Preventing the Radicalization of Former Terror Inmates’ Children in Indonesia

Indonesian children participants in a parade carrying props resembling rifles. Credit: TWITTER/@RASJOGJA


Despite the “war on terror” since 2001, there is now a commonly accepted rhetoric that “terrorism is not going away.”[1] To confound this new security norm, states not only have to respond to threats within their borders but also must respond to their citizens leaving to join terrorist groups overseas. New security concerns include how states are to respond to their citizens deported en route to their destination or those returning home after successfully linking up with terrorist groups overseas. These concerns will become more severe as tighter border control is implemented to prevent individuals from illegally linking up with terrorist groups and as terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) lose territory, potentially igniting an exodus back to respective home countries.

Indonesia, for example, not only conducts rehabilitative programmes in prisons for their terror inmates but also in shelters that accommodate deportees. The intention is to rehabilitate or change these individuals and facilitate their return to the community. However, the important and frequently debated question is, what kind of change is sufficient?

This question then centres on two types of approaches that are frequently employed: deradicalization and disengagement. Disengagement is often referred to as a behavioural change which does not require individuals to change their worldview. These behaviours include leaving a group, changing one’s role within the group and renouncing violence. Whereas deradicalization is referred to as a cognitive shift. This would mean a complete fundamental change in mindset, sympathies, and attitudes.

The premise of deradicalization programmes is to encourage and facilitate individuals involved in terrorism to change their worldview. Through this change and the subsequent need to avoid cognitive dissonance, these individuals would adopt behaviours such as those described above. Due to the behavioural changes stemming from the individuals’ newfound believes, the effects of this approach are seen as longer lasting than that from disengagement. This explains why states are focused on deradicalization rather than disengagement. Unfortunately, deradicalization is difficult to achieve as demonstrated in this preliminary study of 17 former terror inmates in Indonesia. This study then sought to obtain insights on how the former inmates explained their imprisonment for terrorism to their children. This was to understand the risk of these children being exposed to violent ideologies from their recently released parents, generally seen as a credible source of information.

This paper discusses the issues of both deradicalization and disengagement, the methods employed by the former inmates to explain their imprisonment for terrorism to their children, and a potential approach to ensure these children steer away from terrorism. This paper, thus, intends to contribute to changing the “terrorism is not going away” rhetoric.


In this study, 17 male former terror inmates ranging from 26 to 46 years old were interviewed. The selection criteria for these interviewees were that they were released from prison for a terrorism offence in the last five years since 2018 and that they were residing in the Greater Jakarta region, also known as Jabodetabek. This included Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang, and Bekasi. Questionnaires were administered during the interviews. Interviewees were identified and referred to via snowballing technique.

A limitation of this study is that it only provides a snapshot of what the interviewees’ lives to the point of the interview. It cannot be used to predict future actions taken by these interviewees. Additionally, this study requires further expansion to be representative of Jabodetabek and Indonesia.

Deradicalization vs Disengagement

Academics such as Andrew Silke posits that deradicalization “is exceedingly difficult” and “that disengagement is a more realistic outcome.”[2] He argues that deradicalization programmes that are mainly based on changing individuals’ ideology would have limited success as there are numerous other more important factors that explain why individuals engage in terrorism.[3] Additionally, such programmes face added issues such as whether their religious content are perceived to be credible by the participants. He also cited studies that have indicated that the risk or re-offending by terror inmates are generally low to begin with.[4] This explains his belief that many will leave terrorist groups even “if they never experience a deradicalization program.”[5]

In this study, 14 interviewees stated that they participated in deradicalization programmes while in prison. These programmes were conducted not only by the state but also non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The remaining interviewees did not participate as two claimed that they were not offered such programmes during their stint and the other did not want to disappoint an influential terrorist leader. For those who participated, their reasons for participation included truly wanting to change, wanting to satisfy a condition for early release, to obtain financial incentives, to pass the time, and wanting to find out what these programmes were about. Apart from these programmes, 11 interviewees cited interactions with other terror inmates as another reason for them renouncing violence. Though these inmates played a role in changing the behaviour of the interviewees, they were members of a terrorist group. Thus, it was unlikely that they would inspire a complete change in mindset, sympathies, and attitudes. Therefore, it is highly likely that the interviewees were disengaged rather than deradicalized.

Another issue of deradicalization is how to assess if an individual can be deemed as deradicalized. In this study, all the interviewees stated that they were motivated to partake in terrorism as they believed Muslims around the world were persecuted. They continue to believe of this persecution post-release in light of developments such as in Myanmar and Palestine. Among the interviewees, eight cited that they only needed the Indonesian government’s permission for them to take up arms again.[6] This reluctance to participate stems from the fear of repercussions by the authorities. One even stated that though he was still seeking martyrdom, he did not want to get involved in these conflicts for fear of getting apprehended en route to his destination. Also, all of them preferred and supported the implementation of Syariah laws in Indonesia while eight still distrusts the Indonesian government or their agencies.[7] Therefore, it can be argued that while all the interviewees are disengaged, several have simply transited to being non-violent extremists who temporarily renounced violence.

