Countering Terrorism

JAKARTA – The sweltering heat in the cramped and dark kitchen does little to dampen the spirits of the small man labouring over the stone pestle. A funny grin seems fixed on his face even as beads of sweat form on his wide forehead. He is mashing bright, red chillies into a paste, and he talks animatedly, using broad gestures and a smattering of English words to broach the language barrier. I train my video camera at the chillies and ask their torturer what it is he is making.

“Sambal!” he says with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, gesturing at the wicked-looking red goo in front of him.

Soon the paste is ready and the man saunters over to a few clay pots, where there is a waiting container for his creation. That done, he dusts his hands and hurries towards the cash register – just in time to receive payment from a customer who has just finished his meal. Out here there’s more light, and I get a better look at the man I had been searching for the past three days: Thirty-ish, he has a kind face, a ready smile, and surprisingly quick and quivering nervousness in his movements. But it is his eyes – always shifting and burning with purpose and life – that draw my attention the most.

It can get hectic here at Bebek Kendil, a restaurant specialising in duck dishes. The man now known as Yusoph Andirima admits the wages he earns as a cashier at the restaurant barely covers his family’s daily expenses. But it’s work that he has chosen and he says that he is determined to make a better life for himself.

During a brief lull he sits at my table and I offer him a bottle of cold tea from the menu. He accepts it with a grin and serves the drinks himself, setting the bottles down with hands covered in scars and callouses.

“One day I dream of having my own place like this,” he says, his arm sweeping across the small restaurant. But then his voice lowers and he tells me that life at present is one unending fight to survive. For one moment, Yusoph’s bright eyes go dull and fill with shadows of some distant memory.

Ten years ago, the affable Yusoph was fighting for something far different than decent wages and a good life for his family. He was and it seems always will be a mujaheedin, a holy warrior fighting for a jihad or holy war against enemies of Islam. His strong belief had led him to fight side by side with the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the marshlands of Central Mindanao in the Philippines against that country’s predominantly Christian government. Returning to Indonesia after two years of fighting in a foreign land, Yusoph was a natural fit for the radical Islamic movement in his homeland, and he became one of the recruits of a man they called Mustofa. Their recruiter’s other name was Abu Tholud; as it turned out, he happened to be a key figure in the extremist Jemaah Islamiyah or JI, which has been linked to Al-Qaeda, the terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden. Among the identified Islamist organisations in the region, JI has been singled out as particularly problematic, since its goal is to establish an Islamic state that would include not only Indonesia, but also Malaysia and the southern Philippines.

The region as a terrorism hotspot

Southeast Asia is not new to terrorism, and that includes the kind that has nothing to do with any religion. In the aftermath of 9-11, however, there have been concerted efforts to counter the activities of those who will stop at nothing to push their extremist views of their faith in the region. By some accounts, more than 1,700 people have been either killed or injured in the Philippines since 2000 as a result of attacks of such terrorists. Here in Indonesia, Islamists have been blamed for bombings that include a particularly bloody one in Bali in 2002, where some 200 people died, as well as attacks on five-star hotels in downtown Jakarta in 2003 and 2009. Just this January, too, a JI training camp was discovered in Aceh province, and Yusoph says there is another one in Ambon. Meantime, security experts say Islamist groups are also present in Malaysia and Thailand, and have been known to have tried targeting Singapore for attacks.

In 2007, ASEAN leaders signed the association’s Convention on Counter-Terrorism that would, among other things, strengthen cooperation among regional authorities against extremists. For the convention to become a regional treaty, however, at least six members of ASEAN must ratify it; as of this July, only four have done so: Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and Cambodia. But now that counter-terrorism has become part of the blueprint for the formation of an ASEAN community in 2015, expectation has grown that other members will soon ratify the convention as well, particularly Indonesia, which becomes ASEAN chair next year.

