Deradicalization Through the Eyes of a Former Terrorist

Police in Indonesia on guard after a terrorist attack in Jakarta
Indonesian police stand guard after a terrorist attack in the capital Jakarta on January 14, 2017. Photo: CNN

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Ali Fauzi Manzi is now busy persuading former extremists to live peacefully and integrate back into the community, but he used to be a bomb-assembling instructor for terrorists.

Mr. Manzi, now 46, was once jailed for terrorism offences in the Philippines, where he had helped build a military training camp for extremists. He learned bomb-making from a man called Hambali, who was sent to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2002.

He is brother of one of the Bali bombers, once a chief bomb maker for terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah, the group responsible for the bombing of the club in the Kuta area of the Indonesian tourist island of Bali on October 2002, leaving 202 people dead.

Mr. Manzi claims now to be reformed and committed to deradicalizing other would-be terrorists by setting up a foundation to steer people away from the lure of Islamic State.

He told The Globe Post that only a former terrorist can handle a radicalized person in the right way.

“To handle terrorism, it takes a variety of methodologies. Between one person with another [the strategy] must be different,” he said.

Mr. Manzi said over the past 17 years, there have been about 295 acts of terror in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, with hundreds of terrorists convicted.

Since 2010, the Indonesian government has tried to eradicate terrorism through the National Agency for Combating Terrorism (BNPT), which in recent years began to intensify a “soft-approach” de-radicalization program. One of its tactics is involving former terrorists in the program.

In March 2016, Mr. Manzi with the support of BNPT established a community called the Circle of Peace Foundation (YLP), where former terrorists spread a narrative of anti-radicalism.

Mr. Manzi began to approach these men when they were still in prison. He said he tried to win their hearts, such as by helping their families or befriending them through discussion.

He said many of them were unwilling to leave their networks because they feared losing friends, being ostracized, or physically harmed.

Their extremist groups are willing to give them support through education and occupational and health assistance, as well as non-material support such as a shared ideology, camaraderie, and some skills training.

“Both bind members of a terrorist group so they are difficult to get out of the network,” Mr. Manzi said.

At least 37 former terrorist prisoners have joined YLP since last year, and about 20 of their children are under the foundation’s guidance.

Mr. Manzi said his community supports former terrorists to be financially independent, such as by giving them jobs and skills, and supporting them morally.

He said the de-radicalization process is achieved through economic assistance alone, but there needs to be a community whose members understand the situation of the former prisoners.

“Because when a terrorist is out of jail while his environment ignores him, then it is possible he will return to their community,” Mr. Manzi said.

One man who was persuaded by Mr. Manzi to leave his network was Agus Martin, who was jailed for four years for supplying weapons to a terrorist group.

Mr. Martin, who Mr. Manzi had recruited into a radical group, said his heart was not touched when he was advised by the BNPT official and the police, “but when the person who ever recruited me was advising, I began to realize.”

He has now joined the YLP and along with other former prisoners is helping the government in an effort to de-radicalize jihadists.

In addition to YLP, at least two nongovernmental organizations have been involved in a number of projects aimed at working directly with prisoners, released prisoners and their families.

The Indonesian Alliance for Peace has a program to bring the victims of terrorist bombings into a dialogue with convicted terrorists, with hope that there will be reconciliation between the bomber and victim.

Yayasan Prastasi Perdamaian has been working with prisoners to try to contain the influence of extremist teaching. They are building libraries in a few prisons with books that challenge key tenets of extremism and then bringing in experienced an ustadz, or religious teacher, to hold discussions with inmates.

YPP is also helping families of current and former prisoners with small-scale loans and business expertise.

Effectiveness of deradicalization in Indonesia

In a recent report by Coordinator Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto, the Indonesian government said it had successfully used the “soft approach” to terrorism to change radical mindsets.

“They (the former terrorists) were re-educated and re-established, to eventually be returned to the community,” Mr. Wiranto, a former military chief who uses one name, told a press conference in Jakarta on October.