The study next focused on gaining insights on the possibility of the interviewees’ children being exposed to violent ideologies through these disengaged individuals. This was conducted by uncovering the methods employed by the interviewees to explain their imprisonment for terrorism to their children. As demonstrated in previous recent terrorism cases, parents play a vital role in their children’s involvement in terrorism.[8] The next section begins by first discussing how policymakers should view youths; namely either “vulnerable” or “susceptible.”

Youths: Vulnerable or Susceptible?

The two terms that have been commonly used to describe potential recruits of terrorism particularly youths are “vulnerable” and “susceptible”. Taking reference from the terms’ usage in biological studies, the term “susceptible” is argued to be a more adequate description. In these studies, “vulnerable” is used to describe an organism that is intact but fragile while “susceptible” describes being injured and predisposed to compound additional harm.[9] By labelling youths as vulnerable, policymakers may run the risk of glossing over core issues youths would have by viewing them as intact but fragile or easily influenced.

It is essential to note that radicalization brings meaning to individuals in their daily lives. In other words, how can an individual be viewed as intact when there seems to be a void which unfortunately could be filled by radical ideology? By labelling them as “susceptible”, policymakers would acknowledge the myriad of issues affecting youths. For example, the continued perception from their parents that they are victims of discrimination and violence is a means to end it. Another example is the trauma experienced by children as they witness the arrest of their parents. In this study, several interviewees cited that their children behaved differently after witnessing their arrest. This included in being more withdrawn and introverted, and expressing resentment to authorities.

Due to the presence of diverse motivations, it would suggest that a large population is susceptible to terrorism. However, how does one reconcile the fact that terrorism is perpetuated only by a small population? One explanation is the presence of a mechanism to resist terrorism. This mechanism centres on, among others, family obligations, logistical costs, financing and fear.[10] There have been reported cases in which individuals resisted participating in terrorism due to the importance they place on family obligations.[11] The concern stems from their worry about the fate of their family should they pursue violence and the perception of their family members of their actions. Currently, numerous mothers who have lost their children to terrorist groups are sharing their experiences to the public.[12] This is done with the intent of providing other parents with a better understanding on how they can prevent their children from getting involved in terrorism.

Logistical and financial costs could act as a barrier, particularly if there is a need to travel beyond their immediate residences.[13] Unfortunately, can be circumvented when terrorist groups such as IS reportedly provides monthly wages and accommodations for its recruits while living in their territory. Fear primarily refers to the fear of security forces.[14] This entails the fear of facing legal repercussions and in some cases fear of torture.[15]

By looking through the lens of “susceptible”, policymakers would see three factors to address; 1) the susceptible individual, 2) leveraging on sources of influence that are deemed to be credible by the susceptible group to counter such ideologies; and 3) countering sources of radical ideologies. Studies have shown that credibility is essential for the message to “stick” to the target audience.[16] Credibility also influences the persuasiveness of a message, determined by how the audience perceive the expertise and trustworthiness of the source.[17] Judgements of expertise and trustworthiness do not necessarily relate to the technical knowledge of the source (e.g. a person’s religious or scientific authority), but can be derived from the source’s life history. This is why personal videos by martyrs and efforts to preserve their memory is such an important tool used by extremists to legitimize their cause among the mass audiences.[18] This is also particularly important for children whose parents were involved in terrorism. This is because parents are generally deemed as credible sources of information by their children.

For families where only one of their parents was involved in terrorism, the other parent can play a vital role in steering their children away from terrorism. Leveraging on these parents can also address the three factors as described above. This role is particularly powerful as children will have first-hand experiences of the difficulties in raising the family as a single parent. This hardship and emotional pull can then be leveraged to prevent a repeat in their family. However, what may be required would be provide these parents with the necessary understanding and tools to further increase its effectiveness. This is discussed further in the following sections.

Three Methods Employed to Explain Imprisonment

In this study, it was discovered that interviewees employed three different methods to explain their imprisonment to their children. As outlined in Table 1, they were namely: 1) leaving it to their spouses (i.e. wives) to explain; 2) not explaining to their children; and 3) explaining in a manner sympathetic to radical ideology. These methods are listed from the least detrimental to the most detrimental.

