How an ex-jihadist thinks Indonesia can deradicalize terrorists

Natashya Gutierrez

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How an ex-jihadist thinks Indonesia can deradicalize terrorists
Ayub Abdurrahman, a former jihadist, warns against underestimating the Jakarta attacks as it could only be the beginning

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Ayub Abdurrahman was recruited by no other than Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, known as one of Indonesia’s most notorious terrorists and the founder of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). 

Abdurrahman was just 22 when he left Indonesia for Afghanistan in 1986 where he trained, part of a batch of 24, along with Hambali – who is often described as Southeast Asia’s Osama bin Laden, and is now imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. Hambali was also behind the Bali bombings that killed over 200 people. (READ: 4 things you need to know about ISIS in Indonesia)

Training in Afghanistan was only supposed to be 2 years but Abdurrahman stood out so much from his peers, that he was made to stay another 4 years, until 1992, to teach Islam. He finally returned to the region in 1993, and was sent to Sabah in Malaysia, and Moro in the Philippines to recruit and set-up JI, which is dedicated to establishing an Islamic caliphate in Southeast Asia.

In 1997, Ba’asyir sent Abdurrahman to Australia spending time in Sydney and Perth to preach Islam, and to fundraise there to grow JI. He was an active recruiter as a radical, but after 9/11 Abdurrahman said “the situation turned bad” and his Australian neighbors started being suspicious of him.

 “After 9/11, the effect was across the globe. People burned mosques, and started harassing Muslim communities and I thought it was better to go home to Indonesia,” he told Rappler in Bahasa on Monday, January 18.

Upon his return to Jakarta, he said he still attended meetings in Ngruki, the hotbed of terrorists in Indonesia, but said he had always been interested in the path of preaching rather than radical acts. He started to teach softer, lighter Islam that believed “war, radicalism and attacks was a big no-no.” 

Abdurrahman didn’t believe in what was done in 9/11, and while he had earlier found it hard to quit or disagree openly since he already had a high position in JI, 9/11 paved his return to Jakarta and became his way out.

In Jakarta, he said he started selling donuts on the street to make money while his wife worked as a tailor to help support their 8 children.

Today, Abdurrahman helps in deradicalizing extremists.

How recruitment works

Abdurrahman spoke to Rappler just 4 days after the terror attacks in Jakarta, which killed 8 people – 4 terrorists and 4 civilians – and which were claimed by ISIS. 

He said the attacks seemed “very amateur” but warned against downplaying the bombings. 

“Everyone says it’s amateur and that capabilities are decreasing compared to previous attacks. But never underestimate them because they could just be testing the waters to see how police reacts, how quick, and they could plan bigger, more professional attacks,” he said. “ISIS has a lot of money.” (READ: Jakarta attacks: Did some terrorists escape?)

He also said he is not surprised by the attacks “because ISIS already stated they will attack certain countries, it was only a matter of time before they will attack Indonesia.” 

“Indonesia is their big hope because it is the biggest Muslim country by population in the world. Because we are a majority Muslim country that’s why they hate Indonesia because Indonesia is mostly against ISIS,” he said.

Abdurrahman understands the growing need to deradicalize extremists as terror groups grow their reach in the country, but before explaining what he thought were the best practices for deradicalization, Abdurrahman first talked about how recruitment works – a practice he did for more than a decade.

“Even during that time when there was no internet, steps are the same as they are today. Whether you can meet with them an hour, 5 hours, or a full day – the technique is still the same,” he said.

The first step, he said, is to connect with the individual on a personal and emotional level and talks to them about “how big, non-Muslim countries are doing nasty things destroying Islamic countries and Islam people.”

He said he would talk about how Islams are tortured and harassed around the world to touch an emotional cord, something he said, which is much easier to do now. Back then, he said, he would show photos to potential recruits of torture. Today, it is easier to simply send footage that they upload on YouTube.

The second step is to convince them that there is a need to create an Islamic state.

“We tell them we are living in kafir (non Muslim) country and that it has become under the “control” of the US (and others). We have to hijrah (to move or spiritually transform) to an Islamic State,” he said.

Today, the Islamic state is ISIS. (READ: Jakarta and ISIS: What we need to know)

He said he also shared a verse from the hadith, which says ‘Whoever dies and have not pledged faithful to the leader that want to set up an Islamic state, he or she will die as jahilia (ignorant) like Abu Jahal.’”

Abu Jahal is for Muslims, the equivalent of Judas Iscariot for Christians.

The last step according to Abdurrahman is convincing them to act or to perform amaliyah. 

“If you believe you have to move and you have to support the creation of Islamic state, what can you do? Leaders push you to radical things, you have to do jihad. This means to become a suicide bomber, go to Afghanistan to fight the US, or to Syria, to join a war,” he said.

“That’s an act because the leaders say ‘If you die, you will die syahid (go directly to heaven) and 70 of your family gets forgiveness from God. In heaven, 70 people will be waiting for you and will serve you and will give you a crown in heaven.’”


Currently, the national counter terrorism agency has deradicalization programs for those in prison for terror acts or for terror-related crimes.

They send moderate Muslim scholars to speak with the radicals, which counter terrorism chief Saud Usman Nasution says is generally effective, although he admits that 25 out of 215 individuals currently in prison remain to be hard-liners.

But there are flaws in the system.

Ironically, Afif alias Sunakin, one of the terrorists who died during the Jakarta attacks and was pictured carrying a gun in a photo that has gone viral on social media, trained in an Islamic paramilitary camp in Indonesia’s semi-autonomous Aceh region in 2010, before he was sentenced to 7 years in jail for his involvement in the camp. Afif underwent deradicalization with a Muslim scholar and was released last year but not monitored, because Nasution told Rappler he appeared to have been deradicalized.

“He was a good actor,” Nasution said in the interview.

Abdurrahman said rather than assigning Muslim scholars, it is more effective to send ex-jihadists like himself to persuade them.

Like them, Abdurrahman said, ex-jihadists share the same life experiences and he becomes an “eye opener” to them when he speaks to those in jail, helping them realize that their terror acts and killing of innocent people are not allowed by the Qu’ran.

Additionally, Abdurrahman said even more important than deradicalization is prevention – addressing the root causes of why individuals become radicalized, like poverty and social inequality or exclusion. 

Abdurrahman said he grew up in a technical high school but unlike most Indonesians, never got a proper Islam education which he felt excluded for and which he wanted to learn. 

He said he sought teachings and learned about the religion through an extreme Islamic preaching council from Aceh, and yearned to meet Ba’asyir after learning more about him. Abdurrahman said he was impressed with Ba’asyir’s charisma and became convinced to make a “faithful promise” to Islam. He excelled in Ngruki and was noticed by Ba’asyir, thus his deployment to Afghanistan.

Abdurrahman said the government must give young people economic and social opportunities.

“There is a possibility for ISIS to build a province here. Of course it can be in the Philippines in Mindanao, but there’s also big potential in Poso (alleged training grounds of extremists in Indonesia) and a huge possibility in Aceh since it already follows sharia law,” he said,

“If the government is not careful about addressing root causes, then it can happen,” he said. – reports from Uni Lubis

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.