At least 999 ex-terrorists, 266 of whom are still in prison and 733 released prisoners, were successfully deradicalized in the last three years, according to the report.

The government uses five programs, including guidance on national and religious insight, the development of life skills, supervision and mentoring, and entrepreneurship coaching.

Mr. Wiranto said the government also involves former terrorists who have “repented” to engage in the programs.

“At least 50 ex-terrorists are actively involved in prevention and deradicalization programs, where they become coaches of former terrorists,” Mr. Wiranto said.

The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict said in its own report on former pro-ISIS prisoners that the BNPT has several programs in prisons, of which two absorb most of its efforts. The first, which began in 2015, is aimed at determining the levels of radicalization among prisoners.

The second BNPT program is aimed at helping cooperative prisoners earn extra income by setting up business aimed at fellow inmates, such as food stalls or handphone repair. No pro-ISIS prisoners take part.

“Despite much donor funding and some limited civil society initiatives, there are few effective deradicalization or disengagement programs in Indonesian prisons,” said IPAC, the institute that produces in-depth research on the sources of violent conflict in Indonesia and beyond.

“Many prisoners make that decision on their own, for family reasons or unhappiness with leaders, but it is hard to make the case that it has been due to BNPT efforts,” the report said.

IPAC Director Sidney Jones said in a discussion in Jakarta that the biggest disadvantage of most deradicalization programs is that they are not based on thorough research on where and how radicalization takes place.

“The deradicalization program should be based on concrete data. If you do not understand the process of radicalization, then the deradicalization program is most likely not effective,” Mrs. Jones said.

She said it was important to understand the motivations of someone joining a radical group so that programs can be designed to pull them out of extremist networks as well as preventing others from following in their footsteps.

Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization programs

The government of Saudi Arabia runs what is likely the most well-known deradicalization program, and claims that 86 percent of the 3,300 people who graduated from it have successfully reintegrated into civilian life after serving terrorism-related prison sentences.

The Saudi government is also preparing to release nine Yemenis once held in Gitmo. They have graduated from the same initiative, which was designed to “reverse” radicalization through a program that offers theological instruction, vocational training, art therapy, an indoor lap pool, foosball, off-site vacations, family visits, and, for some, matchmaking.

Dr. Tom Smith, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Portsmouth told The Globe Post that using “soft methods” to deradicalize people is problematic on a number of levels. Primarily this comes from the concept that has grown out of the idea of radicalization, the process by which a person transforms from one persona to another, akin to brainwashing.

“As yet there is no evidence that such a process exists, not in any scientific sense that could be corroborated or tested,” Dr. Smith said.

Obviously something draws people to make decisions that have violent consequences, but the reasons could be much more mundane than they are portrayed and the same motivations that drive many people to do risky things that may harm others.

“Another problem is that ‘de-radicalization’ policies rely on ideological rewinding or a second dose of ideological brainwashing and indoctrination,” Dr. Smith said.

“Even if such a process was possible and that was proved to be applied therapeutically (and it is not), how long would the de-racialization work for? Do human beings really have no agency of our own, can we be transformed in terrorism without any independent thought?”

Dr. Smith said the unpalatable truth is that many violent terrorists who act with or on behalf of a group do so with independent, reasoned (if not reasonable) personal motivation as well as peer-pressure. Evidence suggests terrorists are not ideological zealots but use religious and political ideologies to justify their actions.

He said skepticism over well-funded and publicised deradicalization policies is as old as the programs themselves, that there is no independent or quantifiable evidence for their success, and they could be dangerous.

“I would like to think that these policies will eventually die,” he added.

However, he noted that such programs offer governments a tangible publicity tool, one that shows they are at least attempting to do something about the problem.

“Given the Saudi role in extremism and the conflict in Yemen, we cannot see these claims as anything but misleading propaganda,” Dr. Smith said.