The Roots of Radicalism: Militants Teach Jihad in Indonesia’s Prisons

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Muslim cleric Abubakar Ba'asyir stands behind bars before his hearing verdict at the South Jakarta District Court on June 16, 2011 in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Photo: Ulet Ifansasti - Getty Images)

There’s a downside to jailing Jihadis: They corrupt your prisons. It’s a problem that’s keenly felt in Indonesia, where a decade-long crackdown on extremist groups has dramatically increased the number of radicals in jail. Terror experts have long worried about putting so many convicted terrorists in one place. Now, an investigation by the Associated Press confirms that doing time in Indonesian prisons gives extremists a chance to proselytize and plot.

The agency spent two days inside Porong prison, near Surabaya, in June. During that time, they witnessed the extent to which convicted terrorists influenced other inmates. Part of the problem is over-crowding: One cell-block, Block F, is supposed to be reserved for extremists but houses 50 others .The Jihadis, who typically sport beards and distinctive clothing, are idolized by the rank-and-file. Many volunteer to preach, earning their trust. “We only explain what they should know about jihad,” said a man named Syamsuddin who is serving a life sentence for his role in a gun attack on a karaoke club. “It’s up to them whether to accept it or not.”

Unfortunately, many do. Here’s a scene from Block F:

Nearby, nine men wearing traditional Muslim shirts sit on a floor listening intently to a religious lesson by Maulana Yusuf Wibisono, who stockpiled explosives for a 2004 suicide bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta that killed 10 people.

These men, part of the ordinary prison population, diligently copy what Wibisono writes on a small white board. “It’s still too early to invite them for jihad,” said the 42-year-old terrorist. He is the former leader of the East Java military wing of Jemaah Islamiyah, the group behind the 2002 Bali bombing. “To change their way of life is more important.”

Many are in awe of the terrorists’ piety and dangerous reputations. Militants also get extra food and other goods, both from supporters and through police attempts at rehabilitation, adding to their sway in prison. Often bearded and clad in robes, sarongs or ankle pants, they stand out from the other inmates.

“Don’t judge them as bad guys,” said Frans Sandi, who is serving 13 years for murdering his wife. He is a regular at Wisibono’s religious instruction. “They are even able to turn bad guys into good.” (via AP)

And it’s not just Porong Prison. In Sukamiskin prison, in West Java, cleric Aman Abdurrahman converted three students arrested for a hazing death to his cause, the AP notes. They were re-arrested last year during a raid on a terror training camp in Aceh province. It is clear, too, that doing time isn’t deterring convicted terrorists. Of the 120 people arrested and 25 killed in anti-terror raids since February 2010, 26 had previously been in prison for terrorist acts, reports the AP, citing the International Crisis Group.

The investigation comes just weeks after the spiritual head of Islamic militarism in Indonesia, Abubakar Ba’asyir, was convicted on terror charges. The arrest was hailed as a “victory” for Indonesia’s law enforcement agencies. It was a step forward, to be sure, but the situation in Porong Prison reminds us how resilient the ‘Jihadi’ virus can be. Though the influence of Al-Qaeda-linked groups like Ba’asyir’s Jeemah Islamiyah is thought to be on the decline, his radical ideology is still making inroads among a new generation of ‘DIY’ Jihadis. So yes, Ba’asyir faces 15 fifteen years in prison. But that’s fifteen years of preaching hate to a captive, corruptible audience.

MORE: Read an interview with an expert on terrorism in southeast Asia.

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