Support for “Islamic State” in Indonesian prisons

19 Jan 2015

This report examines how alliances for and against the "Islamic State" developed among inmates in Indonesian prisons.


A study of networks in Indonesian prisons that support the Islamic State (IS) suggests that relatively simple interventions by prison officials may be able to limit the influence of hardline ideologues. Only a minority of those convicted of terrorism in Indonesia support IS openly, and there is nothing to suggest that their numbers are increasing. If anything, they are declining. The need to understand the dynamics of prison networks is still urgent, however, because pro-IS inmates can constitute key nodes for encouraging or facilitating travel to Syria and because those who support IS generally support the use of violence at home.1 Preventing the growth of IS influence in prisons is therefore a way of reducing the security threat more generally.

Indonesian officials are well aware of the problem, and there have been noticeable improvements in supervision of extremist inmates. The challenges are huge, however, and resources are limited. It may be time to take another look at donor assistance in a way that would avoid some of the problems that have plagued past efforts and see if there is a way to encourage local initiatives, locally developed. Indonesia also needs to adopt a law that would make it a crime to travel abroad to join or assist foreign terrorist organisations, although some makeshift solutions are planned that would draw on existing provisions of the Criminal Code. Without such a ban, however, the triangular link between prisons, extremist groups and groups like IS will persist.

After the announcement on 29 June 2014 that the organisation called Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) had changed its name to Islamic State and declared its leader to be the caliph of all Muslims, ceremonies to pledge loyalty took place in jihadi communities around Indonesia, including in several prisons. The most publicised of these ceremonies took place in Pasir Putih Prison, a “super maximum security” facility on the island of Nusakambangan off the southern coast of Java, where 24 prisoners, including Indonesia’s best known extremist cleric, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, swore allegiance on 2 July 2014.

This report examines the process by which inmates in two prisons in the Nusakambangan complex, Pasir Putih and Kembang Kuning, chose sides after IS was established. For some, choosing for or against was a question of principle, but for many, more personal and pragmatic interests came into the calculus, such as access to extra food. The most militant inmates often have the best supply networks, with donations and contributions coming in on a regular basis through visitors. If that supply dries up, a leader’s hold on his followers can weaken, as Ba’asyir found when his organisation, Jamaah Anshorul Tauhid (JAT), splintered as a result of his oath to IS. When JAT members stopped sending extra provisions, the less ideologically inclined of Ba’asyir’s followers were willing to align with whoever could fill the gap.

For many of the extremists, separation from their families and particularly from their children is the hardest part of incarceration, and desire for contact can be a powerful incentive for cooperation. Personal feuds are also important. On the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, some inmates joined the IS camp because they had a dispute with someone who was anti-IS. Again, it is critically important for prison officials to try to understand who is on the outs with whom over what, so they can assess the consequences and use it to their advantage.

Differences over points of theology and doctrine do of course take place—one of most heated is between takfir mu’ayyan and takfir am, basically whether one brands individuals as nonbelievers (kafir) by virtue of their membership in a group or on the basis of their own misdeeds. The IS supporters are proponents of takfir mu’ayyan and thus see all agents of state, including police and prison officials, as enemies. But while such ideological convictions are deeply held by a few, many in the pro-IS camp have only a weak grasp of doctrine and their decision to join was influenced by more mundane factors.

The Nusakambangan case studies show how alliances can change as the result of the arrival of new inmates, a fight, or a change in government policy. Prison officials need to understand the circumstances that can lead to solidarity among inmates in the face of a perceived threat or the break-up of once-solid friendships. And crucially, they need to realise that no matter how well they understand individuals and alliances in prison, everything can change once a prisoner is released.

Publication Details
Published year only: 
Subject Areas
Geographic Coverage