Detail from book cover.
Detail from book cover.

"Why Terrorists Quit" in Indonesia, with Julie Chernov Hwang

May 9, 2018

Over six years, Julie Chernov Hwang conducted over 100 interviews with current and former leaders and followers of radical Islamist groups in Indonesia to find out why some terrorists finally quit. What did she learn? The key is life skills training, family and community support, and personal development, she says. "If you are going to focus on deradicalization, focus it narrowly on use of violence. Don't try to overhaul someone's worldview."

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Julie Chernov Hwang. She is a professor at Goucher College and author of a new book called Why Terrorists Quit: The Disengagement of Indonesian Jihadists.

Julie, thank you so much for coming by.

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: Thank you so much for the invitation.

DEVIN STEWART: Okay, before we get to your book on jihadists in Indonesia, please just give us a sort of beginner's guide to understanding the landscape there. What are the big terrorist organizations and why are they important?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: The first thing to understand about the Indonesian jihadist landscape is that it is very fragmented. That is why trying to understand it is difficult to wrap your head around; you have so many groups that have splintered off from other groups.

To understand this historically, we have to begin with Darul Islam, which starts as this series of rebellions around the independence era. It is crushed in the 1960s, and then it reemerges in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Actually, as an underground movement, it still exists today. It has nine factions, two of which are violent. But this is kind of the nexus around which this violent movement for an Islamic state in Indonesia forms.

Now in the 1980s, two members of one faction of Darul Islam—Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir—have to flee to Malaysia to escape jail. They become a conduit for Indonesians going to Afghanistan. Some 200 Indonesians go to Afghanistan with Darul Islam, and you're saying, "Okay, what is the relevance of this?"

But the groups that would form later formed with the core of these Afghan veterans, so what we see in 1993 is the first and most significant group for our purposes emerges when Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir break off from Darul Islam and establish Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

I would say that of all the terrorist groups and Islamist extremist groups operating in Indonesia, this is really the one to watch. We see it evolve and change over time, but it still is very much the most flexible, the most dynamic, and the one with the deepest roots.

DEVIN STEWART: The best recruiters as well?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: I would say the most careful recruiters. If you want to join an Islamist extremist group, you are making a serious investment to join JI.

The time of vetting, the time from your first attendance at study circles until the eventual oath could be anywhere from two years to five years. Someone could be in study circles in Jemaah Islamiyah for years and never get invited to the next level.

Now the exception here is if you are from a JI family—and this is something really important for Indonesia that may not exist to the same degree in other parts of the world—you have multigenerational jihadi families because of the link to Darul Islam.

Grandpa might have fought in the original Darul Islam rebellions. Dad went to Afghanistan. You were sent to JI schools from a young age to make sure you got the correct worldview. At a certain point when you were in your second year of high school, you were brought in. When it came time to marry, you married the daughter of a fellow member.

Jemaah Islamiyah is a group that is very enclosed. It is tough to penetrate. If you want to have an easier pathway to entry, the groups that are some of the pro-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) groups, I would say, there is an easier pathway to entry. You still have multiple layers, you still have the vetting, but it's not as cautious.

You don't have ISIS in Indonesia. You have certain groups that swore bay'ah, they swore loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. These are Tawhid wal-Jihad, [aka] Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, Mujahidin Indonesia Barat [Mujahideen of Western Indonesia], just to name a few. There are probably about half a dozen in total.

If you look at the terrorist attacks that have come out, they haven't come out from JI. At the height of the terrorist attacks, there was only ever one faction that was really invested in doing them, and that was the Malaysia-based faction. They were the ones that had the bombing masterminds. Their leader, Hambali, was the one who had the al-Qaeda links.

If we look today at who is doing the terrorist attacks, they are typically coming out of this particular network around Aman Abdurrahman and this pro-ISIS network around him.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the relationship between the pro-ISIS network and JI?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: JI is anti-ISIS. They would say that ISIS is too brutal. Their howadij [phonetic] and—whatever gave Baghdadi the right to declare himself caliph. You have some JI members who have gone to Syria and joined with ISIS.

You have a larger percentage who have gone and fought for three, six, 12 months with Jabhat al-Nusra, [aka] Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, or whatever the al-Qaeda affiliate was. But that was—as JI has always done in getting its members involved in jihad experiences—about getting them trained so they could bring that knowledge back to Indonesia.

