INDONESIAN prisons will soon start spawning even more jihadists
A new law is funnelling more radicals into the ordinary prison population
AMAN ABDURRAHMAN was first arrested in 2004 following an accidental explosion during a bomb-making class near Jakarta. But his career as a jihadist really got going in prison, where he has spent 12 of the subsequent 14 years. Until recently Mr Aman was able to run a militant propaganda campaign from his cell. He translated some 115 articles from Islamic State publications into Indonesian and uploaded them online. He also recruited volunteers to go fight in Syria—all from behind bars. He became IS’s “most important ideological promoter” in Indonesia, according to Sidney Jones of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a think-tank in Jakarta. Abu Bakar Basyir (pictured), a radical cleric on death row for masterminding bombings in Bali in 2002 that killed more than 200 people, first befriended Mr Aman in prison and then distanced himself from him because he was “too hardline”.
Indonesia’s 477 prisons were built to house 125,000 prisoners. They are currently crammed with more than 254,000. One facility, in the province of South Kalimantan, holds 2,459 in a space meant for 366. An officer at a high-security prison in Jakarta says it is not uncommon for 15 inmates to be placed in a cell of nine square metres intended for three people.
Graft flourishes. Earlier this year a raid by the KPK, an anti-corruption agency, revealed cells with air-conditioning, flat-screen televisions and private bathrooms. Even the KPK could not get into several cells, because the keys were kept by their occupants.
Small wonder, then, that jihadists have been able to recruit and organise freely from prison. Authorities were shocked to discover that a gunman involved in an attack on civilians in Jakarta in 2016 was a former prisoner who had served as personal masseur to Mr Aman while in jail. He had been granted an early release just months before for “good behaviour”.
Abu Husna is another man who organised terrorism from jail. He leads one of the two main Indonesian factions supporting IS (Mr Aman leads the other) and is a former cellmate of Mr Basyir. Baim Maulana, a former weapons-procurer for jihadist groups and separatists in the province of Aceh, describes how Abu Husna and fellow IS supporters controlled certain parts of the maximum-security prison in which he used to be held: “This included the kitchen at one point.” Mr Maulana received an invitation for a meal with Abu Husna, who wanted Mr Maulana to work for him. “I couldn’t refuse at that point, so I left it open-ended—surviving in prison was already tough as it was without rejecting their offer,” Mr Maulana says.
Terrorist inmates sit atop a “moral hierarchy” in prison and are often regarded by other inmates as enlightened, at least in comparison with drug offenders and petty criminals, says Taufik Andrie of the Institute for International Peace-Building, which helps released extremists reintegrate. “They act like pesantren (Islamic school) leaders,” he says, “and are given a lot of privileges in jail amongst inmates”. Amir Abdillah, who helped build the bombs used in an attack in Jakarta in 2009, says, “Radicals offer fellow inmates a chance to atone for their sins and pray together.” Mr Amir says that when he was arrested, he was convinced he “was doing the work of God and would be respected even in prison”.
The key to stemming the spread of radical ideology among inmates, argues Mr Andrie, is segregating the hardliners. “This unfortunately does not happen in ‘medium-security’ prisons or in centres where detainees await trial,” he explains. Until 2016, when Mr Aman was transferred to a maximum-security prison, he could receive visits from admirers. Some of his visitors went on to commit a series of bombings of churches and police posts in Surabaya in May. The same month Mr Aman reportedly mediated between police and pro-IS inmates at another prison after they seized control of part of the building and slit the throats of five police officers.
Since the bombings in May the authorities have been trying hard to disrupt terrorist networks. A revision to the anti-terrorism law allows suspects to be arrested pre-emptively and held for up to three weeks (a judge can extend the detention to as much as 290 days). A spike in arrests has followed; there are only 466 people convicted under terrorism laws in Indonesia’s jails, but since June some 350 suspected terrorists have been arrested.
In the absence of reforms to the prison system, however, this campaign is likely to make things worse, not better. “It is not clear how already overburdened detention centres, prosecutors, courts and prisons are going to cope,” writes Ms Jones in a recent IPAC report. In all likelihood, thrusting so many radicals among other prisoners will simply create more terrorists