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Ex-Jihadists Try to Curb IS Appeal in Indonesia


FILE - A vendor displays books written about jihad in an Islamic book store in Jakarta.

FILE - A vendor displays books written about jihad in an Islamic book store in Jakarta.

Indonesia is filled with counter-extremism programs, but one major criticism of them is that anti-radicalism efforts from moderate Muslim groups like Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) target those who would probably not get radicalized in the first place.

But one group, former terrorists who fought with the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980’s, has been working in recent years to address more vulnerable populations.

Indonesia’s self-styled “Afghan alumni” are men with radical sympathies who fought with Afghan rebels in the Soviet-Afghan War. When they returned home, they joined domestic militant groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), founded in 1993.

New priorities

But after decades of terrorism and multiple prison stints, many of the roughly 300 alumni had different priorities. So in 2011, nine ex-combatants set up the Forum Komunikasi Alumni Afghanistan Indonesia, or FKAAI, to stem the radicalization of younger Indonesians.

“By September of 2011, there had been several acts of terrorism in Indonesia, which, in our opinion, were not in accordance with Islam,” Ahmad Sajuli, the FKAAI chairman, told VOA. “We wanted to establish a forum so that we could explain to people that those acts of terror were not true jihad.”

Sajuli and his friends came up with the idea for FKAAI after attending “de-radicalization” workshops for former prisoners run by Nasir Abbas, the famous JI terrorist turned government adviser, and Sarlito Sarwono, a psychology professor at the University of Indonesia.

“After several former fighters went through our ‘post-prison’ workshops in Jakarta, they wanted to do more for the community,” Abbas told VOA. “They realized they needed to do something to promote peace and minimize other terrorists’ actions.”

FILE - Indonesian anti-terror policemen hold their rifles as they stand guard at the business district in Jakarta.

FILE - Indonesian anti-terror policemen hold their rifles as they stand guard at the business district in Jakarta.

Abbas and Sarwono helped the nine founding members of FKAAI register the forum as a non-profit, establish its internal structure, and connect with the BNPT, the national counterterrorism agency. And then they stepped back.

“We do appreciate what they were willing to do all by themselves,” said Abbas. “They were never asked by anyone to set up something like the Forum.”

Growing effort

FKAAI which now has 40 members throughout Indonesia, is headquartered in Menteng, an upscale Jakarta suburb. It holds a discussion group for members after Friday evening prayers. The BNPT also sponsors forum members to travel to schools in cities like Aceh and Poso, delivering speeches against extremism to vulnerable youth.

The small courtyard has attracted waves of radicals through the years: in 2015, the mosque right next to FKAAI headquarters, Masjid Al Fataa, was infiltrated by IS supporters.

One FKAAI member is Farihin bin Ahmad, the group’s PR manager who is now 50 and has immaculate jihadist credentials. He spent three years in Afghanistan, was later very active in JI in Indonesia and he a hand in the 2000 Philippines consulate bombing in Jakarta. He also did time in prison and few understand the appeal of jihad more than he does. And yet, he’s entirely dismissive of the so-called Islamic State.

“It’s useless. Don’t waste your time, is my message to young people,” he said.

For FKAAI members like Farihin, there’s a huge gap between their jihad in Afghanistan and the activities of the current self-styled Islamic State.

“What we did in Afghanistan was not radicalism,” Farihin told VOA. “We were helping Muslims who were oppressed by the government.” In contrast, he said, the Islamic State has dubious religious credentials. “ISIS and [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi laid claim to a ‘caliphate’ whose authority is not recognized by mainstream clerics,” said Farihin.

FILE - Muslim men watch a slideshow of pictures believed to be from Syria during a prayer calling for jihad to Syria at a mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec. 15, 2013.

FILE - Muslim men watch a slideshow of pictures believed to be from Syria during a prayer calling for jihad to Syria at a mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec. 15, 2013.

Return to normal

Besides undermining the appeal of IS, FKAAI members also talk candidly about the stigma they faced when returning to civilian life as “ex-terrorists.” Sajuli said he returned from stints in Afghanistan and Malaysia without a penny to his name, and struggled until he finally found his footing, in middle age, as a kebab seller.

This kind of detail, about the difficulty of returning to civilian life after sowing terror abroad, is rare in counter-extremism messaging. And it may be uniquely effective, since it helps puncture the mythology of foreign jihad.

“Being former jihadists, the ex-terrorists have added value in the eyes of their ex-terrorist comrades, as well as lay Muslims like the university students who are our and the BNPT’s target for counter-radicalization programs,” Professor Sarwono told VOA in an email.

Farihin says FKAAI specifically does not associate with moderate Muslim movements like NU and Muhamadiyya because, while they do good work, they are “too mainstream.”

“Young people listen to me because I was an actor in and witness to foreign jihad,” he said. “We don’t have much in common with groups like NU.”

Sujani says the students he’s met so far have responded “very positively” to FKAAI’s anti-radicalism messages. “After sharing my experiences with young people, both in high schools and Islamic boarding schools, my conclusion is that they have the knowledge to understand the threat of radicalism,” he told VOA. “When these young people see such activity, they try to avoid it.”

Lone wolf

One limit of FKAAI’s efforts is that they have limited resonance with the “lone wolf” actors that are now typical of the IS brand of terrorism, according to Sarwono.

“Ex-Afghan fighters are no longer the majority of imprisoned jihadists. Today there are pro-ISIS terrorists and ‘lone wolves,’ who self-radicalize through the internet, who have no relationship with the ex-Afghan fighters,” he told VOA.

He said they are disinclined to listen to “anybody except their own leaders,” and largely through social media. Despite this structural obstacle, said Sarwono, FKAAI members have unusual clout among students because of their jihadist past.

Both Farihin and Sujani bring surprising levity to their work. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon, per Sujani. “Back when I was active, they didn’t even call us ‘terrorists,’” he said. “We were all ‘anarchists!’” By their account, extremism is a cyclical problem that can be intelligently addressed. What the Afghan alumni hope is their voices can help break the cycle.

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