Countering violent extremism in Indonesia: need for a rethink

Terrorism Intelligence services Police Communities Islam Indonesia

Indonesia is making some progress in countering violent extremism, argues this report, but more through community efforts than through government programs.


Indonesia is making some headway in countering violent extremism but not through government programs. Some prisoners have moderated their views through discussions with fellow inmates and their own self-awareness. Communities have taken back radical mosques on their own without help from counter-terrorism agencies. In general, the twin goals of “deradicalisation” (persuading extremists, especially prisoners convicted of terrorism, to move away from violence) and “counter-radicalisation” (immunising communities against extremist ideology and preventing new recruitment) have not been well-served by top-down programs heavy on rhetoric and formal meetings, divorced from detailed knowledge of radical networks. The challenge is to understand when, why and how individuals and communities resist on their own and see if there are any lessons that can be replicated.

The National Anti-Terrorism Agency (Badan Nasional untuk Penanggulangan Terorisme, BNPT) has not been as effective as hoped. Some of its problems on the prevention side are not of its own making. There is still no consensus in the broader Muslim community about what constitutes extremism; radicalism in defence of the faith is considered laudable in many quarters. The BNPT structure effectively puts the police in charge of intelligence and operations and the military in charge of prevention, which does not make for smooth cooperation. All the law enforcement officers with direct field experience went to the first, leaving prevention to newcomers who had no personal knowledge of networks, prisoners or available data. Prevention officials still complain that funds have been slow in coming, hampering their work. Many agencies and ministries that BNPT is supposed to be coordinating have little interest either in the subject of countering extremism or in being coordinated.

Questions remain, however, over BNPT’s ability to target programs effectively. In its 2014 “National Program for Preventing Terrorism” for example, BNPT identifies prisons, mosques, schools and media as the key areas for work. These are the right areas, but the activities proposed are mostly meetings and generic training of trainers without honing in on particular institutions and individuals known to be propagating extremism. The design of prevention programs could benefit from more systematic study of the case dossiers of the almost 800 individuals indicted on terrorism charges since 2002. It could also benefit from better analysis of the ideological arguments used against violence within the radical community that some convicted terrorists have found persuasive and more in-depth study of successful cases of community rejection of radical teachings.

This report examines the government prevention program to date while also looking at examples of non-government and community-based initiatives to counter violent extremism. When well-planned and implemented, the latter can be very effective, but in some cases, they turn into exercises in vigilantism that are as ugly when mobilised against extremists as when directed against religious minorities. BNPT’s programs to date may be weak but a national agency is still needed to coordinate and share information across agencies; develop policies designed to discourage advocacy of violence; and help community leaders develop strategies. Unless programs in all of these areas are based on detailed knowledge about how and where radicalisation takes place, however, they are not likely to be productive. As a new government takes office later this year, it might consider a restructuring of BNPT to remove the divide between intelligence/operations and prevention.

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