Re-arrest of Indonesia’s most-wanted terror suspect highlights flawed deradicalization efforts

By Robin Mcdowell, AP
Thursday, June 24, 2010

Indonesia’s deradicalization program under fire

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Not long ago, Abdullah Sunata was a poster child for Indonesia’s efforts to persuade jailed terrorists to give up their violent ways. He was given furloughs to attend lawn parties and police helped pay for mounting hospital bills when his wife gave birth.

But immediately after his release on good behavior one year ago, Sunata allegedly returned to his old ways, catapulting to the top of the country’s most-wanted list.

He was arrested Wednesday for suspected involvement in a plot to carry out a Mumbai-style attack in the capital, Jakarta, and several high-profile assassinations, including one on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Sunata’s turnaround, experts say, highlights weaknesses in the predominantly Muslim country’s deradicalization program.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Singapore, efforts here have been largely police-led, focusing on getting prisoners to renounce violence and co-opting informers. While officers provide financial help to reformed inmates and their families, and sometimes help negotiate early releases, little is done to challenge radical religious tenets, such as the goal of imposing Islamic rule.

“Many of those who are supposedly deradicalized remain committed to those goals,” said John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University.

Indonesia, the world’s most populace Muslim nation, is a secular democracy. It was thrust into the front lines of the battle against terrorism in 2002, when al-Qaida-linked nightclub bombings on the resort island of Bali killed 202 people, many of them foreign tourists. There have been several attacks on Western targets since then, but all have been far less deadly — and the most recent was a year ago.

Analysts credit a security crackdown that has netted nearly 600 militants. Of those, about 20 are considered reformed and actively working with police.

There have been several success stories, most famously Nasir Abbas, a former al-Qaida-linked militant who helped train the Bali bombers. After his 2004 release from prison, he became instrumental in helping track down and arrest several of his former comrades.

He also enters prisons to hold religious arguments with inmates against some violent forms of jihad.

But many others join the list of disappointments.

Bomb-maker Bagus Budi Pranoto engaged in the deradicalization program while serving a four-year sentence for involvement in a 2004 Australian Embassy bombing in Jakarta. Soon after his release, he helped carry out last year’s attacks on the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels.

Making friends with the enemy always has its risks, and other nations have seen high-profile failures as well.

The Saudi rehabilitation program — considered a pioneer of deradicalization — encourages returning detainees to abandon Islamic extremism and reintegrate into civilian life. The well-funded and highly structured program includes psychological counseling, vocational training, and religious re-education.

One Guantanamo detainee who was released in 2007 and sent to Saudi Arabia to benefit from that program later fled to Yemen and became deputy commander of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

“There’s no one country that can guarantee that their deradicalization program will work 100 percent of the time,” said Ansyaad Mbai, the top anti-terrorism official at Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Security and Political Affairs.

“The most important thing is that there are terrorists who want to cooperate and are aware of their mistakes and ideological confusion,” he said. “If five out of 10 give up their ways and are integrated back into society, in my mind that’s a success.”

There is recognition within the government that changes must be made — especially within prisons, where terrorists easily recruit new members and spread extremist thoughts — but that is not expected to happen quickly.

Sunata first came to prominence as a militant in 1999, when he led Kompak, an armed Islamic group that took part in fighting between Christian and Muslims in the eastern Molucca island chain.

New footage on YouTube from that time shows him directing dozens of alleged militants ahead of an assault in a coastal village on Seram island. The camera scans over rows of assault weapons and piles of ammunition, young men waiting to be led.

“We believe that we are on the right side,” he tells them before handing them their arms, one by one. “And what we are doing now, God willing, will be good in God’s eyes,” to which the youths replied: “God willing!”

Sunata was arrested in 2005 for possession of weapons and for hiding Noordin M. Top, the late bomb-making expert who orchestrated all of the major suicide bombings targeting Westerners in Indonesia, including the Bali nightclub blasts.

Behind bars, Sunata was viewed as a shining example of how even hardened criminals could change.

“He was a nice person, cooperative with our rehabilitation program,” said Noor Huda Ismail, executive director of the Inscription Peace Foundation, established in 2008 to help reform terrorism inmates. “But in the end, I admit it, he was a failure.

“It looks like his old friends convinced him to return to his jihadi ways.”

Sunata’s new cell, uncovered in February, was comprised of militants from several groups with ties to the Middle East and the Philippines. Authorities found a cache of M-16 assault rifles, revolvers and thousands of rounds of ammunition at their jihadi training camp in the western province of Aceh.

They also said they uncovered plans to launch Mumbai-style terror strikes and to kill Yudhoyono and other high-profile targets.

More than 70 alleged members of the Aceh cell have been arrested or killed by police in recent months. Of those, it was found, 16 had relapsed into criminal behavior after being released from jail, said Sidney Jones, an expert on Southeast Asian extremists.

“It isn’t really so much a question of ‘is the deradicalization program working or not,’ it’s the fact that prisons in Indonesia are out of control,” she said. Unless that changes, “Sunata in prison may not be as dangerous as he was outside, but he certainly continues to be a threat.”

Last month, police blocked a blog publishing an article allegedly written by Sunata, in which he called on fellow former convicted terrorists to continue to fight for their faith and not to follow in the footsteps of people such as Abbas — the reformed al-Qaida-linked militant — calling him a “helper of evil.”

Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this report from Jakarta.


Sunata training militants:

will not be displayed