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Changing militants’ mindset with little success

Jibril, a former Indonesian militant, describes his years of military training in Afghanistan from 1985 to 1987 as "the best holiday in my whole life."

world Updated: Sep 24, 2009 12:59 IST

Jibril, a former Indonesian militant, describes his years of military training in Afghanistan from 1985 to 1987 as "the best holiday in my whole life."

He was one of the first batch of Indonesians to train in Afghanistan, where he met other mujahidin, from the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Saudi Arabia, and learned guerrilla tactics and how to make and defuse bombs.

On his return to Indonesia, Jibril, who like many Indonesians uses one name, joined the Muslim-Christian ethnic clashes in Ambon, Eastern Indonesia.

He spent three years on the run from police who began rounding up Muslim activists linked to militant group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) after the 2002 Bali bombings which killed 202 foreigners and Indonesians.

Eventually, in 2006, he turned himself in and joined Indonesia's de-radicalisation programme, a voluntary scheme which tries to get militants to accept a more moderate form of Islam.

The de-radicalisation programme has proved controversial.

Many Australians were shocked in 2007 when they learned that Indonesia's counter-terrorism unit had hosted a fast-breaking meal during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan for those convicted of the 2002 Bali bomb attacks.

Jibril, now 46, is among the first to admit that the programme has its shortcomings.

He still firmly believes in "jihad". He was taught by radical clerics when he was young, and was strongly opposed to raids by the Indonesian military on Muslim activists in the early 1980s, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the more recent "War on Terror" by the United States and its allies.

The bonds between him and fellow militants, whose agenda is to create an Islamic state, means they will always extend support to each other, he said, including shelter from the police.

"Generally, if he is a brother, we would help because we have a strong bond of friendship," Jibril said. Despite the risk they could be captured by police and jailed for up to seven years, it is hard to change the mindset of a militant, he said.

"We are like water that has been dipped with a teabag, we will never become plain water again," he said.


Some analysts also question whether such programmes can be effective in the long run or are, in fact, counter-productive. Some argue that in southern Thailand, the peace programmes actually played into the hands of the insurgents.

Rehabilitation programmes by the Thai military have been disjointed, serving more as a public relations tool for the authorities. Analysts say it is highly unlikely any real militants have gone through the peace-building camps, which are held at army bases and teach "correct" Islam, government policy and the positive aspects of the Thai state.

Thailand's Internal Security Operations Command told Reuters a total of 1,363 people have been put through the programmes.

Many sent to the camps as rebel sympathisers are innocent villagers from so-called "red zones" where insurgent groups thrive.

Many "rehabilitated" Malay Muslims were never involved in the rebellion and not opposed to the Thai state. The camps only turned some of them against the authorities, radicalising them and steering them towards the militant groups out of anger.

Upon returning to their villages, they could be in danger, viewed with suspicion by both the rebels and the authorities.

"The government sent them to camps to reprogramme, retrain and indoctrinate them, and announced publicly that those released would become the eyes and ears of the security forces," said academic Duncan McCargo, who spent a year in the region doing research for his book on the conflict.

"Militant groups were suspicious that they were informants and state officials suspected them of being rebels. It had a destabilising impact on local communities."

Across the border, Malaysia has released 13 people so far this year detained under its draconian Internal Security Act, of which six are suspected JI militants. One of them, Mat Sah Mohd Satray was released around the same time Noordin was killed in Indonesia, before Eid al-Fitr celebrations.

Mat Sah says he was detained for seven years after police officers discovered he attended religious sermons in 1990s given by JI's spiritual head, Indonesia's Abu Bakar Bashir.

"I was put in a single cell for three years and after that moved to a dorm for good behaviour. I didn't see the sky and stars for seven years," Mat Sah, 46, told Reuters

"We had to attend religious classes once a week. Most of the time we were left alone to ourselves. There was no rehabilitation, so to speak, and my sentence was unfair."


In Indonesia, over 400 suspected militants have been captured. About half have subsequently been released, and 238 have either completed or are currently in the de-radicalisation programme, according to a book published recently by Petrus Golose, a senior member of the Special Anti-Terror unit.

Golose said 103 people agreed to accept money from the government as financial assistance, admit their mistakes, and provide tip-offs or help in the de-radicalisation programme.

Indonesian police claim it is possible to win back some hearts and minds with the de-radicalisation programme. One of their best known successes at home was Nasir Abas, the brother-in-law of Mukhlas, one of the three Bali bombers.

Abas trained in Afghanistan and was a JI regional commander. But now, following his capture, he works with the police, lecturing to government officials and targeted militants on the inner workings of JI, and is frequently quoted in the media.

However, for every Abas, there are plenty of others who return to the fray. Some militants have refused to participate in the re-education programme, others join in order to qualify for the money. Few are willing to co-operate and give tip-offs in exchange for education and medical care for their families.

Militant groups tend to be wary of anyone who has been captured, imprisoned and then released, because of the risk they could have turned informant or be tracked by police and betray the movement.

Yet in many cases, once released, they re-join the group, get involved in the flourishing militant publishing business, teach in Islamic boarding schools, or help in other ways.

Urwah, alias Bagus Budi Pranoto, was arrested in 2004 and sentenced to three-and-a-half years for harbouring Azahari and Noordin Top, two of the most wanted militants.

When he was released, he launched a radical DVD business, then disappeared from view until he was found dead, along with Top, in a police raid in Central Java last week.

Air Setiawan, a bomb expert, was briefly detained in 2004 for possible involvement in the Australian embassy bombing in Jakarta that year. He was freed because police didn't have enough evidence to bring him to court.

Air was killed last month in Bekasi, on the outskirts of Jakarta, when police raided a house looking for Top. Instead of Top, they found explosives which were intended for an assassination attempt on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. (Additional reporting by Martin Petty and Kittipong Soonprasert in BANGKOK; Writing by Sara Webb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Megan Goldin)