The Islamic State is seeking a foothold in the prisons of Indonesia, a country with the world’s largest Muslim population and significant poverty.
Those two demographic factors can add up to a growing number of Islamic extremist recruits. The population of France is about 10 percent Muslim, and its prison system has turned into a recruiting station for the Islamic State and other violent groups.
The Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict is warning in a report that the government’s attempt to stop in-prison radicalization is ineffective.
One example cited in the report: Prison authorities allowed the Islamic State’s de facto Indonesia leader to operate a cellphone and website to disseminate jihadi propaganda. Those tools helped him do something else: remotely organize a deadly January 2016 attack in downtown Jakarta, authorities say.
With the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, operating a base in the Middle East and expanding into Afghanistan, and Europe, the U.S. military would be hard-pressed to stamp out yet another pop-up stronghold in the multiple islands of Indonesia.
“The obstacles to effective prison management remain overwhelming,” said Sidney Jones, IPAC director and an analyst on South Asia terrorism. “Prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, corruption is rife and inadequate budgets make it easier for well-funded extremists to recruit inmates when they can offer extra food. No deradicalization program is going to be effective unless some of these issues are addressed.”
The report noted: “Pro-ISIS inmates continue to recruit and radicalize fellow prisoners with impunity. A few have organized terrorist actions from inside prison more than once, and former prisoners continue to show up in new terrorist plots with alarming regularity.”
The report talks of a revolving door. For example, 120 terrorist suspects were imprisoned, most of them for supporting the Islamic State, last year. At the same time, 50 were released after completing their sentences.
“Budgeting for prisons is so inadequate that prisoners depend on outside donations for decent food,” the IPAC report said. “And the convicted terrorists have a well-organized support network that attracts ordinary criminals into their ranks.”
Ms. Jones told The Washington Times that she does not believe the Islamic State’s headquarters in Syria is directly radicalizing prisoners in any of Indonesia’s 70 prisons. Instead, she said, arrested radical clerics are leading discussion groups in hopes of selling them on the Islamic State’s copious propaganda and sending them to fight in Syria.
It is “difficult to say whether support for ISIS is growing,” Ms. Jones said. “I suspect support is shrinking, but we’re still seeing families trying to leave for Syria and people are still getting arrested for trying to make bombs.”
Robert Maginnis, a terrorism analyst and author of the book “Future War,” said that Indonesia, by virtue of its geography and strategic location, is a ripe target.
“The Islamist problem for Indonesia is partly the fault of topography,” he said. “It is located in the middle of a rough neighborhood seething with militant groups that thrive alongside organized crime syndicates that sustain their treasuries by engaging in piracy, kidnapping and smuggling of weapons and drugs. It is naive to conclude ISIS isn’t present and planning operations among the world’s largest Muslim population and surrounded by countries known to have active ISIS affiliates.”
Fertile recruiting ground
Nearly 90 percent of Indonesia’s 260 million people are Muslim. Forty-one percent live below the international poverty level of $1.25 per day.
Mr. Maginnis said extremist groups have also looked at American prisons as fertile territory for recruiting.
Saudi Arabia funds the National Islamic Prison Foundation, which sends clerics who preach the kingdom’s strict Wahhabism strain of Islam into prisons, and ships thousands of Korans.
“Prisons are great recruiting grounds for Islamists, especially in Islamic countries,” he said. “We found that to be true in Iraq and Afghanistan, where many vulnerable Muslims were manipulated into radicalism while serving time.”
Mahdi Bray, an American convert to Islam who founded the National Islamic Prison Foundation and was its director, told The Washington Times in a 2009 interview that Islam “is organized in prison; there’s prayer five times a day; and things that are organized run better.”
“There’s needs for boundaries and needs for certainties,” he said. “Machismo has an important aspect in prisons, and Islam has a strong concentration on being manly. That really resonates with people who come from homes without fathers around.”
The IPAC report contains numerous specific cases to show how common criminals can become Islamic State adherents. The transformation can occur when imprisoned terrorists stand up to the tyranny of prison gangs.
A man named Koswara, a run-of-the-mill drug dealer, in 2007 witnessed terrorists stab to death the leader of the notorious Gang Trek. The gang’s violence and extortions stopped.
Impressed, Koswara joined the Islamic State. He was tutored by Abdul Rauf, one of the infamous 2002 Bali bombers who later died in Iraq fighting for the Islamic State. Rauf was convicted of recruiting terrorists for bombing tourist sites that killed 202 people and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
In March 2015, Koswara was again arrested. He went from drug dealer to terrorist, and was charged with recruiting Indonesians to fight for the Islamic State in Syria.
The Australian media reported in 2014 that 36 people convicted in two Bali bombings were released from Indonesian prisons.
“Radicalization of criminal offenders by pro-ISIS inmates continues to be a nightmare for both police and prison officials,” the IPAC report said. “From 2010 to 2016, at least 18 former criminal offenders were involved in terrorism cases in Indonesia, and most had been radicalized in prison.”
The most recent major Islamic state attack in Indonesia was one year ago when terrorists struck the center of Jakarta, killing four civilians. Four attackers were killed, two by their own suicide vests. Authorities arrested 12 men in the plot.
It turns out the attack was partly directed from prison by such Islamic State teachers as U.S.-designated terrorist Aman Abdurrahman, who is viewed as the group’s Indonesia leader. Before January 2016, he was allowed to talk to followers via the telephone. He had also been free to run a website that translated Islamic State propaganda. Prison authorities took away his phone and his internet access.
According to Counterterrorism.com, he was serving his second prison stint, a nine-year sentence imposed in 2010, but now faces new charges.
Its webpage says, “Despite incarceration, Abdurrahman has released his extremist sermons via email, Facebook, and in hard copy, according to researchers at the Brookings Institution. Abdurrahman’s supporters, both in and out of prison, consider his publications to be key sources of jihadist discourse.”