A radical solution

Joshua Kurlantzick is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of "Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World."

In the fall of 2002, the Indonesian island of Bali, once known for its luscious beaches and vibrant Hindu culture, became synonymous with terror and radicalism. After a massive bombing in Bali’s nightclub district killed more than 200 people, the world suddenly realized what many locals had known for years: Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation on Earth, faced a serious internal terror threat.

Even before the Bali attack, Indonesia had suffered a wave of bombings in the winter of 2000, and earlier that year someone had bombed the Jakarta Stock Exchange. The Al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiah was actively recruiting across the archipelago, establishing radical schools to train a young generation of jihadis and planning attacks in Indonesia and throughout the region, including in the Philippines and Thailand.

But today, Indonesia has become a far different kind of example. Even as terrorism continues to grow more common in nations from Pakistan to Algeria, Indonesia is heading in the opposite direction, destroying its internal terrorist networks and winning the broader public battle against radicalism. And it has done so not only by cracking heads but by using a softer, innovative plan that employs former jihadis to wean radicals away from terror.


Indonesia’s successes are striking. Once a threat capable of waging war across Southeast Asia, today Jemaah Islamiah is a shell of its former self. Indonesian authorities have captured most of its top leaders, including the deputy commander who allegedly helped plan the Bali attacks. Indonesian police have overrun JI’s operational bases, forcing most of its members to live on the run, making it harder for them to plan bombings. Indonesia has suffered no major terror attacks in two years, and JI’s ability to raise money and find recruits has been shattered. “There is not much of JI left,” Indonesia terrorism authority Kenneth Conboy told reporters.

To be sure, effective police work has made a difference. Backed by U.S. training and high-end surveillance equipment, Indonesia’s elite counter-terrorism squad has established an effective internal intelligence network, relying on informants to point the way to terrorist hide-outs and arresting hundreds of JI members.

But if they really hoped to reduce the pool of possible new recruits for groups like Jemaah Islamiah, Indonesian leaders realized they had to win public support for their battle. Otherwise, police could arrest or kill hundreds of militants, and new radicals would just take their place.

To win militants’ hearts and minds, Indonesia instituted a program called deradicalization. Realizing that hard-core militants will not listen to prominent Muslim moderates, whom they view as soft, as irreligious or as tools of the government, the deradicalization initiative employs other militants -- former terrorist fighters or trainers. These are men like Nasir Abas, once a Jemaah Islamiah leader, who have sworn off most types of violence. Former fighters who agree to help the deradicalization program often receive incentives, such as reduced sentences or assistance for their families.

The co-opted radicals are sent as advocates into Indonesian prisons, major breeding grounds of militants. In the jails and other sites, they work to convince would-be terrorists that attacking civilians is not acceptable in Islam, to show that terror actually alienates average people from their religion, to suggest that the police are not anti-Islam and to exploit internal antagonisms within terror networks to turn militants against each other.

These intense debates, which rely partly on Koranic scholarship, can last for months. Meanwhile, other former militants appear on Indonesian television to express remorse for having killed their countrymen and women.


The deradicalization program already has delivered. According to a recent report by the independent, nonprofit International Crisis Group, the Indonesian plan has “persuaded about two dozen members of Jemaah Islamiah ... to cooperate with the police.”

Deradicalization could work far beyond Southeast Asia. In 2004, Saudi Arabia launched its own version of deradicalization. Under the Saudi version, militants in jail who agree to undergo intense classroom sessions receive shorter sentences. The sessions, designed to convince extremists that Islam does not condone terror, come combined with psychological deprogramming. The deprogramming resembles techniques used on cult members, and it also allows psychologists to assess whether militants are joining the deradicalization program just to be released and return to extremism. Police then follow up with extremists who have completed the program and been released from jail to ensure that they do not return to their old ways.

Saudi officials say the program has been very successful. Major terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia have plummeted compared with 2004. The Saudi plan also appears to have a broader regional impact. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has said that the Saudi initiative may be one reason for the sharp decline in the number of foreign fighters coming into Iraq.

Other countries have created variants on the program. Egypt has established a deradicalization initiative in which former jihadist thinkers argue that the Islamic concepts that militants use to justify violence are wrong. Singapore, Malaysia, Jordan and Yemen have enacted reeducation strategies, often focusing on prison populations. Drawing on Jakarta’s experience, nations such as Pakistan have launched deradicalization cooperation with Indonesia.

Even Western nations facing radical threats seem to be learning. The Netherlands this summer announced it would spend the equivalent of $40 million to launch deradicalization programs, train imams and other religious leaders and promote intercultural dialogue.

In perhaps the most sweeping Western initiative, Britain, stunned by a wave of terror attacks committed by British citizens, has attempted to build far deeper relationships with domestic Muslim groups, relying on them to help deradicalize potential young militants who could be transformed into suicide bombers.


“Our strategy of funding and engagement must shift significantly toward those organizations that are taking a proactive leadership role in tackling extremism,” declared British Cabinet minister Ruth Kelly last year. In other words, Britain has finally learned what Indonesia already knew.