Amir Abdillah helped kill and maim dozens of people but the now-free convicted terrorist says he’s done waging holy war. With many fellow jihadists being released from jail, the spotlight is on efforts to deradicalise them. By Martin Goettske.

Deradicalising Indonesian terrorists

Former jihadist Amir Abdillah.
Former jihadist Amir Abdillah.

Amir Abdillah turns his head away. He doesn’t want to look at the photograph of himself. “I was proud of what I had done back when that photo was taken,” says the 41-year-old.

In the picture, Abdillah is a 35-year-old prisoner, liable to be put to death. He’s wearing a white robe, a tight-fitting prayer cap and a pointed beard.

It’s the look of a jihadist, he says. Today he’s wearing jeans, a blue sweater and a black baseball cap. The only thing remaining from the photo is the beard, which has turned partially grey.

“I’m a different person today,” he says. “I no longer have a wish to kill Westerners.”

He says this with an unemotional voice, which for a moment almost disguises the seriousness of what he is saying. The desire he describes – to kill Westerners – was with him for many years. In 2009, he took part in a bomb attack on two luxury hotels in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. Nine people were killed and more than 50 injured.

The photograph of Abdillah is now seven years old. It was taken during his trial in 2010, when he was sentenced to eight years in jail for his role in the terrorist attack and his part in a plan to assassinate the then Indonesian president.

He received a relatively mild sentence because he revealed information that enabled the police to arrest or kill other members of his terror cell. He was even released ahead of time – after less than six years behind bars – as the authorities considered him deradicalised.

These days he drives on the same roads in Jakarta as he did when he was the chauffeur to al-Qaeda’s South-East Asian leader. But he is driving now for Go-Car, a local transport service much like Uber.

“I still meet people that consider me a hero for the attack,” he tells me as his Toyota is stuck on the congested roads of the Indonesian capital. The interior of the white vehicle is decorated with Hello Kitty car mats. There’s a pack of napkins on the dashboard and prayer beads hang from the rear-view mirror.

“They want to celebrate me. It’s tempting – because the rest of society has turned its back on me – but I just walk away when they start talking about holy war and want to pull me back in.”

The Indonesian authorities would characterise Abdillah as a successfully deradicalised terrorist. But there are also plenty of failures in the system, which has one of the highest number of Islamic jihadists behind bars in the world.

In the past 15 years, almost 1200 people in Indonesia have been imprisoned for terrorism and almost 100 of them have been released each year. Some of these newly released prisoners have committed fresh acts of terrorism.

In January last year, four terrorists with ties to Daesh attacked police officers, a cafe and a shopping mall in central Jakarta – two of them had been freed a few months earlier, after serving time for their role in a terrorist training camp. Shortly before the attack, all four had sought advice from an imprisoned radical Islamic ideologue.

A local non-profit, the Institute for International Peace Building, which supports released terrorists, has estimated that up to 40 per cent of convicted militant Islamists return to an extremist environment when they leave jail.

Police brigadier-general Hamidin, head of the anti-radicalisation program at the Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), acknowledges that they manage to deradicalise only two-thirds of convicted terrorists, and that even then only “to some degree”.

“Not all leave prison as better individuals,” he says.

Amir Abdillah started to develop his fascination with holy war at the beginning of the century. Where most were horrified by the 2002 bombing attack on Bali that killed 202 people, Abdillah felt inspired. He was binge-watching videotapes that preached that killing was justified, especially if the victims were Americans, whose troops were killing Muslims in Afghanistan. “It was right to kill the infidels,” Abdillah says of his thoughts at the time. “It was the right thing to do as a true Muslim.”

In his workplace – a hotel in Jakarta where he was employed in the kitchen – he met colleagues who harboured similar thoughts. They met often in the hotel’s prayer room and discussed politics and religion. One of his colleagues belonged to the militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, and later – in 2007 – the man introduced Abdillah to Indonesia’s most wanted Islamist militant, the Malaysian national Noordin Mohammad Top, who was the head of al-Qaeda in South-East Asia and the mastermind behind several deadly bomb attacks.

