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Nouns not Verbs: How Prisons and Corruption Are Shaping Radicalism in Indonesia

May 20th, 2011

On October 12th, 2002, a group of terrorists detonated three bombs on the island of Bali in Indonesia, killing 202 and injuring 240 more. The two

In Indonesia, both imprisonment and execution of terrorists can foster stronger, wider Jihadist networks according to new research.

Photo credit: Still Burning/Flickr*

larger bombs targeted foreign tourists in a nightclub area and the smaller bomb detonated outside the United States consulate and caused minor damage. In 2008, Indonesia executed three of the more than 30 people convicted in connected with the mass murders. Many of these convicts were associated with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a militant Islamist group in Southeast Asia. The United States believes JI has ties to al-Qaeda and (had) a relationship with Osama Bin Laden.

But authorities had postponed these executions numerous times after sentencing, nervous about the political and security ramifications. Many, including the inmates themselves, believed their deaths could become a rallying point for supporters. Indeed, after their deaths, thousands of supporters welcomed their bodies by rallying and chanting “God is Great.”

Until the deadly attacks in 2002, Indonesia had largely resisted international pressure to crack down on suspected terrorists and denied the terrorist organization al-Qaeda had an internal presence or connections to domestic groups. In response to this event, however, Indonesia’s stance evolved significantly. Indonesia’s defense minister made a statement that he was “sure that al-Qaeda is here” and the country significantly increased cooperation on counterterrorism with the United States.

Indonesia has seen success in its efforts—since 2000, prosecutors and courts have convicted and imprisoned nearly 600 individuals on charges of terrorism, the majority for activities like bomb attacks, targeted assassination, and abatement. Indonesia has captured or killed many JI leaders, including 80 individuals linked to a militant training camp. All told, Indonesia has about 150 inmates currently serving time for terrorist activities—and that number is likely to rise.

Surprisingly or not, the story doesn’t end there. A new report, Jihadists in Jail: radicalization and the Indonesian prison experience, tells the tale of what happens after the “happy ending” of arrest and conviction. The author, Dr. Carl Ungerer, a former Australian government intelligence analyst, interviewed thirty-three Indonesian men jailed on charges of terrorism for a year-long study to determine the relationship between imprisonment and militant radicalism. His conclusions are startling. Ungerer writes that “prisons provide opportunities for terrorist convicts to establish new networks,” and that “relationships formed in prison can lead inmates to feel a greater sense of solidarity,” which results in long-lasting personal connections between militants, even those who have abandoned jihadism.

As this narrative shows, the relationship between a state and terrorism is often complex and dynamic. Unlike in the Middle East, where many terrorists are from the middle class, much of the terrorism in Indonesia develops out of economic deprivation or perceived inequality. Radicalization in Indonesia also grows in response to corruption and poor governance, particularly when people see the political system only benefits the rich. But motivations can also be familiar: many radicals are from extremist families or have had a personal encounter with an extremist religious figure. As the above anecdotes illustrate, terrorism can breed from either the execution or the imprisonment of another terrorist.

Governance and security are fundamentally intertwined with terrorism, both as the solution as a root of the problem. Our focus is too often on verbs: Capture more terrorists, imprison more terrorists, kill more terrorists, without an understanding of the ramifications of those actions. Our focus should be on nouns: inequality, corruption, governance, deprivation. Those are the true solutions.

* Image License: Some rights reserved

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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