Indonesia: countering a message of hate

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A civil society CVE initiative in Indonesia – Koperasi Cinta Damai Wahid Institute (KOCIDA WI)

I recently wrote for The Lowy Institute about challenges in counter terrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE) in Indonesia. Original article here.

After the Bali bombings of 2002, security forces within the Government of Indonesia, like their Western counterparts, worked towards incorporating “ideological” or “soft” approaches into counterterrorism portfolios. This approach later became commonly known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), and Indonesia has produced some groundbreaking CVE initiatives. As a recent Interpreter article explained, youth and civil society–led approaches have achieved particular success.

Yet despite progress in recent years, major issues persist. A lack of understanding as to how successful deradicalisation works continues to pose challenges, as do coordination issues within government agencies responsible for CVE.

But perhaps most importantly, despite the growth of the CVE sector, radical groups in Indonesia continue to spread messages of violence and hate, unimpeded.

Indonesia’s initial steps towards CVE were introduced during the Megawati era, when the then president appealed to Muslim organisations Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama to join Indonesia’s war on terror by “promoting the image of Islam as a peace-loving and cooperative religion”. The commitment increased significantly under president Susilo Banbang Yudhoyono, who after the second Bali bombing in 2005 stated that Indonesia could no longer take “freedom, democracy and tolerance … for granted”. Part of this effort included the further promotion of CVE.

In the early stages, the Indonesian National Police (POLRI) introduced a deradicalisation programthat aimed to “convert” imprisoned terrorists, who would also preach moderation to their colleagues. Althoug this and other programs like it had some success, they were underfunded and too ad hoc to sustain. Detachment 88, an Indonesian Special Forces CT squad, contributed to POLRI’s efforts by developing an intelligence program to target terrorist networks, with the aim of reintegrating prisoners back into society; however, this program appears to have had limited success.

The BNPT, Indonesia’s national agency for combating terrorism, has made a range of contributions to national ideological efforts to counter terror. Yet despite the agency’s large budget and personnel pool, some assessments judge its performance harshly. According to a recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute study, the BNPT continues to have “weak analytical capacity on terrorism trends, poorly devised policies and … misguided … community counter-radicalisation campaigns”. These campaigns have argued that radicalisation and extremism could be countered through the promotion of “moderate Islam”.

Yet, as continues to be found, there are no links between increased outward piety and propensity for terrorism. And despite claims to the contrary, we still don’t know exactly what causes “radicalisation.”

But there are opportunities in Indonesia to learn more about who is at risk of committing acts of terrorism. More could be achieved if official knowledge about terrorism and radicalisation was consolidated, with unclassified information disseminated to the civil society practitioners who do so much of Indonesia’s meaningful CVE work.

As the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) argues, the design of prevention programs could be improved by focusing more specifically on those involved in terrorism, rather than on whole swathes of the “Muslim community”. In particular, Indonesian CVE would benefit from more systematic studies of the networks uncovered to date, particularly the case dossiers of the almost 800 individuals indicted since 2002 on terrorism charges.

Yet a lack of coordination among the government agencies responsible for CVE in Indonesia has also remained a persistent obstacle. In 2012 the BNPT created the Forum Koordinasi Pencegahan Terorisme (FKPT) to help coordinate a national approach. Yet these forums are regularly criticised as “exclusive” and “too high level”, or for missing the target audience by involving regional elites and leaving out those for whom issues of radicalisation are pertinent, particularly young people.

The lack of coordination can lead to other problems in assessing the effectiveness of CVE programs. The online “counter narratives” approach to CVE, undertaken in partnership with PR companies, has gained popularity in Indonesia in recent years. The range of tenders and grants for these programs means that this kind of activity has become somewhat profitable for CVE start-ups. Yet in Indonesia, as Solahudin recently pointed out, social media “is yet to become a major tool for recruitment … [because] recruitment offline is still possible”.

Positive interventions and programs have been driven by civil society groups. Yet the overall effectiveness of CVE in Indonesia has been held back by government ineffectiveness, including vague or ad-hoc deradicalisation programs, and failed attempts at prison management reform.

