalization efforts.

Between 2010 and 2015, 800 convicted terrorists were released from prison. Out of that figure, 115 of them returned to radical networks and became involved in terrorist activities again, according to BNPT data.

The problem, according to Yudi Zulfahri, an ex-terrorist himself, is that these rehabilitation programs rely too much on economic assistance and not enough on countering radical ideologies.

“The program is supposed to eliminate their radical ideology, but they mostly just give us assistance to start a business, et cetera," Yudi told VICE. "They never addressed the ideology. They (terrorists) will reject the BNPT when they suddenly come and try to change their views. The terrorists see them as an enemy, so they need Islamic organization to help BNPT.”

Without stronger support from knowledgable Islamic preachers, the government's efforts will continue to fall short—a dangerous reality in a future where the prisons are full of convicted terrorists. It just goes to show, when it comes to combating terrorism, there are no easy solutions.