Though the wives of the two interviewees could not be interviewed, insights on how they explained to the children can be obtained from the interviewees. It is highly likely that their wives would explain their fathers’ imprisonment in a manner that would prevent their children from getting involved in terrorism. This was evident from how the wives were concerned with their husbands’ whereabouts after their release from prison. This concern likely stem from not wanting to repeat the traumatic experiences they encountered during their husbands’ imprisonment. During this period, the wives experienced a sudden increase in their familial responsibilities. In addition to raising the children single-handedly, they also had to financially support the family including their husbands, and to schedule family visits to prisons. One of the two interviewees also recounted that his wife had to deliver their third child on her own as he was not granted permission to visit her.

Most of the interviewees stated that they did not explain to their children as they did not see a need to. These 11 also stated that they simply wanted to move on with the lives. However, the issue with this method is that they are simply leaving their children to face any stigma due to their involvement in terrorism.[19] Additionally, with technology, it is difficult for them to hide their past. Unfortunately, for one interviewee, this was how his son’s classmates found out about his imprisonment. That subsequently led to the bullying of his son including hurling insults such as being a “terrorist’s son.” Due to this bullying, the interviewee resorted to leveraging on his old network to move his son to an Islamic boarding school, pesantren.

The final method employed is the most detrimental as it involved explaining the interviewees’ imprisonment in a manner that is sympathetic to radical ideology. For one interviewee, he shared that he explained to his child that “those making bombs for the umat are not criminals.” He then shared that he was doubtful to give consent to his child joining the police or military. This was because he feared his child might be “ordered to kill other Muslims” and thus making the child “an enemy of Islam.” He added that, instead, he hoped that he joined movements perceived to be fighting in the name of Islam. He stated, “God willing, he [his son] becomes a commandant for Jihadis.” The remaining three interviewees had similar explanations. They shared to their children that their actions were for a religious cause and to defend Muslims who were being persecuted.

This, thus, poses a serious concern. In addition to these families including their children having to face stigma from their communities, the explanations given by their father would cement the notion that Muslims were being discriminated against despite living in a Muslim-majority country. This does not necessarily confirm that these children will get involved in terrorism in the future. However, they may be predisposed to other issues such as intolerance.

Women as Safeguards against Radicalization

Leveraging on family members as safeguards against radicalization is ideal. This is because of their close relationship, considered as credible sources of information and most importantly, they can provide consistent, long-term support and guidance. Therefore, one proposed approach to ensure that the children of terror inmates do not themselves get involved in terrorism is through the wives of these inmates.

The concept of this approach is to reach out to the wives of inmates, including those convicted for terrorism and for general crimes, during their husbands’ imprisonment. By bringing women of diverse backgrounds together, it would also enable them to mutually provide emotional support while promoting acceptance of diversity within these women. The main premise of these gathering would be to provide these women skills and a sustainable source of income. Obtaining a constant source of income is a major concern of convicted individuals such as in this study. The type of skills provided would focus on skills that could be conducted at home such as making tradecrafts. This would therefore enable easier management of their household duties. Additionally, they would be provided training on conducting e-commerce and leveraging on social media platforms to widen their marketing outreach.

Simultaneously, these women would be provided parenting classes that would assist them to build closer bonds with their children particularly after a traumatic experience such as their husband’s arrest. This would include potential ways of explaining their husband’s imprisonment to their children. It also aims to provide these women problem-solving skills for any issues that their children may face. Lastly, it aims to provide these women with the knowledge of readily available avenues that they can contact when in need. Through this approach, attention would be focused on susceptible youths, credible sources of influence are leveraged, and is a means to countering potential sources of radical ideologies.

[1] Examples of this rhetoric include those by the 911 commission ( and by former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the US (

[2] Silke A, (2011), “Disengagement or Deradicalization: A Look at Prison Programs for Jailed Terrorists”, CTC Sentinel, 4:1, 18-21

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] When asked why they did not require financial support from the government to participate in such conflicts, they stated that they could obtain funds from their community through donations.

[7] Of the remaining interviewees, five stated that they trusted the Indonesian government and their agencies while four expressed mixed feelings.

[8] Examples include the death of a 12-year-old Indonesian boy, whose father was a convicted terrorist, fighting in Syria with the Islamic state in 2016 ( and the family involved in three suicide bombings in Surabaya in 2018 (

[9] Kottow MH (2003), “The Vulnerable and the Susceptible, Bioethics, 5:6, 460-471

[10] Cragin RK (2014), “Resisting Violent Extremism: A Conceptual Model for Non-Radicalization”, Terrorism and Political Violence, 26, 337-353

[11] Ibid

[12] Examples can be found on: 1); 2); 3)

[13] Cragin RK (2014), “Resisting Violent Extremism: A Conceptual Model for Non-Radicalization”

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Cherney A (2016), “Designing and Implementing Programmes to Tackle Radicalization and Violent Extremism: Lessons from Criminology”, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict, 9:1-3, 82-94

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] All 17 interviewees stated that they and their families’ have faced stigma from their communities since their arrest for terrorism.

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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