DEVIN STEWART: Your book is quite a research project. It involved 100 interviews over six years, a lot of travel in Indonesia. Before we get to the seven radicals that you tracked, can you give us a bit of color about what went into this book? What did it entail, finding these people and getting them to talk?

I think a lot of listeners might be familiar with The New York Times' "Caliphate" podcast, and one of the things that that podcast illuminates is how difficult it is to get people to talk about this stuff. Can you give us a sense of the work and energy that went into this project?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: That's a really good question. I think one thing that makes this project very unique is that I kept going back to the same people over and over again. There are seven life histories or partial life histories highlighted in the book, but I did over 100 interviews with 55 people, meeting many people more than once, as often as I could. For the life histories, I met them about three to five times, the exception being "Yuda" [a pseudonym], who I saw only twice because he escaped from jail and ran up a mountain to join Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, and I was not going to follow. The two times I was able to connect with him was when he was in jail.

What I kept doing was I went back more than once. When you go back more than once, you don't always go back to do a formal interview. Sometimes you go back, you do an interview. Then the next year, maybe you go back and you just meet someone for a brief chat. Then the next year, you look at your transcript and realize you have a whole host of more questions and that there are some discrepancies, and so you go back again.

At a certain point, they start to trust you, and then you get a fuller picture. There were very few instances I found where people outright lie. But what was far more common was someone would obfuscate, and you get a much fuller picture when someone—

DEVIN STEWART: Because they're trying to protect someone or they were embarrassed? Why would they obfuscate?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: Because you have a pat story that you tell to someone who comes and asks for an interview, or you think of a pat story and you say, "Okay, I am going to talk about this, and I am going to talk about it in this way." But then you get to know someone, and you are more willing to share because you have developed a trust and a rapport with the person. I think that's something that was unique here, that I went back more than once. Especially with the 23 from Poso, you go back more than once—not that many people trek up to Poso. You go back more than once, you go back twice, you go back three times, four times, five times, and they feel like This person cares about me.

I'm not asking about the terror attacks they committed. I'm asking about how they're trying to rebuild their lives. In that way, I was focusing differently, and my research enables me to tell positive stories and say not just, "Oh, you are a terrorist. Tell me how you became one."

DEVIN STEWART: That doesn't work?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: Never tried it. But "How did this change in perspective happen? What happened when you left jail?" asking them about their—I lost my train of thought.

DEVIN STEWART: Specific life experiences? Be less generic, is that what it is?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: I would say not less generic but asking them to share what was happening now and also what the now was at any given point in time. I think that helped, getting somebody to talk about their family, getting somebody to explain how it was that they came, perhaps intellectually but more experientially, to the decision that what they were doing wasn't working for them and they wanted to be doing something different.

DEVIN STEWART: Got it. It's like a cliché. Indonesia is 14,000 or 15,000 islands. It is an enormous country with a hugely diverse set of cultures and populations and languages and all sorts of things—cuisines. Give us a sense of what it was like. How did you get around? Where did you go? How did you maintain your safety? Was that even a concern? What was it like to get to these interviews?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: Well, the first thing about this research is that I went through people who had pre-established networks. In 2006 when I was researching my dissertation book, Peaceful Islamist Mobilization in the Muslim World: What Went Right, I came to know a series of people who were starting their own research on this subject, or they were starting terrorist rehabilitation nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and in time, friends connected me to journalists, to human rights activists, and I went through them.

My safety was not necessarily a concern for me at that time because I had known these people for two, three, four years. I trusted them. They were very good about making sure we secured consent, that people said that they were willing to do this, and then seeking them out again closer to and saying, "Are you sure this is okay? This is what she is interested in. Okay." In that way not only securing my safety but also securing consent.

Because they trusted these particular people, some of that trust transferred onto me. Over time, I would still go with these particular individuals. Now that I am doing research for my next project, some of the people I interviewed are actually the people who take me, because we have established that kind of trust relationship where they are comfortable acting as that facilitator and that mediator.

DEVIN STEWART: What about getting around? Some of the stories in your book sounded very adventurous, almost cinematic.

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: Planes and cars.