“He motivated me. He told me we were at war, that it was time for action,” Abdillah says.

Abdillah became a full member of a terrorist cell soon after and was put in charge of logistics, moving explosives around and surveying possible bomb targets. “I was ready to be one of the suicide bombers,” he says. 

The cell chose two other bombers who, on the morning of July 17, 2009, blew up themselves within minutes of each other, one in the J W Marriott and the other in the Ritz-Carlton. An Indonesian, a New Zealander, two Dutch nationals and three Australians died in the attack.

“God is great,” Abdillah whispered as he stood nearby and watched. With the blasts, he felt tension dissipate.

“On the day we were nervous. We all wanted to perform well and we were relieved afterwards. In the evening we celebrated the attack with a feast. I felt sorry for one of the suicide bombers, Dani, whom I had gotten to know, but the boss said he was already in heaven.”

Amir Abdillah and the rest of the terror cell went underground in a rented residence outside Jakarta, where they started planning their next attack. Terror leader Noordin Mohammad Top had ordered the assassination of then Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in revenge for him permitting the execution of three militant Islamists.

The plan was never carried forward, as the police apprehended Abdillah. In his own version, he spent the next month constantly in handcuffs and blindfolded while the police beat from him information about his accomplices.

Shortly after, Top was killed by police, along with others from Amir Abdillah’s group.

During his trial, Abdillah was asked whether he thought he would revert to terrorism upon his release. He answered: “Everything is decided by Allah.”

Today, however, he says that he’s turned his back on jihadism. “I don’t know what could have kept me from participating in the attack back then. I was convinced that I did the right thing. It was only when I saw the maimed victims that I turned my back on terrorism. Some were just working as hotel staff, like me, and many were ordinary Muslims. I realised the effect of the bombs, that you cannot use bombs and choose your victims with precision.”

The Indonesian government’s deradicalisation program focuses almost entirely on religion – the thinking is that Muslims become terrorists because they have been led astray by a wrong interpretation of Islam.

“They have another view of Islam. It’s an ideological struggle that we need to win,” Brigadier-General Hamidin says.

Prayer and conversations with imams and psychologists are meant to make the jihadists understand that their actions are wrong and cannot be justified by their religion. But according to BNPT, almost half of the convicted terrorists refuse to participate in the deradicalisation program.

At the same time, Indonesia’s prisons are accused of being breeding grounds for Islamic extremism and terror. A recent survey from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a think tank in Jakarta, shows that overcrowded jails, lack of personnel and a high level of corruption has made it easier for imprisoned extremists to recruit willing jihadists, especially from among the young inmates.

According to IPAC, at least 18 former convicted criminals have been involved in terror-related cases in Indonesia since 2010 and most were radicalised in prison.

Hamidin admits the anti-radicalisation effort is also hampered by the fact the authorities have no formal program in place to either keep an eye on convicted terrorists after their release or to help them get a new start in life away from the influence of extremists – for example through financial aid.

That effort is almost entirely shouldered by non-government organisations. “It’s hard for the jihadists to return to a society that sees them as monsters,” says Dete Aliah, of the Institute for International Peace Building, which offers former terrorists job training and small loans. “If they don’t receive support, there’s much higher risk that they again get sucked back into their terror network where they find acceptance and a sense of community.”

Back on Jakarta’s roads, Amir Abdillah suddenly drives up on a kerb and stops the car. It’s time for midday prayer and in his thongs he walks to the nearest mosque. When he returns to the car with a freshly washed face and wet-combed hair, he says he’s been lucky. His family assists him, both financially and psychologically.

“Without support from the family it wouldn’t have worked,” he says. “I’ve met old friends that are still afraid of me. I understand them.”

Abdillah has been invited a few times to talk to groups of youths about his own experience as part of an attempt to dissuade them from radicalisation. “But I can’t do much,” he says. “After all, the young ones want to be heroes as well.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "Going to extremes".

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Martin Goettske is a Danish journalist based in Beijing.

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