Indonesian Islamic State supporters wielding power from behind bars

A prison guard stands at the front gate of Kerobokan prison, Bali, Indonesia, 6 February 2015.

Understaffing, lack of resources and crowded conditions in Indonesia's penitentiary system are providing fertile ground for Islamic State supporters to radicalise young Muslims.

Despite the small numbers of Islamic State supporters in Indonesia’s maximum-security prisons, they’re playing an active role in recruiting the country’s young Muslims and helping send extremists to Syria, conflict analysts say.

According to a recent report from Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), inmates have the ability to communicate to the public through their visitors and electronic devices, and are using these to encourage Indonesian youths to join the Islamic State.

This year Indonesia’s Police Counter-Terrorism Unit Detachment 88 reported that 123 Indonesians have joined the approximate 31,000 strong Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Associate Professor Greg Fealy, an Indonesian politics and Islamic studies specialist at the Australian National University, says the most powerful inmate supporting the Islamic State is a forty-two-year-old extremist cleric known as Aman Abdurrahman.

Despite being sentenced to nine years in prison in 2010 for running a militant training camp, IPAC reports he still has the ability to download pro-ISIS content from his cell phone. He then translates the content into Indonesian and passes it to visitors who upload the material onto extremist jihadi sites such as millahibrahim.wordpress.comshoututssalam.com, and al-mustaqbal.net, and social media.

Between November 2013 and November 2014, he translated over 115 articles.

Professor Fealy says, “Aman is an indefatigable propagandist for the Islamic State; the kind of person whose writings, whose thoughts, are widely distributed among younger generations, more impressionable people ... He's a very skilled conveyor of ideas. There's an intellectual rigour, and a lack of compromise which they find impressive.” 

However, prisoners who support the Islamic State in Indonesia are not just providing information, they’re helping take those who aspire to fight, or are susceptible to fighting, to Syria.

According to IPAC, Iwan Dharmawan (alias Rois), a prisoner sentenced to death for his role in the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy, was also active in providing this information to vulnerable participants outside. By early 2014 he had helped Abdul Rauf journey to Syria.

Abdul, who was released from jail in 2011 after serving time for backing the 2002 Bali bombings, met Rois during a visit to Kembang Kuning Prison on Nusakambangan Island where he told the prisoner he was no longer interested in violence and now wanted to help work for the rights of Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma. Despite his intentions, Rois reportedly urged him to go to Syria instead and provided him with contacts of people who knew travel routes and other connections for his arrival. Abdul died in Ramadi, Iraq, a few months later.

Aman and Rois are able to exercise this influence from prison because prison officials succumb to intimidation from inmates, IPAC says. In July last year, a photo emerged of high-profile extremist Abu Bakar Ba’asyir taking part in an ISIS oath-taking ceremony at Pasir Putih Prison on Nusakambangan. Ba’asyir was serving 15 years in jail in 2010 for involvement in terrorism plans and military training in Aceh province.

Prison personnel told local media outlet Republika they did not know about the occasion because they did not enter the prayer room where it took place. It was later revealed the extremists forbade prison officials from entering, and the personnel obeyed.

“Because of the understaffing, and crowded conditions of these prisons, one of the things prison officials are inclined to do is compromise in order to avoid trouble,” said Professor Fealy.

However, even if communication is restricted, Professor Fealy believes prisoners could still smuggle information out through family and legal representatives. “It’s a chronic problem within Indonesia’s correction services, they're building prisons but they're not investing in human resources and until they do that, their ability to deal effectively with high-risk jihadist prisoners will be severely limited.”

Sidney Jones, IPAC director, says Indonesian Islamic State fighters who choose to come back pose a great threat to Indonesian citizens. Terrorists have turned their attention from foreigners, such as their 2002 Bali and 2009 Ritz-Carlton and Marriott hotels attacks, to the police, who have accounted for 29 of 30 people killed in terror attacks over the last few years, think tank Lowy Institute reports.

“If and when they return, they would have new legitimacy as mujahidin, new combat experience, new weapons skills, and more international contacts than they had when they left, and they could turn the most incompetent Indonesian jihadi movement into a more serious threat,” she said.

Indonesia’s main concern about supporters is not their ability to ignite violence, but their threat to national unity.

“If you listen to the statements of Indonesian officials, what gets them most upset is what they see is a seditious element, a seditious threat of Islamic State to Indonesia, rather than whatever barbaric acts they be perpetrating in the Middle East, because it is encouraging Muslim leaders to have an allegiance to a country other than Indonesia,” said Professor Fealy.

Noor Huda Ismail, the founder of the Institute for International Peace Building in Jakarta who focuses on de-radicalizing hardliners, says, however, that he would prefer that Indonesian extremists align with Islamic State than other extremist groups in the country such as al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah or Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid. The Islamic State radicalization process is quick, he says, meaning the ideology does not entrench itself as deeply in fighters, which makes it easier to de-radicalize them.

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