Indonesia fights terrorism with power of persuasion

Nasir Abbas, shown on August, 29, 2008 in Jakarta, was a senior commander with the Indonesia-based terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah but now works to promote tolerance. (Warren Strobel/MCT)
Nasir Abbas, shown on August, 29, 2008 in Jakarta, was a senior commander with the Indonesia-based terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah but now works to promote tolerance. (Warren Strobel/MCT) MCT

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Sitting in a Papa Ron's pizza outlet in the Indonesian capital, Nasir Abbas looks more like a would-be business entrepreneur than a former Islamic militant. He's dressed in a gray polo shirt and blue jeans, ordering a take-out pizza for his children. He munches on an appetizer in between calls on his cell phone.

However, for 15 years, before his 2003 arrest and jailhouse conversion, Abbas rode the underground currents of international terrorism. He learned weapons skills, taught fighters in camps from Afghanistan to the Philippines and earned the rank of a senior commander in Jemaah Islamiyah, Southeast Asia's most feared Islamic terrorist group.

His students included the men who plotted the October 2002 Bali resort bombings, which killed more than 200 and remain one of the world's deadliest terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.

His remorse over the massacre of civilians and the Indonesian police's careful handling of him transformed Abbas. From a terrorist commander he became a terrorist counselor, working with the police to try to convince other captured militants that their interpretation of Islam is wrong.

"I (came to) understand that the Bali bombings were a crime, not a jihad," he says.

Today, Abbas is the most famous alumnus of an Indonesian government initiative that fights terrorism by persuasion. Authorities try to "de-radicalize" militants, debating religion with them and re-connecting them with their families instead of relying on the high-tech weapons and harsh interrogation techniques that have characterized President Bush's approach since 9/11.

"Because terrorism is an ideologically motivated crime, it is not possible to stop it using mere physical operations," said Ansyaad Mbai, the head of the Indonesian government's Counter-Terrorism Coordinating Desk. "Based on our experience, the harder we hit them with military force, the more radical they become."

Mbai is critical of the Bush administration's approach to fighting terrorism. The war in Iraq, in particular, has made the job of handling terrorism in Indonesia harder, he said: "Even the moderate Muslim leaders find it difficult to explain that the war taking place in the Middle East is not a war against Islam."

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, treats terrorism as a crime, not a cause for war.

This "soft" approach hasn't always been popular with Western governments, particularly the U.S., which protested Indonesia's 2006 release of Jemaah Islamiyah spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir, one of several terrorist suspects and convicts to gain early remission.

For every Nassir Abbas, there's an unrepentant detainee who'll never be talked out of violence, no matter how eloquent the persuasion. This includes three convicted Bali bombers sitting on death row. One, who goes by the single name Mukhlas, is Abbas' brother-in-law. Abbas acknowledges that he hasn't been able to get through to him.

The three men appear to have exhausted their appeals and are expected to be executed by firing squad before year's end. They and their followers have promised retribution, fueling fears of new violence.

Yet Indonesia's fight against terrorism has been an undeniable, if qualified, success, according to officials and private analysts in several countries.

Using methodical police work and programs to counter radical ideologies, Indonesian authorities have reduced Jemaah Islamiyah to a remnant of its former self. The Indonesian government has benefited from public revulsion at a string of bombings against civilians.

Indonesian police, led by an elite counter-terrorist unit named Detachment-88, which trained with U.S. and Australian help, have arrested roughly 300 Jemaah Islamiyah members, including many of the group's commanders and most of those behind the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings. Top bomb-maker Azahari Husin was killed three years ago in a shootout with police.

The group, which once had cells and training grounds across Southeast Asia — including in the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand — largely has retrenched to its Indonesian home base. The group's links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network mostly have been ruptured, the officials and analysts said.

Indonesia "has been a real success story, at most levels," said Zachary Abuza, a specialist on terrorism in Southeast Asia at Simmons College in Boston.

A June report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a government-funded research organization, said the personnel losses have had a "marked impact" on Jemaah Islamiyah. It's splintered into two factions, the report said: "traditionalists" who want to rebuild and a more radical, "pro-bombing" faction.

This smaller second group "will find it increasingly difficult to operate in any concerted manner — both as a result of unremitting counter-terrorist action and popular rejection of indiscriminate tactics that are viewed as having a negative impact on wider Muslim interests," the report said.

Australia, which long has had significant influence in Indonesia, lost more than 90 of its citizens in the two Bali bombings. Its embassy in Jakarta was bombed in 2004.

How much credit goes to the de-radicalization efforts is in dispute.

Critics say the program, while useful, is under-funded and poorly organized, and undercut by a lax Indonesian prison system that permits inmates to recruit others to the jihadist cause.

Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based expert on regional conflicts with the International Crisis Group, said the initiative has failed to reach the most committed extremists, such as detainees who are close to Jemaah Islamiyah leader Noordin Top, Indonesia's most wanted man.

"Most of the people who are getting assistance are people who aren't really committed to bombings anyway," she said. "It's a question of how much the de-radicalization program has drawn in the hard core."

The de-radicalization effort is less about religion than it is about money, Jones said. Prisoners who cooperate receive better medical care and other payments, such as help with their children's education, even after they're released. "The message is, if you're cooperative, you get really good perks," she said.

Nasir Abbas is, largely alone, the program's public face, and the authorities encourage him to speak on religious tolerance and conflict mediation.

By his own account, he'd come to oppose killings of unarmed civilians long before he was arrested but hadn't turned against Jemaah Islamiyah.

Abbas attributes his conversion to his handling by police. He said they didn't mistreat him, told him they knew of his feelings about the bombings of civilian targets and allowed him to pray at dawn the day after his arrest.

"It opens my mind . . . At first I think . . . police are against all Islamic groups, against the Muslims," Abbas said, repeating the early indoctrination that he and other young Jemaah Islamiyah recruits receive.

Indonesian officials have said that of the roughly 300 Jemaah Islamiyah members they've arrested, 50 are high-ranking members, and from 10 to 20 of them are now cooperating with the government.

Mbai, the official who coordinates Jakarta's counter-terrorism policy, said that Indonesia tried more brutal tactics with the Islamic militants who've challenged the country's secular leaders since its independence in the 1940s. "Today's terrorist leaders are the children, grandchildren, relatives or close associates of those executed in the past," he said at a conference last year. "As long as we do not neutralize their radical ideology, we will be unable to stop their movement."

Mbai acknowledged in an interview that "there are some risks here." There's not only the criticism from other governments to consider, but also the delicate matter of the government intervening in religious issues.

Meanwhile, Jemaah Islamiyah, if wounded, remains lethal.

In early July, police arrested 10 militants on the island of Sumatra and seized a cache of 20 bombs. Their targets reportedly included the Indonesian Supreme Court and a cafe frequented by foreign tourists — although the latter was scrubbed from the list because of fears that large numbers of Muslims would be killed or wounded.

Abuza, the terrorism specialist, said of the militants: "They're down. They're not out."


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