The lack of meaningful central coordination and understanding, combined with the fact that it remains relatively easy for extremist groups to “spread messages of hate and violence”, means CVE in Indonesia still has a long way to go.

How effective are Australian strategies to counter violent extremism?

Published 20 May, 8:35am 2015 by The Lowy Institute for International Policy 

Gallipoli Mosque, Sydney (image Flickr)

The Australian Government has just announced that more than $22 million will be spent on battling the radicalisation of young Muslims in Australia. But just how effective are these counter-terrorism programs?

Critics of the Federal Government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy have highlighted problems that have emerged after nine years of CVE community engagement and intervention. One concern is that CVE policies have the potential to divide Muslim communities because they embrace questionable notions of what it means to be ‘moderate’ or a ‘radical’, preferencing and seeking to ‘deputise‘ the former in order to keep the latter in check.
Community critics of the CVE strategy also emphasise that law enforcement leadership of CVE outreach programs is problematic, firstly because it indicates that the Government has ‘securitised’ the Muslim community, and secondly because such outreach strategies have the tendency to be experienced as an extra layer of unwanted scrutiny on a community of predominantly law-abiding citizens. These issues have the potential to erode trustbetween law enforcement and Muslim communities. Because positive relations between communities and law enforcement are so central public safety, the Government has an interest in carefully measuring the impact of its CVE activities on its target communities.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has been at the forefront of proactive community engagement responses to CVE since establishing its Islamic Liaison Team in 2007. The team also assisted in contributing to national policy initiatives as part of the Federal Government’s national CVE strategy. The philosophy behind the AFP’s initiative reflected CVE trends emerging at that time. The terrorist threat, it was argued, could be reduced by building‘positive, trusting and cohesive relationships with the community, (which) over time will help increase (the community’s) resilience to extremist behaviours by creating greater levels of social cohesion.’ Within this strategy, ‘at-risk’ groups could be targeted with engagement programs to ‘promote social inclusion.’

But some members of the community argue that this kind of policy has a tendency to reinforce the notion ‘that the entire Muslim community is to blame for its few bad apples.’ As a result, the current CVE model of engagement has begun to be viewed with suspicion by the community, with some leaders calling on the community to boycottparticipation in AFP initiatives such as the Iftar dinner and Eid festivals. But, in the words of one AFP officer, the AFP are ‘damned if they do, and damned if they don’t’ continue such programs. The AFP executive is convinced that community engagement is central to CVE, and parts of the Muslim community also expect that the Government will help them to provide ‘social support’ to their young people to prevent them from radicalising, despite others in the community criticising such programs.

Beside the potential to alienate the Muslim community, the effectiveness of CVE community engagement measures as a counter-terrorism (CT) strategy has not been properly measured. As Prof Basia Spalek points out, ‘there has been little empirical investigation of community-based approaches within a CT context…As a result, there is little empirical understanding of…whether (these types of policies) may clash and serve to undermine each other.’.

The perception from some in the Muslim community that the Government’s counter-terrorism approach treats Muslim communities not as partners but as ‘suspect’ presents significant challenges, especially because of the potential this uninvited scrutiny has to create another level of alienation in young people. The latest policy announcement, which devotes $22 million to the Muslim community’s presumed social disadvantage by helping new Muslim migrants find education and employment, also ignores the reality that the causal link between socio-economic troubles and radicalisation is tenuous.

There is much international literature detailing the importance of reducing risks of alienation and radicalisation through redressing policies seen as racially or religiously targeting one community. Studies have come from the US,UK as well as Australia. Yet the focus on the Muslim community by CVE strategies helps perpetuate ‘essentialist stereotypes of terrorists as religious Muslims,’ and leave the community feeling over-scrutinised.

The prime directive of CVE policy is ‘first, to do no harm’. To date, there is little evidence that Australian CVE policy has been informed by this directive. Nor is there an indication our policy-makers have assessed the effectiveness of the CVE programs that have been in operation for the past nine years. The Australian Government needs to take onlessons from US and the UK which show that, in order to reduce the terrorist threat, we need counter-terrorism policies that don’t alienate those most vulnerable to radicalisation.

The Interpreter is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney, publishing daily commentary and analysis on international events.