November 15: Assessing Violence: The Disengagement of Indonesian Jihadis

November 15, 2011: Julie Chernov Hwang
Julie Chernov Hwang at the EWCW
(Click to enlarge) Fall 2011 Southeast Asia Fellow, Dr. Julie Chernov Hwang, drew on stories from her field research on Indonesian Jihadis in her presentation at the East-West Center in Washington.

Assessing Violence: The Disengagement of Indonesian Jihadis

WASHINGTON, DC (November 15, 2011) Once thought to be the next hotbed and safe haven for radical Muslims, visiting fellow Dr. Julie Chernov Hwang’s in-depth and in-person research over the past few years in Indonesia reveals an interesting trend in the country’s most notable Jihadi movements. Increasingly, members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Mujahedeen KOMPAK are disengaging from violence. Through her interviews with current and former JI and KOMPAK members, Dr. Chernov Hwang was able to penetrate the minds and lives of militants to discover why they would either migrate from a violent to a non-violent role within their respective movement or leave the movement altogether. From her interviews with current and former jihadis, she was able to identify five drivers of disengagement: pronounced disillusionment with tactics and leadership, development of relationships outside of their jihadi circle, change in personal priorities, certain aspects of the “soft approach” taken by Indonesia's counter-terrorisim squad, Densus 88, and the perception that the costs of terror actions have been too great. The most commonly cited factors being the disappointment with terror tactics such as bombings and with certain leaders who were perceived as weak and lacking in long-term vision.

For some time now, Salafi-Jihadi movements in Indonesia have been losing momentum due to factional infighting and the increasing effectiveness of Densus 88 in making arrests. The most significant terror attacks between 2003 and 2009 were executed, not by JI, but by Noordin M. Top’s splinter faction, al Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago, a title which points to admiration for al Qaeda rather than any direct affiliation. While the internal division and lack of charismatic leadership impede successful organizational disengagement, mainstream JI members are largely disengaged, voicing only rhetorical support for jihad action at this point in time and openly rejecting the use of bombings. Many mainstream JI members would go so far as to say that Indonesia is not a legitimate field of jihad. Although the paths to disengagement are varied, it is often the case that disillusionment with tactics, leaders or with one’s role in an action sparks a period of reflection and consideration, which can be reinforced by the establishment or re-establishment of relationships with individuals outside the jihadi circle, be they family, friendships, or business partnerships. In other cases, new relationships may lead to disillusionment or the two may work in tandem with one another. In some instances, the building of relationships may lead to a change in personal and professional priorities, as jihadis turn their attention to their families and to obtaining gainful employment. The myths of martyrdom are also questioned when Indonesian law enforcement and humanitarian organizations treat the arrested jihadis in a humane manner and do not torture or humiliate them.

Dr. Chernov Hwang emphasized that disengagement is a gradual process, often taking years between the initial spark and the full shift. Moreover, she stressed that there is no one path to disengagement and that the factors propelling it are mutually reinforcing. Finally, she noted that a majority of interview subjects set conditions under which they might return to terror actions, most notably, if Indonesia was invaded by an outside power or if Christians in the region of Poso attacked Muslims.

She ended by appealing to the Indonesian government to devote more attention to monitoring newly released prisoners and to supporting aftercare initiatives to facilitate successful reintegration and discourage recidivism.

Dr. Chernov Hwang expects to return to Indonesia to follow up with her sources and conclude her research on this phenomenal topic.

Julie Chernov Hwang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Goucher College and current Southeast Asia Fellow at the East West Center in Washington DC. Her first book, Peaceful Islamist Mobilization in the Muslim World: What Went Right was published by Palgrave Press in 2009 and will be released in soft cover in December 2011. Her articles have been published in Studies in Comparative International Development, Southeast Asia Research and Nationalism and Ethnic Politics. She is currently working on an edited volume (co-authored) on Islamist political parties and several articles on the disengagement of Indonesian jihadis.