Desistance: A Novel Tool to Assess Former Terrorists in Indonesia

Former terrorists play an important role in preventing violent extremism in Indonesia. Such counternarratives are disseminated through different mediums including comics. However, not all former terrorists are keen on participating in such efforts. Instead, many may still be at risk of recidivism. Credit: AP/Tatan Syuflana


It is arduous to understand the topology and the commitment of those previously convicted of terrorism to abandon violence. Numerous theories have been developed to explain either deradicalization or disengagement. This article proposes a new tool based on Desifter Theory to facilitate a comprehensive assessment of the individual. Via this theory, individuals would be assessed based on six channels of influences, namely, “Heaven”, “Head”, “Heart”, “Home”, “Habit”, and “Hand” (Figure 1). Such assessments would subsequently determine the type of interventions to be appropriated to the individual (i.e. customized intervention) for their desistance from terrorism.

Figure 1. Assessments of These Six Channels Determine the Type of Interventions

A Glimpse of the 6H

“Heaven” entails how the individual not only perceives heaven but what they believe must be done to gain acceptance there. Generally, heaven is deemed as an exclusive reward that is difficult to attain. While attaining heaven is based on personal “performance”, daily lives would also be affected their environments, specifically how their country is governed. Therefore, in this channel of influence, individuals’ perceptions of the government and its legitimacy will be assessed.

“Head” refers to how introspective an individual is in finding alternative narratives. Often, terrorists deem their narratives as absolute truths. Through introspection, former terrorists may break away from such absolutism while replacing it with non-violent beliefs.  

“Heart” looks at the level of maturity and the deterrent effect of the criminal justice system. An individual’s level of maturity can change internally or externally. For former terrorists, this would include getting married, having children, continuing education, and even disappointment with their old groups. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system may also deter former terrorists from re-offending. Usually, the length of time an individual serves in prison influences the level of deterrence.

The author’s interpretation of “Home” is family as it is the smallest unit of interaction for former terrorists. Family can be on both sides of the coin; a family can be a supporter of terrorism or can be a pull factor in encouraging former terrorists to abandon violence.

“Habit” consists of networks, social relations, and integration. Addressing this channel is key to enabling former terrorists to abandon their old groups and to join new ones. This is done by understanding how former terrorists change their habits or environment.

Lastly, “Hand” includes factors that support a former terrorist care for themselves and their families upon their release. Special attention should be placed on their economic well-being. The more they can care for themselves, the higher the likelihood of them staying away from their previous group. This also means smoother reintegration with society.


To demonstrate the effectiveness of this assessment tool, the author began by conducting a survey with 124 former terrorists in Indonesia. These former terrorists resided in 12 provinces throughout Indonesia. The impetus of the survey was to understand: 1) their condition and whether they have cut off communication with their terrorist groups, and 2) if they were willing to publicly share their experiences of abandoning terrorism in a bid to prevent others from following their footsteps and to encourage other terrorists to do the same. Of the 124 former terrorists, only 36 were willing to become involved in such efforts within a one-year frame.

To understand how they abandon terrorism, the 36 individuals were next invited to a semi-structured interview and were assessed via a behaviour checklist. Assessment from the checklists include inputs from the individual and those around him such as his wife, neighbors, and companions from the regional police. Questions for the interview and the checklist were developed based on the 6H.

To develop a typology, the author employed a software, atlas.TI, to compile the results of the semi-structured interviews and checklists. This facilitates the development of a gradation of desistance from terrorism of these 36 individuals.


From the semi-structured interviews and checklists, there were 13 factors that were uncovered to influence individuals in desisting from terrorism. Collectively, these 13 factors outline what is manifested in the thoughts and behaviours of the 36 individuals. These 13 factors were subsequently classified into two groups, “Seen” and “Unseen.” This refers to what is visible and not visible in their abandonment of terrorism (Figure 2).

Figure 2. 13 Factors Grouped into “Seen” and “Unseen”

Seen and unseen factors are then manifested into what is still in thought and has become a behavior. A gradation of desistance can then be developed based on the number of factors one possessed.

Figure 3. Gradation of Desistance

As outlined in Figure 3, the desifter typology can be classified into four categories: primary desifter, secondary desifter, tertiary desifter, and quarternary desifter. The typology formation is based on the interval between qualifications. For example, primary desifter has n factors between 0-1 (intervals:2). This means that the lesser the n factor, the more likelihood the individual has abandoned terrorism. Therefore, it is desirable for individuals to be in the primary desifter category.

Of the 36 individuals, 21 were classified as secondary desifters (~58.3%) and 11 were classified as tertiary desifters (~30.6%). Notably, there was only one who fell into the Quartinary desifter category (~2.8%).

This highlights two important observations: 1) worryingly, only 3 individuals were in the primary desifter category (~8.3%) and 2) a total of 33.4% of the 36 individuals were in the tertiary and quarternary Desifter categories. This not only highlights a higher risk of them being recidivists but intervention for these individuals are admittedly difficult.


This tool based on Desifter theory provides a means to assess former terrorists and their propensity to recidivism. By assessing former terrorists based on 13 “Seen” and “Unseen” factors, a gradation of desistance from terrorism can be determined. In this study, only about 8.3% of the 36 individuals assessed posed little risk of recidivism. Additionally, extrapolating these results to the entire former terrorist population in Indonesia would, thus, highlight a significant risk of terrorist recidivism and the challenges of deradicalization. However, further research is required to ensure a representative sample size.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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