Then again, that may be wishful thinking. For sure, Indonesia has arrested several suspected terrorists and has put many on trial. Some, like Yusoph, have been thrown in jail, where they have been made to stew for at least several years. What Indonesia hasn’t done – and must do, insist some security analysts – is to challenge the radical clerics who are perceived to be fomenting extremism and curtail their influence, especially among the youth.

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, but religious tolerance has always been one of the pillars of even the post-Soeharto Indonesian republic. And while that principle has been put to the test in recent years by Islamists bent on pushing their views on the majority, it’s not as if the Indonesian government has been sitting by idly; it’s just that many say that it’s not doing enough.

Rafendi Djamin, Indonesia’s representative to the ASEAN Inter-governmental Committee on Human Rights or AICHR, even says that Indonesia’s approach to terrorism cannot serve as a model for ASEAN. His reasons for saying so, however, differ somewhat from those of analysts. According to Djamin, Indonesia’s approach is rife with human-rights violations. He also says if the recent clashes between the government and Islamists are anything to go by, counter-terrorism in Indonesia is simply not working. Notes Djamin: “Since 2000 there have been clashes so something is definitely wrong.”

But Marwoto Soeto, deputy spokesman of the Indonesian police, retorts, “It’s because right now there are huge embryos or seeds of terrorism that haven’t been caught and processed yet. Meanwhile Densus (Special Detachment) 88 is trying (to) prevent terrorists from conducting their acts of terrorism again.”

Lacking a multi-pronged approach

Indeed, the prevailing attitude of Indonesian authorities regarding terrorism is unspoken but clear: “A good offence is the best defence.” On the ground, this translates to the Kepolisan Negara Republik Indonesia (KNRI) or Indonesian police waging an offensive campaign to eradicate terrorist organisations by force. In 2001, Densus 88 was especially created for this purpose. Since then, it has led the KNRI in conducting combat operations against suspected members of terrorist organisations.

Analysts say, however, that a holistic approach is the best way to combat terrorism. It’s a view that Djamin agrees with. He says terrorism is a burden that is certainly not the government’s alone, and that all sectors of society must come together to help address it. After all, security experts have pointed out that many factors have enabled terrorism to thrive in Southeast Asia, among them porous borders, easy access to weapons, and growing poverty. A paper prepared by experts for the Australian parliament also lists “long-standing economic and trade links between Southeast Asia and Middle Eastern and South Asian countries… (that have) facilitated funds transfers from the Middle East and South Asia to radical groups in the region”.

Djamin says that if ASEAN is to adopt a model for counter-terrorism, it should embody at the very least police operations that are respectful of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, the humane treatment of detainees, and sustainable rehabilitation of ex-detainees. At present, he says, ASEAN states tend to focus more on combat operations to eliminate terrorism. That, according to Djamin, is a shortcut that has not produced sustainable results.

“The most important thing is the preventive measures rather than the repressive,” he stresses. “Repression is very easy. Killing people is very easy. But whether your killing of the terrorist suspect will actually solve the problem – that’s a very big question.”

Rather surprisingly, the KNRI also believes that rehabilitation should be part of the overall approach to counter the effects of terrorism in Indonesia. But while there is a rehabilitation programme for those who had been jailed on terrorism charges in Indonesia, it isn’t government-run, which pretty much limits its reach and effectiveness. In fact, the programme at present can oversee the rehabilitation of only 10 convicted terrorists – one of them none other than Yusoph, the sambal chef-cum-cashier at Bebek Kendil.

In July 2003, the KNRI had raided the safehouse where Yusoph lived with Mustofa and other mujaheedin. The police said there were explosives and bomb-making equipment in the house and arrested Yusoph and company. Recalls Yusoph: “I was sentenced to 10 years in prison and (then) placed in isolation after the guards found out we were teaching other prisoners Islamic principles. There was discrimination inside the jail between ordinary criminals and those like us (who had terrorism-related cases).” According to Yusoph, the families of prisoners like him found it hard to visit them.

