Cameron Sumpter and Yuslikha K Wardhani
Radicalisation has become a household term in recent years. Sensational media representations often evoke images of charismatic recruiters manipulating the minds of vulnerable youth. Or aggrieved outcasts obsessively consuming propaganda in dark corners of the internet, before one-day snapping like a US school shooter.
Yet pathways toward extremist networks are many and varied. Personal relationships can play a key role, with involvement escalating through desire for belonging and friendship, as much as ideological allure or political grievance. Individuals may soon find themselves subsumed in activities they know little about until it is too late and their life begins to quickly unravel.
The story of one man’s tribulations in Central Java may be a case in point.
It started with botany.
Chamidi always had a passion for botany. From his modest home in a quiet Solo neighbourhood he had meticulously cultivated ornamental plants and bonsai trees since he was a teenager and eventually began selling specimens within the community. Business was never lucrative but the proceeds he managed to muster supported himself and allowed him to provide fulltime care for his elderly mother and disabled aunt.
Life plodded along unremarkably, until one day a curious character moved in next door. Introducing himself as Badrie and dressed in traditional Islamic garb, his new neighbour soon became interested in the plants, intrigued by Chamidi’s dedication. ‘I taught him about bonsai,’ recalls Chamidi. ‘At the time the trend was anthurium, aglaonema and adenium and he came to my place almost every day to chat.’
Before long, the neighbourly exchanges evolved in character. Badrie began talking more and more about religion, but not in a way that Chamidi had ever heard before. ‘Why do you keep doing this? Badrie asked. ‘Don’t you feel sorry for your mum and aunt? They’re old. Do you want to live like this forever?
Chamidi appreciated his new friend showing him how to pray properly and enjoyed talking about their faith. But when it came to more radical points of his neighbour’s arguments he was confused. ‘What is he talking about?’ he thought.
As Badrie learned more about Chamidi’s chequered past with alcohol, girlfriends and gambling, he would encourage his neighbour to cleanse himself through redemption, for the sake of his mother’s and aunt’s lives in the hereafter. Badrie took him to Qur’an recitation groups in a nearby village and gave him reading material on jihad. Chamidi would follow his new companion to the meetings but only casually browsed through the books. He was never really interested.
A dangerous package
Three or four years passed and one day Chamidi was introduced to some of Badrie’s friends, whom he’d never met before. A couple of weeks later the men paid Chamidi a visit as he was tending to his bonsais. They asked him to look after a package for a couple of days, explaining that it belonged to Badrie. ‘I knew it might be dangerous,’ admitted Chamidi. ‘But I felt bad to refuse.’ The two neighbours had developed a close bond.
Badrie was arrested in the following days. Under interrogation police officers asked where he had hidden his explosive material. ‘It’s with my neighbour,’ he eventually conceded.
The next day police raided Chamidi’s house while he was preparing noodles for his aunt, who could no longer walk and sat helplessly in her chair as events unfolded frantically. Her sister slept through the ordeal in the next room. Two men boarding at the house were also arrested, but released following two weeks of questioning.
Police officers asked Chamidi if he knew the material he was holding was dangerous. ‘I did know’, he replied, ‘but I felt loyal because he’s my friend’.
The bonsai gardener never received a single visitor in prison, not even during Eid holidays. His mother and aunt had been taken to a state care facility on the day of his arrest and never heard word of him again. They thought he was dead.
Racked with loneliness, Chamidi cooperated fully with authorities behind bars, eventually joining a ‘de-radicalisation’ programme at a purpose-built facility in Sentul, Bogor, which shaved nine months off his term. Five years and three months after his sentence was handed down he walked out the gate a free man, immediately looking for his aunt and mum. He eventually found them in Central Java. His aunt passed away three months later.
Back at home, the property was a jungle. Police had conducted a controlled demolition of the package he was keeping for Badrie, which partially destroyed his house and some of his neighbour’s. Plants and vines grew throughout the remaining structures and various animals had colonised the section. His valuables were all gone. What remained of his furniture and garden supplies was broken and mouldy.
The national counterterrorism agency Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme (BNPT) had promised Chamidi financial support after his release. But as time went by he couldn’t wait any longer so he mortgaged his land certificate through a private deal to renovate the house. He did everything he could with his own hands and once it was respectable enough he took on a couple of boarders, whose monthly rent helps him repay his debts.
Six months after his release, BNPT officers visited Chamidi and asked him what he needed. He said anything and everything. They offered Rp.10 million (A$990), which he gladly received, giving half to his mother who remains in the care home and spending 5 million on bonsai plant buds and pots. He appreciated the agency’s support but it didn’t get him very far.
The bonsai business slowly got back up and running. He earns around Rp.600,000 per month now but is still paying off the informal mortgage. The village head and other community members believe that he was a victim and have given him modest support when and where possible.
He slowly readjusted to life on the outside and has picked up a few new friends along the way. Some of them joke around and call him their ‘terrorist friend’.
When Badrie moved in next door, Chamidi’s life was to change forever. He could never have imagined getting caught up in a bomb plot aimed at killing innocent people. He didn’t even really understand what they were talking about half the time in those study groups.
If the experience taught Chamidi anything, it’s that he can only rely on is himself. His sole goal now is to make some money to pay off his mortgage and visit his mother more often in the care home. Other than that, he believes fate will continue to decide.
‘The law says otherwise’
An obvious and important caveat to the story is the bonsai dealer may be playing down his involvement and guilt, either for his own personal process of redemption, to collect the sympathy of others, or even to conceal his ongoing subversive intentions.
When asked about the version of events, a police officer involved in his case said Chamidi could claim he was innocent but the law said otherwise; he was found with incriminating material and that was that. The controlled explosion at his house was conducted to minimise risk and protect his neighbours, though the officer did accept the arrest raid was perhaps a bit overblown and they probably shouldn’t have pointed guns at his aunt.
Chamidi relayed his experience during a research project on the societal reintegration of former extremist prisoners in Indonesia, for which our team interviewed 28 ex-inmates to learn about how they were readjusting to life on the outside. As he unravelled his account, there were no signs to suggest he was fabricating facts. He appeared to be sincere.
Chamidi recounted that his neighbours and local leaders have readily accepted him back into the community following his release, and have since helped him get back on his feet. Chamidi believes that Badrie, who remains in prison, will never be allowed to return to the village.
Most convicted terrorists in Indonesia may have internalised extremist narratives and subversive convictions, but a number of unwitting accomplices and self-serving criminals have also been prosecuted for terrorism offences.
One hobbyist built homemade firearms and peddled them on the side to make extra cash – a crime treated far more seriously when extremist jihadis placed an order. Another found himself sheltering the (now deceased) militant mastermind Noordin Mohammad Top after his local preacher asked him to ‘put up a friend from out of town’ for a few days.
It is imperative that such unwitting terrorists not be housed in prison within the radicalising influence of ideologues. Their cases also emphasise the importance of specifically tailoring approaches to rehabilitation.
‘De-radicalising’ a prisoner who was never really radical is not a tricky proposition. More difficult is ensuring that frequent and consistent support mechanisms are in place so that ex-inmates can rebuild their lives and stay away from trouble.
Cameron Sumpter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate research fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
Yuslikha K Wardhani (email@example.com) is a researcher at the Research Center of Police Science and Terrorism Studies (PRIK-KT) at the School of Strategic and Global Studies, Universitas Indonesia (UI).