Indonesia's Anti-Terrorism Efforts Are Falling Short

A recent spate of attacks highlight the failures of deradicalization programs.
November 16, 2016, 10:38am
Photo by Saud Rosadi for VICE Indonesia

A group of young children were playing in front of a church in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, when Juhanda approached the white brick building. The man, a convicted terrorist who was recently released from prison, was wearing a black t-shirt reading "Jihad Way of Life," and carrying a Molotov cocktail. He reportedly hurled the homemade explosive at the building, injuring three children and killing a two-year-old girl.


The attack, which came less than a month after a self-proclaimed ISIS supporter stabbed three police officers in Tangerang, is the latest incident to highlight a growing concern here in Indonesia over the effectiveness of the country's anti-terrorism programs.

"This incident has opened my eyes that the BNPT [the national counterterrorism agency] must improve its deradicalization program," Eva Sundari, a lawmaker with the PDI-P, told local media shortly after the attack. "The perpetrator was a convicted terrorist who was part of a network of radical groups who were involved in 2011 in the book bomb case."

Juhanda was a man well-known to Indonesian police. He was convicted in 2011 for his role in a series of "book bombings"—small bombs mailed in hollowed out books that were sent to a number of public figures who, at the time, were vocal in their opposition of Islamist radicals. Juhanda was released after serving just three years in prison and then apparently dropped off the radar.

"Deradicalization is a good effort. I see potential there. But to think that is the only solution is misguided." —Todd Elliott

He moved to Samarinda to join Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), the terrorist organization of jailed firebrand teacher Abu Bakar Ba'asyir. Juhanda was considered a small-timer, a man who played a minor role in a small-time terrorist plot. This recent incident shows, according to experts, the failings of Indonesian police and intelligence when it comes to monitoring small-time terrorists. Juhanda was somehow able to slip through the cracks.

The same could be said for Bahrun Naim, who was caught with more than 500 rounds of ammunition during a raid in Solo, Central Java, only to disappear to Syria upon his release. That man, a small-timer at the time of his arrest, was able to orchestrate the January 14 ISIS attack in Jakarta from his home in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria.


Indonesia has relied heavily on a deradicalization program since the year 2011 to varying degrees of success. The program aims to counter the teachings of the Takfiri doctrine—an offshoot of Salafi jihadism that was promoted by the now-deceased ISIS founder Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Much of the program relies on counseling, mass prayers, and dialogue, to reverse radical ideologies.

Since then, the program has proven effective around 80 percent of the time, according to Suhardi Alius, the head of Indonesia's counterterrorism agency the BNPT. That means that, on average, 20 percent of those convicted and jailed on terrorism offenses refuse to recant their jihadist beliefs. Today, there are about 222 terrorist convicts currently sitting in Indonesian prisons. About 68 of them refuse to accept deradicalization teachings—a fact that has some fearful that they will spread ISIS ideology once they are released.

One man, Aman Abdurrahman, a hard-line cleric who pledged allegiance to ISIS was jailed in 2010 for running a terrorist training camp in Aceh. He is set to be released within two years after serving a nine-year sentence at Indonesia's remote island prison Nusakambangan.

The scene of the Samarinda church attack. Photo by Saud Rosadi for VICE Indonesia

Sidney Jones, an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia and director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), has long warned of the dangers of inmates spreading radical ideologies in prison.

"I don't think there's a systematic program regarding the deradicalization," Jones told VICE Indonesia. "That's the problem."


It's incredibly difficult to measure the lasting impact of deradicalization programs in prison, said Todd Elliott, a terrorism analyst at Concord Consulting.

"The deradicalization program has had some successes and quite a bit failures, where it is actually being abused by some people who want to get shorter sentences," Elliott said. "And when they are released they go back to wage jihad. Deradicalization is a good effort. I see potential there. But to think that is the only solution is misguided."

Indonesia has been remarkably successful at crippling large domestic terrorist organizations since the foreign-funded anti-terrorism squad Densus 88 was founded in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings. Jemaah Islamiyah was the first organization to fall, and recently Indonesian security forces killed Santoso, the leader of the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur group that was operating out of Poso, Central Sulawesi. But the threat of attacks by smaller cells, or lone-wolf attackers, remains.

"While we have yet to see mass-casualty attacks, smaller cells are all over the place," Elliott told VICE Indonesia. "Militants don't have the opportunity to go overseas for training, but the risk of attacks could occur anytime. The situation is fluid. The incident in Cikokol, Tangerang, and Samarinda shows potential for, I don't wanna say lone-wolf, but isolated ISIS supporters to act up."

And there is an increasing threat of ISIS-related attacks here in Indonesia, explained Jones. As ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq, the group has thrown its efforts into coordinating terrorist attacks abroad in countries like Indonesia where strong regional ties to other terrorist organizations in the Philippines and Malaysia with ISIS connections remain a concern. Jihadist organizations operating out of the Sulu Sea, in the southern Philippines, could offer safe haven for returning jihadis from across the region.

"The southern Philippines militants have integrated networks," Jones said. "They have power structures."

Both Jones and Elliott warn of the threat of jihadis returning to Southeast Asia from ISIS-held territories.

"To monitor everyone who crosses the border is impossible," Elliott said. "I am sure there are Indonesians in the southern Philippines now. The fact that there are pro-ISIS groups in parts of the Philippines allegedly receiving some degree of support from Syria could be a pull factor for Indonesian militants.

"We've seen in the past ten years, whenever there were crackdowns on militants in Indonesia, some of them fled to southern Philippines."