DEVIN STEWART: Where did you go?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: Most of my research was on one of two islands: Java and Sulawesi. I did research in the Poso district—in Palu, Poso, and Ampana in central Sulawesi. I did research all throughout Java in West Java, East Java, Central Java, Jakarta, Solo, Semarang, Surabaya, and then the three cities on Sulawesi.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's get to those seven people that you tracked, so seven life stories, seven radicals. Before we get to why they quit, what drove them to join up?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: Some of them were propelled to join, I think the largest portion of the seven. Four of them were propelled to join by the outbreak of communal conflict in Ambon and Poso, two from Java and two from Poso. It was the conflict that drove them.

For Ali Imron and Ali Fauzi, they were interesting because it was those family ties. Their elder brother—elder half-brother for Ali Fauzi—had joined. He had been a founding member. For Ali Imron, all he ever wanted in his life was to follow in Mukhlas's footsteps.

DEVIN STEWART: Was it about family honor?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: It was about worshiping your fantastic big brother, and loving your big brother, and loving him so much that you wanted to do everything he could do.

Ali Fauzi grew up in a different household, so he had a lot of respect for Mukhlas, but he didn't have that level of worship. But still, Ali Imron and Ali Fauzi were both pulled in because their elder brother was in.

Let's see. Anas was pulled in by the study circle pathway. It was random. He was at an Islamic day school, and he was invited around the same time to join a study circle which was a Salafi study circle, which was the pre-pre-study circle to a JI study circle. Then he simultaneously is invited to join the tarbiyah movement that would later give birth to Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS).

So he goes through both of them simultaneously until ultimately, he gets to a certain point in his multi-layered JI study circles where someone says, "You have to choose," and he argues with them.

He says, "I don't want to choose. Both of them give me complementary knowledge."

They said: "Well, you have to choose. If you want to be one of us, you have to choose." So he chooses—he didn't know it was a JI study circle at the time—the JI study circle because he was young, and they would teach him about jihad. He wanted to know jihad, and he found them to be, as he put it, "more perfect." He chose.

DEVIN STEWART: You listed conflict, family ties, and study circles. Those are three different drivers. Are there other things that all of them had in common, like looking around for meaning, psychological profiles, or anything like that?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: I wouldn't say so. I mean, yes, they're all around the same age, but we find worldwide most terrorists are between 18 to probably 24, 25, 26.


JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: All male within JI. JI did not allow for women. Actually, that would be improper to say. Women played a reduced role. They were in the family economy, providing for the families, raising the next generation of Mujahid and Mujahida, but they did not have specific roles the way the men did.

DEVIN STEWART: I think the role of online propaganda and the role of spokespeople gets a lot of press, a lot of attention in the West for being a way to persuade people to join something that has a lot of grandiose meaning, something beyond the quotidian experience of modern life. If any, what was the role of propaganda or charismatic spokespeople?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: I think during the time of Abdullah Sungkar, you had a number of people who joined because they were impressed by Sungkar. If we take, for example, Abu Tholut, who spent eight years in Afghanistan and wanted to be a soldier more than anything in the world because he had come from a family of soldiers, and his dad broke his heart by saying, "Son, go to university," and he wanted to be a soldier. This was a way. He spent three to four days with Abdullah Sungkar and was like, "I'm going to Afghanistan."

You have a lot of people who respected Abdullah Sungkar, but I'm not sure if he played a role of—I think he played a role of keeping people in line more than convincing people to switch or to join.

DEVIN STEWART: What does that mean, "in line"?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: In line, so following the rules, not going off on their own. When we see that Jemaah Islamiyah—when you start to see that Mantiqe, one division [of JI] based out of Malaysia, going off and mounting attacks, largely this is after the death of Sungkar. Bashir was a weaker leader.

Now, Aman Abdurrahman seems to be someone who can radicalize you by proximity. You walk into the area where he is and—boom—you're radicalized.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you explain that?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: I have not yet met the man.

DEVIN STEWART: How about people who have made accounts?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: I would say that what I have read about him is that he is not particularly charismatic, but he can argue his point well and he has great Islamic knowledge, so he can convince you by the fact that he knows the material as well as he does.

DEVIN STEWART: That is quite unusual, to argue your way into convincing someone to do something that they might not have thought about doing before.

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: I would say that in all of the interviews I have done, I have spoken to only one person who left an Aman Abdurrahman study circle. Since I am not as familiar with the group, I am not as comfortable speaking to them.

