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Indonesia: How Radicalisation takes Place

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Crisis Group
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Jakarta/Brussels, : Extremist fugitives still have the potential to turn non-violent activists into would-be bombers in Indonesia, even as the overall threat of terrorism declines. 

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Indonesia: Radicalisation of the “Palembang Group”,* the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, uses documents from the trials of ten men from Palembang, South Sumatra, sentenced last month to heavy terms on terrorism charges, to show how radicalisation takes place.

“The sobering revelation is how easy the transformation can be, if the right ingredients are present”, says Sidney Jones, Crisis Group’s Senior Adviser to the Asia Program. “In this case, the most important element in turning the group toward violence was charismatic leadership, provided by two fugitives”.

One of the men, a member of the regional jihadi group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), had fled Singapore in late 2001 with the recently rearrested Mas Selamat Kastari; the other was wanted for multiple crimes committed in Maluku. The two men separately came upon a small Islamic study circle whose biggest concern was the conversion of Muslims by Christian evangelicals. The big leap was persuading the members to consider violence against the proselytisers they thus far had only preached against. Once they were willing to kill, a broader range of targets became thinkable.

The Palembang group was inept and failed in four out of five of its planned operations. But the case holds important lessons for counter-radicalisation strategies:

While JI has grown progressively weaker as an institution, individual members outside the mainstream, many of them wanted by police, can still provide motivation and training to transform a non-violent group into militant extremists. Nine of ten members of the Palembang group were not JI, but JI members provided crucial inputs along the way.

JI schools need more attention from the government, not because of what they teach but because of their role as communication hubs and places of refuge. The director of the JI school near Palembang was against violence and never joined the group, but visitors to the school facilitated the radicalisation process.

Fear of “Christianisation” – conversion of Muslims – can be a powerful local driver for radicalisation in Indonesia, especially now that communal conflicts have waned.

Despite enormous strides in recent years, Indonesian police need more assistance in building criminal investigation capacity, especially at the local level. The Palembang group’s existence could have been detected earlier by better investigative skills.

“It would be possible to conclude that the Palembang men were such hapless bumblers that if this is all Indonesia has to worry about, it is in good shape”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “But a similarly amateurish group with the same bombs and a little more luck could have a much more lethal effect”.

May 20, 2009

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