ISSN 2477-1686

Vol. 8 No. 4 Feb 2022

Some Terrorist Ideologists Changed, Why Not Others? What Deradicalization Programs Should Learn



Any Rufaedah 

Prodi Psikologi Universitas Nahdlatul Ulama Indonesia; 

Division for Applied Social Psychology Research 

Scholars in psychology categorize those who participate in a terrorist group into different levels. McClaley and Moskalenko (2017), for example, created a two-pyramid model: opinion pyramid and action pyramid, with each having different categories. In the opinion pyramid, the two scholars divided individuals in terrorist groups into neutral, sympathizers, justifiers, and those who consider terrorist acts as personal moral obligation, while in opinion actions, they are categorized into inert, activists, radicals, and terrorists. Unlike the aforementioned categories, Simcox and Dyer (2013), which focused on al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-inspired groups, promoted five roles: Active participants, aspirants, facilitators, trained aspirants, and ideologues. Which stages are easier to be deradicalized? Alteir et al. (2020) have examined this question and found that those who are in charge as leaders, at high and low levels, have less probability to voluntarily disengage with their group. 


Many facts have supported this finding. Three Bali bombings masterminds: Ali Ghufron (AKA Mukhlas), Abdul Aziz (AKA Imam Samudra AKA Qudama), Amrozi, for instance, who took a role in leading members and infusing doctrine, did not alter their extreme ideology up until their death penalty. They even spent their time in prison to continue spreading their beliefs by preaching and writing books. Two current jihadi ideologists, Abu Bakar Bashir and Aman Abdurrahman have shown similar choices despite being imprisoned multiple times. 


Bashir established a jihadi group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) with Abdullah Sungkar in 1993, then actively disseminated pro-jihad and Islamic law-related teachings and was involved in terror attacks and jihadi training in Aceh (Counter Extremism Project, n.d.). He also led Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) and Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) (International Crisis Group, 2010), then with his followers declared his support to the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, while he was imprisoned (Counter Extremism Project, n.d.). Despite having been imprisoned for decades since Suharto’s New Order, the cleric keeps echoing the enforcement of the sharia as the replacement of any other human-made laws.  


Similarly, Aman Abdurrahman, the leader and ideologue of the IS-affiliated group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), has strongly shown declination against the Indonesian government and democratic-based rules in general, including parole for his sentence. Aman was imprisoned in 2004 for accidental explosions in a bomb-making class in South Jakarta, then for recruitment and providing funds, and his roles in the 2016 Thamrin attacks (Sumpter, 2018) which brought the death penalty upon him. 


These two prominent jihadi actors have strengthened the proof that those who took roles as ideologists and chairman tend to be difficult to be deradicalized. Nonetheless, Nasir Abas and Ali Imron, who played significant roles in instilling ideology and military training for militants have disengaged with radical terrorist groups and even actively worked with the Indonesian government. How do Bashir and Aman not move a single inch from their beliefs while Nasir and Ali took different decisions? The next discussion explores one fundamental factor motivating Nasir and Ali to leave terrorism. 


Nasir admitted that his decision to leave his group was caused by a change in viewing policemen (O’Brien, 2008); nonetheless, if we dive deeper into his journey, there was another reason occurring far before his arrest: disagreement against Osama bin Laden's call for jihad against any disbeliever. In an interview with journalist Anneliese McAuliffe (2018), Nasir stated that the refusal had been expressed during his active participation in a military academy in Afghanistan, and it drove him to move back to Malaysia. Similarly, Ali Imron has expressed disapproval since the Bali bombings were still in the planning. In several interviews (e.g.Tribunnews, 2021; Akbar Faizal Uncensored, 2021), he revealed debates with his counterparts, including his brother Ali Ghufron, to change the operation target from Bali to the American warships in Indonesia's ports, since, according to him, foreigners who visited Bali were innocent and the real enemies were American soldiers. 


Although Nasir and Ali remained engaged in pro-violent jihad, wherein Nasir trained Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines and later joined Darul Islam (DI) and led Jemaah Islamiyah’s Mantiqi IIII (controlled East Borneo, Sabah, Palu, and Mindanao) (ExtremeLive, 2018; O’Brien, 2008) and Ali continued his participation in the Bali attacks, the two former jihadists had potential for disengagement. In a seminar (TVNU, 2020), Ali conceded that he started to switch his mind immediately after being detained and later convinced three Bali attack masterminds to follow in his footsteps. Similarly, Nasir changed his extreme beliefs even before starting a court trial.


Based on these two differences, ideologists potentially switch to moderate thought if they have declined certain things (fatwa, value, beliefs, etc.,) when they engage in the group. Nasir and Ali have clearly shown this factor while Bashir and Aman are opposite. From the beginning of their active participation in pro-warring jihad, Bashir and Aman have shown the same strong commitment to promote extreme ideology. Prison sentences did not affect their beliefs while for Nasir and Ali, the sentence could accelerate the change of view. 


Based on this fact, a deradicalization effort is predicted to be more effective if deradicalization practitioners identify whether a subject indicates disagreement toward his/her group. A practitioner can start an assessment interview from the subject's views about her/his group, by asking, for instance, "what is your opinion about your group, and do you agree with any teaching promoted by your leader?" To obtain thorough data, a practitioner can read extreme propaganda or events that tend to be rejected by common individuals, such as suicide attacks that killed innocent people and children, or by asking whether people who agree with the government are considered real disbelievers. 


Jihadists most probably have prepared counter-narratives against the questions since they were indoctrinated with Islamic texts-based teachings. Nevertheless, based on the cases of Nasir and Ali, any individual can disagree with specific teachings, although they are ideologues and serve as leaders. The role of prison sentences might be questioned. In the case of Nasir and Ali, the arrest and sentence have become an important pushing factor for their total disengagement.





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McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S. (2017). Understanding political radicalization: The two-pyramids model. American Psychologist, 72(3), 205–216.


O’Brien, N. (2008, November). Interview with a former terrorist: Nasir Abbas’ deradicalization work in Indonesia. CTC Sentinel1(12), 1-3.


Simcox, R., & Dyer, E. (2013). Al Qaeda in the United States: A Complete Analysis of Terrorism Offenses. London, UK: The Henry Jackson Society. 


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