Why terrorists go back to their old ways

In the second of a two-parter, two researchers examine why convicted terrorists re-engage in violence upon release.

Labourers doing planting work in front of Cipinang prison, where one of the four men who carried out the Jan 14 attacks in Jakarta was influenced by fellow convict and firebrand cleric Aman Abdurrahman while an inmate. Some terrorist recidivists whom
Labourers doing planting work in front of Cipinang prison, where one of the four men who carried out the Jan 14 attacks in Jakarta was influenced by fellow convict and firebrand cleric Aman Abdurrahman while an inmate. Some terrorist recidivists whom the writers interviewed essentially repeated the trajectory that originally brought them into extremist violence. PHOTO: REUTERS

We may never know what motivated four men to mount the Jan 14 suicide bomb and gun attacks in Jakarta, the first major terrorist attack in Indonesia since the 2009 twin hotel bombings. A statement attributed to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group called them "Islamic State fighters" who were "targeting foreign nationals and the security forces charged with protecting them in the Indonesian capital".

Two of the four militants were known to Indonesian police because they had previously been convicted of and served jail time for terrorism-related offences. Was their re-engagement in violence foreseeable?

Predicting terrorist recidivism is not a science; recidivism rates are difficult to calculate when there is no national database tracking arrests, convictions and releases in a timely manner.

In 2013, the Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) said that 25 out of 300 terrorists released from prison had "gone back to their old terror habits".

We estimate the recidivism rate to be at least 15 per cent now, based on the 47 cases we found. What is of greater concern is what these recidivists have been doing:

  • Five were killed in shoot-outs with police in 2009 and 2010, and two - Muhammad Ali and Sunakim - were killed during the Jan 14 attacks in downtown Jakarta;
  • at least six went to fight in Syria under the ISIS banner;
  • several started or joined new extremist groups that have been targeting Indonesian police officers - including Santoso, currently Indonesia's most wanted fugitive;
  • two ideologues - Aman Abdurrahman and Abu Bakar Bashir - became even more influential in extremist circles with their jailhouse publications and fatwas, and especially after they joined the ISIS bandwagon.

Our review of the 47 cases reveal five commonalities.

Labourers doing planting work in front of Cipinang prison, where one of the four men who carried out the Jan 14 attacks in Jakarta was influenced by fellow convict and firebrand cleric Aman Abdurrahman while an inmate. Some terrorist recidivists whom
Labourers doing planting work in front of Cipinang prison, where one of the four men who carried out the Jan 14 attacks in Jakarta was influenced by fellow convict and firebrand cleric Aman Abdurrahman while an inmate. Some terrorist recidivists whom the writers interviewed essentially repeated the trajectory that originally brought them into extremist violence. PHOTO: REUTERS

First, most of the convicts returned to terrorism while on probation for their first offence, that is, within the first two years of release. Second, they went back to their old social networks upon release because the ikhwan (brothers in the network) were the only friends they had. Jemaah Islamiah (JI) as an organisation has a strict policy of not including former inmates in closed-door activities in their first two years of freedom (as those on parole usually have to report to the authorities during this time). But it did not disavow them or stop them from attending funerals and social occasions.

Third, their wives supported their continued engagement because their own brothers and fathers are in the network. Some wives are active in fund-raising activities and a number of online extremist websites.

Fourth, prison did not change their ideological beliefs. They continued to believe that their notion of armed jihad is a very critical element in Islamic teachings and therefore they have to keep performing it. For them, jihad as understood by them is the legitimate use of violence against the enemy of Islam. The only question is when and how to use it.

Lastly, many took on more active roles the second time round, especially if they were not previously involved in violence.

Almost two-thirds of the recidivists we studied showed escalation in commitment to extremist violence and a few took on the mantle of leadership on re-entering prison. These veterans use their higher status to recruit other inmates in their own block and the general population, often through religious discussions. Criminal offenders are prepared to follow them because they provide religious guidance as well as security protection.


Our interviews with a number of terrorist recidivists show that they essentially repeated the trajectory that originally brought them into extremist violence. Or they were pulled back in by one of four drivers: friendship, discipleship, group pressure and economic pressure.

Loyalty to friends and the group may be the single most important factor in predicting recidivism. Former terrorism offenders tend to rejoin old groups because they hang out and mingle with people who share the same ideas.

The recruitment process may be a gradual one of negotiation and discussion. But for former prisoners, the process is much faster because their existing social networks - friends, family and colleagues - are linked to active extremist networks and can provide moral justification for their violent acts.

Extremist media outlets, online and in print, also constantly praise released terrorist inmates as mujahideen, or warriors. In post-conflict areas like Poso and Ambon, released terrorist prisoners are hailed as heroes and enjoy a higher social status.

Group pressure to prove themselves can be great for those who were only on the periphery when they were first arrested. One young man was sentenced to three years' jail in 2006 for helping Noordin Top - who had orchestrated three terrorist attacks in Indonesia between 2003 and 2005 - to escape. Although he did not engage in any violence, he was nicknamed Joko Jihad, meaning "Joko who believes and engages in jihad". On his release in 2008, he apparently felt a need to live up to his name and joined a new terrorist cell that called itself Al-Qaeda Indonesia. He was re-arrested in September 2012 after several attacks on police stations in Solo.