But Yusoph would not serve his full sentence, his record of good conduct behind bars earning him an early release. By January last year, he was out of jail, albeit on the condition that he had to report to authorities on a regular basis. Yet with no job and carrying the stigma of being a convicted terrorist, Yusoph was facing a bleak and uncertain future. At that point, it seemed the only logical thing to do was re-establish ties with his old comrades in the movement.

A path to peace

Enter Noor Huda Ismail and his Yayasan Prasasti Perdamaian (YPP) or Institute for International Peace Building. A former Washington Post reporter, Ismail is author of Temanku, Teroris? (My Friend, the Terrorist?), a memoir of sorts of his schooldays at Pondok Pesantren Ngruki, the school that has among its founders Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, JI’s alleged spiritual leader. He also co-wrote a report by an Australian think tank that warned of a fresh JI attack and which was released just before two Jakarta business hotels frequented by foreigners were bombed in July 2009.

Now a security expert and peace advocate, Noor Huda told the online Asia Times this October that terrorists need to be fought “with ideas”, not guns and bullets. Hence YPP, which, Noor Huda says when I get to interview him, “(tries) to help former combatants to go back and reintegrate into society by providing them livelihood activities and employment in a duck restaurant I own and helping them establish a fishpond business”. But because YPP has meagre funds (sourced from Noor Huda’s own pocket, the foundation’s consultation work with about eight local prisons, and donations) it can take only so many ex-combatants under its wing. Luckily for Yusoph, he had somehow crossed paths with Noor Huda, and so now here he is, talking with me over bottles of iced tea at Bebek Kendil.

Still, while other experts and observers welcome the YPP initiative, they know that it is inadequate. Djamin for one believes that without a concerted approach to rehabilitation, convicted terrorists who have been released from jail would simply return to their radical roots.

“There are those who have been implicated in the terrorist attack before although they were not prominent actors,” says Djamin. “Then they become a prime actor in the next act. This is an indication that deradicalisation is a failure in Indonesia.”

Noor Huda himself, though, seems uncomfortable with the term ‘deradicalisation’, telling Asia Times, “I don’t have any intention to make them ‘not radical’. For me it’s okay for someone to think radical as long as he or she doesn’t put into practice their thinking and harm others.”

Unconvinced ex-combatants

To me he concedes that not all former combatants will choose to be reintegrated into society. Some will emerge from prison more determined than ever to wage ‘great jihad’, having suffered the hardships of incarceration or falling under the influence of fanatical members of radical groups inside prison. Yusoph and other ex-convicts undergoing reintegration themselves say that their former comrades have a standing invitation to undergo military training in radical Islam camps in Aceh and Ambon. Convincing the hardened jihadists to take other paths would therefore take more than a bit of doing, but so long as they are not shut out from the rest of society altogether, hope remains that they would eventually choose peace.

Differences in government policies covering a variety of issues concerning security, as well as in interpretations on the basic rights of the accused and convicted alike put the adoption for an ASEAN counter-terrorism model well beyond reach for now. Instead, the ASEAN Ministers Meeting on Transnational Crime has drawn up a Plan of Action to fight terrorism in the region. It includes sharing of information, techniques, crackdown on terrorist funding, and seeking help from outside partners like the United States, Australia, and China. But it does not mention any rehabilitation programme, which could be a serious oversight. Interestingly, the treaty-in-waiting ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism mentions rehabilitation programmes (Article 11), as well as fair treatment of inmates (Article 8).

In the meantime, Yusoph is convinced another attack similar to the Bali and Jakarta bombings may be forthcoming. “It is possible because I know of a lot of people saying this,” he says.

Yusoph also admits that in his heart he firmly believes he fought for a just cause and that he still thinks of the life he left behind. Sometimes reminders of his past come in the form of offers to take up arms once more. Just a few months ago, for instance, he was asked to go back to Ambon for military training.

After a few restless nights, Yusoph went to Noor Huda for advice. Comments Noor Huda as a smile settles on his face: “The mere fact that he was choosing between his life now and going back to the movement is already an indication of the success of this programme.”