Pull Factors of Recidivism within Violent Extremist Groups in Indonesia

Apprehending terrorists is only a step towards addressing violent extremism (VE). Understanding the complexities of VE such as pull factors would enable a more effective approach in preventing recidivism. Credit: Antara foto/Muhammad Iqbal via Kompas.com.


The recidivism rate of Indonesian terrorist ex-convicts between 2002 and 2020 is 11.39% (94 individuals), which is 4-9% higher than in Europe.

Adding to this concern is that attacks by recidivists tend to be bigger in scale and deadlier than their previous attempts. Case in point: in December 2022, a recidivist carried out a suicide attack on Astana Anyar police station in Bandung resulting in the death of one police officer and wounding several victims. The perpetrator was released in 2021 after a stint behind bars for terrorism-related financing and making explosives used in a 2017 attack in Bandung.

Numerous factors have been attributed to recidivism. These include increasing resentment towards the government and security officers due to their experiences during imprisonment.

Indonesian counterterrorism agencies such as the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT), Special Detachment 88 (Densus 88) and correctional institutions have also been cited as contributing factors due to their overlapping work and lack of inter-institutional coordination in conducting in-prison deradicalization programs. For example, BNPT, Densus 88 and correction officers visit terror inmates separately. Additionally, the intent of these visits are questionable.

Preventing recidivism requires multidimensional analyses. In contributing to addressing recidivism in Indonesia, this article aims to contribute by presenting the narratives and psychological factors that pull terror inmates back to the path of violence.

The Pull Factors

Narratives circulated within violent extremist groups are crucial in compelling members to remain committed to their cause. From the beginning of their engagement with an extremist entity and throughout their journey of violence, recruited individuals are introduced to various risks they would be exposed to. These include being labeled as a “terrorist”, being marginalized and stigmatized against, being separated from parents and family members, being imprisoned, and being killed.

Members of these organizations are also directed to believe that imprisonment is a test from Allah for anyone who defends His religion. Notably, they deem prisons to be “madrasah [school of] Yusuf.” This positive label refers to Prophet Yusuf who attained mental and intellectual maturity during his imprisonment for a false allegation.

Such association resonates with imprisoned members as they believe that their cause is not a crime but a holy war. They perceive their imprisonment as an endeavor by the Indonesian government to extinguish Islam instead of suppressing crime.

And due to the limitations of prisons which enables terror inmates to interact freely with each other, imprisonment is a precious opportunity to learn “true” Islam without distraction from worldly matters.

Unfortunately, such narratives are also effective on the wives and children of these inmates. My earlier study discovers how the wife of a terror inmate believed that her husband would gain merits from Allah every day despite being barred from the action due to his imprisonment. According to her, being imprisoned for “jihad” is part of “jihad” itself.

There is also a belief among this group that wives and children also obtain merits for their patience and loyalty to their husband/father as the latter undergo their sentence. Such narratives have prevented terror inmates from fully embracing deradicalization programs inside prison.

An Exclusive Group

Such pushback from terror inmates are supported by a 2017 assessment conducted by the Division for Applied Social Psychology Research (DASPR) in collaboration with the Department of Correction. Numerous prisoners were discovered to refuse interactions with any outsider, including prison guards and officers of Densus 88. They exclusively performed daily prayers and held religious discussions in their cells with other likeminded inmates.

Despite their exclusive nature, they continued attempts to recruit inmates who committed other types of crimes. These general crime inmates have joined various activities with terror inmates, including learning how to recite and interpret the Qur’an, participating in regular religious sharing sessions, and eventually accessing jihad-related content.

Interestingly, whose who were successfully influenced were labelled by officers and practitioners as “teroris KW” (translated as “counterfeit terrorists), implying that they are not ideologically-inspired and thus not serious in the cause). Consequently, they are also deemed to be less dangerous than terror inmates.

Prison guards and non-governmental organizations have made efforts to prevent the emergence of “teroris KW”. For instance, in a deradicalization program, DASPR invited “teroris KW” to attend discussion sessions with terror inmates.

However, such occasional discussions are not enough to counter the violent ideologies that they are constantly exposed to. Without adequately addressing this issue, both terror inmates and “teroris KW” will continue to pose significant risk.

To increase receptiveness towards deradicalization programs, prison guards also conduct personal (i.e., one-on-one), informal interactions with terror inmates. Like BNPT’s and Densus 88’s visit programs, prison officers discuss with terror inmates about general themes such as family and inmates’ previous activities before they engaged in violent extremism.