But he is somebody who can propagandize and radicalize, and we can see this very clearly because the person that masterminded the 2016 Jakarta Starbucks bombing, one of the people who played a key role in it was Aman Abdurrahman's masseuse. As I say, and I have said many times before, how do you get a masseuse in supermax prison?

He was able to convince people to join the pro-ISIS side from other groups, like the Islamic Defenders Front. By giving sermons from prison via a cellphone, he was able to get people to switch, so he is very good at making his point. That much I can say.

DEVIN STEWART: That is quite extraordinary. Let's get to the nut graph here, why terrorists quit. Why do they quit? Give us the sense of the why and the how. How do they get out and how long did it take?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: The first thing to understand about Indonesian Islamist extremists, especially in JI and in the JI network, is that quitting does not necessarily mean that you sever all ties with the group.

You can go inactive. You can migrate from a violent to a nonviolent role within the Islamist extremist community, within the JI side. You can leave. They don't like it if you shout it from the rooftops, but you can leave, but you can still keep in-movement friends. Even people who leave may still say, "I am not a member anymore, but I'm a sympathizer." JI sees their universe divided between—they have the members of the group, the sympathizers, and the neutrals. You migrating into sympathizer is not the worst thing in the world. That is what makes this story a complex story.

How did Indonesian jihadists disengage and reintegrate? I identified four factors that interact with one another to drive disengagement, two of which also facilitate reintegration. These are: the establishment of an alternative social network; priority shifts; disillusionment with tactics, leaders, and occasionally one's own role; and assessment of cost, benefit, and context.

The linchpin of successful disengagement and reintegration is the establishment of an alternative social network of friends, mentors, and supportive family members.

Alongside that and complementary to that, second factor: priority shifts where one goes from focusing on in-group demands and duties to opportunities for education, employment, and family.

These two enable the jihadists to examine and come to a place where they are developing an idea for a post-jihad life and a post-group identity, and it acts as a counterweight to the pull of those in-group friends and incentives for reengagement.

Third, you have the interaction of factors that you see much more in the literature.

These two, in the Indonesian case, really work to promote disengagement, but they don't get you to reintegration, and that is the disillusionment with tactics, leaders, and occasionally one's own role and that assessment of cost, benefit, and context, this idea that the costs of continued actions outweigh potential benefits or that the context has changed.

DEVIN STEWART: What about just the plain-old question about ethics. We're at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Does one's own ethics change in this process, a reassessment of what is right and wrong?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: Can you clarify the question a little bit?

DEVIN STEWART: I think maybe the common understanding of why people go into the business of terrorism is that they're doing something righteous. I think to most Western ears, killing people or scaring people to death is not necessarily righteous. When people decide to quit terrorism, is there an ethical sort of Rubicon? Do people change their minds about what's right and wrong?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: If you're asking do they deradicalize, I would say it is perfectly common for somebody to disengage without ever fully deradicalizing.

The areas around which you see this shift are around the use of violence, and there are four areas: targets, timing, location, and condition. Now is not the time. Indonesia is not the place. The target was improper. Now it's a peaceful condition; we shouldn't be doing it here.

Does someone look back at an action that they participated in and feel remorse? Some of them do, but this can happen while you're in the group.

What I saw and one of the reasons that disillusionment is weaker in the Indonesian case, having the power to facilitate disengagement, really only if there are other factors reinforcing it, is that you can be disillusioned eight ways from Sunday, you can know that an attack was wrong, but you may still go along with it because there's this concept sami'na wa atho'na: "I hear and I obey." You're listening to your seniors. If you are from one of those multigenerational jihadi families, you may be listening to your brother.

Why did Ali Imron participate in the Bali bombing when he knew that the target was improper, when he argued and argued that the target was improper? Because Mukhlas was his older brother. Mukhlas said, "This is happening," and Ali Imron didn't have the strength of will at that moment in time to say: "I'm out. I'm done."

DEVIN STEWART: Carnegie Council led a delegation recently to Yogyakarta in partnership with Gadjah Mada University. One of the major themes was the positive role that civil society plays, and religious associations like Muhammadiyah or Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) play in serving to moderate the type of Islam that is in Indonesia. Was this a theme for you in your research?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: I wouldn't say so. One thing that we do find—and one area where Muhammadiyah could do so much good—the thing to understand about NU and Muhammadiyah is NU has 50 million Muslims. Muhammadiyah has some 30 million Muslims. Within the disengagement initiatives, every successful disengagement initiative, if you're looking, is going to have NU and Muhammadiyah members because one out of every three Indonesians is an NU or Muhammadiyah member.


JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: At the fringe of Muhammadiyah, you get to Darul Islam, which means that you have JI members from Muhammadiyah families.

One great thing that Muhammadiyah did was that when Ali Fauzi—who is also in the book, the half-brother of Ali Imron; he came from a Muhammadiyah family—went back to school for his BA, he went to Muhammadiyah University, and he was well received, treated just like one of the class, just like every other student. He was praised by his lecturers. He was given opportunities to shine.

He was treated just like any other good student who is working hard, and that really enabled him to envision who he could become after jihad, after having been a trainer in Mindanao, and Ambon, and Poso, that he could be a teacher, he could be a lecturer, he could be whatever he wanted to be. I think Muhammadiyah could do that for so many people.

But if we look at the most successful disengagement programs, and they're very small scale, they are coming out of civil society. These are the ones that focus on life skills training and professional development, helping people complete those priority shifts.

But it is also true that people are disengaging and reintegrating without the aid of a program.

DEVIN STEWART: How does that work?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: That works because somebody decides, "I'm done."

DEVIN STEWART: Because they have autonomy, they have agency.

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: They have agency, they have autonomy, they decide, "This isn't for me." Maybe they go back to what they were doing before they got involved, and this is particularly true in Poso where there was a conflict period, a period before the conflict, and now a post-conflict period that they have been in. Or maybe they try to figure out, "What am I going to do next?"

Anas has done this. He has had tremendous success, and I can't detail what he is doing now because that is part of our agreement. He is very protective of his family. He has achieved tremendous professional success, and he has done that without the aid of programs.

But Noor Huda Ismail's program, while it has really only helped 15 people, the Institute for International Peacebuilding—run by Noor Huda Ismail, Taufik Andrie, and the whole team—made a tremendous difference in the lives of those 15 people, and there's more on the way.

Another interesting program to look at: Ali Fauzi runs a mutual aid society in Lamongan where they do goat breeding, where they help pay school fees so that children can go to school, and where they have discussion groups to reassess prior-held views.

This mutual aid society was first geared for veterans of Afghanistan, Mindanao, Ambon, and Poso. But when ISIS became an issue, they allowed families of imprisoned terrorists to come. As a result, in that particular district of Lamongan, there is no ISIS cell.

DEVIN STEWART: Julie, before we go, I want to say that this type of book is one of my favorite types of scholarly books because you're going and you're really doing the research on the ground, and you're talking to lots of people, you're looking at the data and the research, putting it all together, and coming up with something that's very authentic. It's sort of an anthropological approach, which I think is great.

Maybe you didn't have a conclusion to make the world a better place, but would you say your findings are true only in Indonesia, or are there things that people can learn around the world?

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: I would say that there certainly are findings that are generalizable, and we are seeing this every day in the research that is coming out. The establishment of that alternative social network of friends, and mentors, and family members, and those priority shifts are critical to successful disengagement and reintegration whether you live in Indonesia, Somalia, or Colombia.

DEVIN STEWART: What about Canada?


DEVIN STEWART: Which is the "Caliphate" one. Sorry, I had to bring that one up.

JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: Canada. Minnesota.


JULIE CHERNOV HWANG: We look at what is working. So many of the successful programs are helping people imagine that post-group life, post-extremist life, post-jihadist life focusing on aftercare, focusing on rehabilitation, and some family counseling. That's key.

In the book, I speak about how important the role of family is and how critical family can be and having supportive family members for successful disengagement, for reintegration, and how sometimes you need family counseling because if you have been in prison for eight years, you may be estranged from your family, but that family plays a very important role.

If we look at the Saudi program, if we look at the programs in Somalia, you're seeing they are bringing in the families. This is key.

Also, I'll shout it from the rooftops: Life skills training and professional development, I think we would find if we look systematically, are going to be more successful than focusing on attempting worldview overhaul via deradicalization initiatives. If you are going to focus on deradicalization, focus it narrowly on use of violence. Don't try to overhaul someone's worldview.

DEVIN STEWART: Julie Chernov Hwang is author of Why Terrorists Quit: The Disengagement of Indonesian Jihadists.

Julie, thanks again.


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