On the other hand, disillusion can set in when inmates see through the hypocritical behaviour of their mentors and leaders, causing them to revisit their ideological beliefs and come up with a new identity. The sense of betrayal and abandonment by their group leaders has been cited as a key push factor by former prisoners.

"Publicly, they said the police are thaghut (evil), but privately some of them asked the police to help their family economically outside the prison," one inmate who had taken part in a terrorist attack revealed to us. Disgusted with his former leaders, he left the network, went back to school, got married and started a new life.

Our interviews with former terrorism offenders suggest that during their first year of release, many weigh the costs and benefits of returning to their previous group against those of starting afresh. Those who are able to get help from family, friends or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) outside the extremist network stand a better chance of slowly disengaging from militancy and creating new social networks. Cutting themselves off from their old friends is not an option many can take up immediately. Many felt that the extremist group was their spiritual home; they felt protected and cared for.

Recently released prisoners shared with us their dreams of becoming entrepreneurs.

A number of former terrorists have attempted to start a new life by hawking herbal medicine, cooked food and other sundries - small businesses with no overheads other than for the ingredients of the products they sell. But these are the lucky ones who have been able to find someone prepared to provide the seed money for them to start a business. Their guardian angel has usually been a family member or a local NGO. None has received help from any government programme.

The temptation to return to a life of militancy will always be there, especially if the community in which they live constantly equates violence with religious faith. Solo is one example, with the region having been a traditional recruiting ground for extremist groups. Those with military skills acquired from JI-run training programmes, or battle-hardened from fighting with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, occasionally get requests from aspiring militants to share their skills. They need reasons to say no, especially when they say that fighting alongside their fellow mujahideen was the best time of their lives. One former prisoner said he rejected such requests because it would mean giving up his new life and identity as an entrepreneur.


Until now, the Indonesian government has not found the political will to provide adequate rehabilitation programmes for inmates in prisons, or to fund the perpetually under-staffed parole office to provide meaningful aftercare services.

In October 2013, an Indonesian corrections chief complained that he did not have a budget for a comprehensive rehabilitation programme for terrorist inmates. He did not even have funds to train his prison officers to deal with such prisoners, he said. The warden of a large prison was more blunt. He told us in an interview that his staff, most of whom had only high school education, "still hold an old mindset that a terrorist is just like another type of criminal".

He summarised the problem thus: "In a nutshell, our knowledge and skills are only a metre high but the terrorism problem is three metres high. We are now struggling to jump to reach three metres.

"Currently, our approach to them is mostly a security approach. Just make sure they follow prison regulations. That is it. With our limited resources, especially budget, we face an enormous challenge to deal with them. (Counter-terrorism unit) Densus 88 does not share much information about them. BNPT comes here only for certain projects. They just come and go."

The BNPT projects he was referring to were attempts at deradicalisation. They include experiments using conflict management training, traditional wayang kulit puppet shows and a programme known as Clinic Pancasila, which teaches the values of Indonesia's state ideology to convicted terrorists. Unsurprisingly, the prison officials doubted the effectiveness of the programmes, especially since they had not been trained to administer them.

But despite their lack of rigour, these programmes were scrutinised intensely by the convicted terrorists themselves. The inmates made it clear to us that they saw the deradicalisation programmes in terms of benefits and costs. If a programme offers them benefits, they will agree to participate in it to receive the reward. But if a programme might harm them as an individual or as a group, then their argument is that as mujahideen, it is taboo for them to accept any kind of programme from thaghut - in this case, the Indonesian government.

The prison ideologues took no chances. They used fatwas and peer pressure to prevent their fellow inmates from joining the BNPT programmes and put out publications to counter Jakarta's counter-radicalisation arguments.

Aman's books are among these publications. They were treated as knowledgeable sources of discourse on jihad within and beyond the prison walls.

Aman, who is serving time in Nusakambangan Prison, has also forbidden his followers from having anything to do with the government, prison officers, BNPT and anyone implementing deradicalisation programmes. But with participation in such programmes a condition for early release, this has become an ultimate test of wills. Thus far, the prospect of early freedom seems more enticing than staying in prison. Many are still applying for remission.

It remains to be seen if the Jakarta attacks will strengthen the government's resolve to implement evidence-based rehabilitation programmes for terrorist inmates before releasing them. Local and foreign NGOs can help develop skills-training programmes and provide seed funding for released prisoners to "unlock the second prison", to quote Singapore's Yellow Ribbon Project. But continued monitoring of these terrorists-turned-entrepreneurs is a job for the authorities, and again the resources are lacking.

To counter violent extremism, there is no substitute for good public policy and governance.

  • Susan Sim, vice-president for Asia of The Soufan Group, and adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, was previously a diplomat, intelligence analyst and Indonesia bureau chief for The Straits Times from 1996 to 2002.
    Noor Huda Ismail, a PhD candidate in politics and international relations at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, founded the Institute of International Peace Building in Jakarta and pioneered a Food for Peace programme to help former terrorists reintegrate into society.
  • This was also published by the Brookings Centre for East Asia Policy Studies.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline Why terrorists go back to their old ways. Subscribe