By gaining inmates trust, they can be directed to participate in formal programs to discuss themes such as theology and nationalism. Unfortunately, having informal interactions with terror inmates are hindered due to numerous reasons including the risk of being attacked by inmates during these close interactions and lack of manpower.

Network Support

Another pull factor is the support rendered from their network. Those who stay in the network gain various assistance, both mentally and financially. They receive regular visits and material aids such as supplies and cash from others in the same network.

Moreover, their family members, in particular wives and children, receive benefits including accommodation and food, return transportation for those visiting terror inmates, and scholarships for children. Such assistance conveys to terror inmates that their network is the best safety net and growth enabler rather than the government that does not provide such assistance. Rumors of how ex-inmates are abandoned by the government after their release strengthens inmates’ resolve to not participate in deradicalization programs.

Fear of Excommunication

The last factor is related to a psychological dilemma. Walking away from their violent cause is akin to a religious conversion; not just a shift to being less religious. Leaving “jihad qital” (armed war) means being shunned as an apostate, making it permissible for them to be targeted and possibly killed by their former comrades.

This belief is espoused during the recruitment process and continuously reinforced through various methods and media, including sermons, videos, books, articles and excerpts from extremist scholars. Those who have engaged with a radical ideology since their childhood and teenage years potentially face more intense psychological dynamics compared to others who did not get the same experience. Furthermore, members who do not leave their network gain recognition as a “true muwahid” (monotheist/believer) and their status is higher than the opposite group. Similarly, inmates who do not take parole are labeled “real muwahid” because they decline to follow “man-made” correctional rules.

Potential Approaches to Prevent Recidivism

It is crucial for relevant agencies to implement more relevant deradicalization policies by understanding the narratives and psychological factors that pull terror inmates back to their groups. Of significant importance is the need to develop a robust in-prison counternarratives.

For example, a working group with relevant institutions should learn other versions of “madrasah Yusuf” and invite prisoners to revisit their interpretation. This entails discussions on whether the situations faced by Prophet Yusuf were like theirs and encouraging them to critically rethink whether the prophet was imprisoned for terrorizing others. Notably, such rethinking has facilitated Ali Imron, the mastermind of the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings towards non-violence.

Secondly, to ensure total disengagement from extremist organizations, relevant institutions should channel terror inmates who are about to be released to deradicalized communities. Examples of these communities are Yayasan Dekat Bintang dan Langit (Near Stars and Sky Foundation – DeBintal) – a Densus 88-initiated foundation for terror prisoners from any violent extremist groups – Forum Komunikasi Aktifis Akhlakul Karimah Indonesia (Communication Forum of Akhlakul Karimah Activists – FKAAI), which gathers predominantly former Jama’ah Islamiyah (JI)/al-Qaeda combatants.

DeBintal has conducted various activities ranging from regular Islamic fora, to dialogues with stakeholders, to capacity building and to entrepreneurship initiatives. It also runs a quail and chicken farming business, provides training in air conditioning (AC) reparation and baking, and has participated in government events. They have also held dialogues with Kiai Baha’udin Nursalim (aka Gus Baha), a prominent moderate scholar who has proposed re-interpretations of “jihad” based on prophetic teachings and critical thoughts.

FKAAI, which is supervised by the chief of Densus 88 Marthinus Hukom and former JI commander Nasir Abas, has developed business programs such as a car dealership, fruit farming, seafood tents. It has conducted counterradicalism seminars, directed inmates to halfway houses, produced publications and also rendered financial support via donations. They are able to help ex-convicts in at least three matters: convincing them that they have many non-violent activities to participate in, giving mental support to counter enmity from active violent extremists and empowering them financially that enables them to choose a new social circle.

While such communities continue to receive support from government agencies, they still seek collaborations with private entities and civil society for funding and training. This exemplifies the need for a whole-of-society approach in deradicalization efforts. Lastly, in handling the psychological dilemma, relevant institutions are recommended to provide regular monitoring to evaluate terror inmates’ psychological states during and post release. The 76 inmates who recently declared their oath of allegiance to the Indonesian state, for example, will require such assistance because they are transiting from extremism and restarting their lives upon their release.

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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  • Any Rufaedah is an analyst at the Department of Psychology Universitas Nahdlatul Ulama Indonesia and Division for Applied Social Psychology Research, Jakarta. She is currently completing a certificate program in Strategic Studies at King’s College London.