External Affairs

Indonesia’s Terrorist Whisperer

For the better part of the last decade, Noor Huda Ismail – a disarming and bespectacled polymath – has attempted to identify and rehabilitate former terrorists, many of whom attended the same school as himself.

Noorul Hud Ismail. Ceedit: TedXJakarta/Flickr CC 2.0

Noor Huda Ismail. Ceedit: TedXJakarta/Flickr CC 2.0

“No need to take off your shoes, this is not a mosque,” Noor Huda Ismail chuckled as I bent to slip off my sandals before entering the modest offices of the Institute for International Peace, located in a quiet residential neighbourhood in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Huda, as he is generally known, is the founder of this NGO, as well as a graduate student, journalist, film maker, and “terrorist whisperer.” For the better part of the last decade, this disarming and bespectacled polymath has attempted to identify and rehabilitate former terrorists, many of whom attended the same school as himself.

There has perhaps never been a more urgent need for Huda’s vocation. A coordinated, albeit chaotic, series of bomb and gun attacks in mid January left four civilians and four terrorists dead in Jakarta. Experts are agreed that there is probably more violence to come as hundreds of Indonesians have travelled to Syria in recent years to join ISIS, which claimed responsibility for January’s attacks.

According to Sydney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, and a leading expert on terrorist groups in the region, the latest attacks show that ISIS can reach into the heart of Indonesia. She revealed that from 2010 until January’s attacks, out of dozens of attempted bomb attacks in Indonesia, not one bomb had worked as intended, and three suicide attacks had killed only the attackers themselves. The connection that local jihadists have developed with ISIS is therefore critical in having provided them with military training, ideological indoctrination, fresh motivation and new targets.

After the notorious Bali bombings of 2002 that left more than 200 people dead, Indonesia developed an effective counterterrorism police unit that dismantled the terrorist networks of the time. However, many of those arrested during and after the bombings have been released from prisons in recent months. Far from being rehabilitated in prison, it is likely that many of these men were further radicalized while in jail, having come into contact with notorious jihadis there. On the whole, the Indonesian state has been more effective in arresting terrorists, than on deradicalising them, with the result that the incidence of repeat offenders is high.

According to Huda, it is hard for former prisoners to reintegrate into mainstream society, which makes them disposed towards rejoining their old terrorist networks where they find easy acceptance and a sense of community. Huda speaks as if from experience. He is in fact an alumnus of one of Indonesia’s most infamous pesantren or Islamic boarding schools, Al Mukmin at Ngruki, located just outside the central Javanese city of Solo. The school was founded by Abu Bakar Baashir, the spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiah, the group behind the 2002 bombings.

A student giving an oral exam at Al Mukmin. credit: al-mukmin.com

A student giving an oral exam at Al Mukmin. credit: al-mukmin.com

At school, Huda had been a roommate of one of the Bali bombers, Fadlullah Hasan, who is currently serving a life sentence. Huda recalled that Hasan had been one of the brightest boys in their school, skilled at speaking English and at martial arts. Upon finishing school in 1989, Hassan went to Pakistan to study further and eventually left for Afghanistan, where he trained in a jihadi camp. Over a decade later, Huda, who had since become a journalist, found himself interviewing his friend behind bars for a story on the Bali bombings.

“I felt that I could so easily have been him,” he said. Like Hasan, Huda too had applied for a scholarship to study in Pakistan, but was turned down because he was considered “morally tainted”, having taken the daughter of his school’s principal out on a date. “I was saved by love,” he said wryly.

While still in school, Huda had joined the Darul Islam (DI), a group committed to establishing an Islamic state in Indonesia. Huda said this makes him uniquely positioned to understand the process of radicalisation. “There is constant brainwashing and demonising of others. There is also a victimisation narrative, on top of which there is a glorification of masculinity in the idea of fighting jihad,” he explained.

Huda became disillusioned with radical Islamic organisations in the 1990s, when DI split. The ensuing factionalism exposed to him flaws in the concept of Islamic brotherhood that he had once bought into. But it was only after a stint of studying abroad, in Scotland, that Huda began to think about how to help people like his former roommate once they were released from prison. “Unfortunately, there is no book on deradicalisation for dummies,” he laughed.

Huda worked on the premise that if a former jihadi is “occupied by worldly affairs” he will be less likely to lapse. And so the young journalist embarked on a series of entrepreneurial experiments from 2007 on. He provided capital to a former radical to become a coco bean farmer. “But this guy ran off with a woman.” Next, he helped a former schoolmate to set up a car hire business. “But he ran away with the money.” Then he tried helping an ex-terrorist with a fish farm. “But this one found it boring and returned to his old jihadi network.”

“They might still believe in radical ideas but as long as they are cooking rather than killing, if they get rid of violent activity from their lives, then I am satisfied,” said Huda.

It was only in 2009 with the setting up of a café in the city of Semarang (the café was subsequently moved to Solo in 2011), that Huda had his first success story. He recruited a high-school dropout and former jihadi of the Semarang network called Yusuf to cook and serve at this café. Not only did Yusuf take to his new profession, but over the years he also recruited past members of his radical network, so that today the café has become a kind of careers service for ex-terrorists.

A child hides his face at the site of the 2009 terrorist bombing in Jakarta. Credit: enda Nasution/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

A child hides his face at the site of the 2009 terrorist bombing in Jakarta. Credit: enda Nasution/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

“We have held business training workshops in 12 prisons,” Huda said. The Institute for International Peace, which he founded in 2008, also offers training programmes for police officers on how to approach radicalised youth effectively. “I prefer to talk about disengagement rather than deradicalisation,” Huda explained since it is much easier to get people to “change their life than to change their mind.” “They might still believe in radical ideas but as long as they are cooking rather than killing, if they get rid of violent activity from their lives, then I am satisfied,” he said.

So far Huda’s café has helped “disengage” around 15 jihadis. It’s a small number given the scale of the challenge and yet, private initiatives like the café are arguably more successful than the government’s attempts at rehabilitation, despite the resources available to the state.

Huda believes that countering ideology through general speeches is not the most effective tactic. What is needed is an individualised approach where a bond of trust is established between the radical and the person helping to disengage them. “Each terrorist needs a whisperer,” Huda beamed.

The Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which is Indonesia’s (and possibly the world’s) largest grassroots Muslim organisation with up to 50 million members, has in recent months taken up the gauntlet of developing counter-narratives to the ideology of ISIS. Its efforts include the screening of films, as well as sermons by imams at NU-run mosques and schools, that promote Islam Nusantara (literally Islam of the islands – a reference to the traditionally moderate varieties of Islam practiced in Indonesia) over Wahhabi interpretations of Islam.

Nonetheless, experts like Jones believe more needs to be done to combat the danger that the growth of ISIS has created for renewed terrorist activities in the region. As an example, she cites the 215 Indonesians, 60% of whom are women and children, deported back home from Syria’s borders by the Turkish authorities over the last few months. Working with this group can help form the basis for an effective prevention programme in the future, according to her.

Huda agrees that amongst the most important challenges in the fight against fundamentalist Islam is to grasp the psyche of jihadis. His new project is thus a film titled Jihad Selfie, about a would-be ISIS fighter from Indonesia whom Huda met by chance in Turkey. “Countering ISIS propaganda is our only way to fight back,” he said. I left Huda editing the latest footage from his film along with a team of volunteer helpers that included several women in hijabs. The team peppered their chat with English phrases. The last words I heard as I departed were the “the genealogy of terrorism.”

Pallavi Aiyar is a Jakarta-based journalist and writer