“It was a normal morning,” Sudirman Talib says, remembering the day in September 2004 when he was injured in a suicide bombing at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. He worked as a security guard and recalls noticing a Daihatsu outside the building. “We went to ask, ‘Why have you stopped here? What is your business here?’ But when my colleague approached the car, suddenly — bang.” Nine people died in the blast, and another 150 were injured. Talib, 21 years old at the time, had come to in Jakarta from a far-flung province of Indonesia, looking for work to help his family back in Bima, West Nusa Tenggara. That September day, he was among the lucky ones — he lost his left eye but survived.
The 2004 Australian Embassy bombing sits in the middle of a string of attacks in Indonesia that were orchestrated by the Southeast Asian terror cell Jemaah Islamiyah. The group has been publicly linked to al-Qaida and Islamic State, plus terror groups based in the southern Philippines. JI also claimed responsibility for the 2002 and 2005 attacks in Bali, as well as the 2003 and 2009 attacks on hotels in the Jakarta suburb of Kuningan. Combined, these attacks killed nearly 300 people and turned Indonesia into Southeast Asia’s hub of Islamic terrorism.
Indonesians continue to be innovators in deradicalization and counterterrorism techniques, and yet government support for survivors is virtually nonexistent.
“I was really angry at them,” Talib says, describing his immediate response to the 2004 attack. “I was angry they claim to be Muslim and they say they share my religion but they do something against Islam and our religious thinking.” Over time, however, he began channeling his anger into empathy, looking to stem the tide of violence by trying to understand its source. He joined with others who’d survived the embassy blast and the Kuningan attacks to form the Yayasan Penyintas Indonesia, or Survivors Foundation Indonesia, a group that draws on their experiences to prevent at-risk school children from becoming radicalized.
Focusing on middle schools in areas known to be prone to extremism, largely in heavily populated West Java, the foundation adopted a three-pronged approach. Survivors share their stories about the impact terrorism has had on their lives, a local imam explains common misconceptions about the Quran and scripture used by terror cells to justify violence, and a reformed terror convict dispels narratives pushed by extremists seeking to recruit into their ranks.
“At first, the children are confused,” Talib tells OZY. “They think terrorists are protecting Muslim people around the world because the rest of the world hates Muslims. We have to educate them and show a different way.”
Hasibullah Satrawi, an imam and the director of the Aliansi Indonesia Daman, which promotes peace through theology, has seen the impact these conversations can have on young Indonesians. “In some schools, up to 50 percent of the students can agree with radical ideologies, but we’ve seen that after they participate in programs with survivors and ex-terrorists that can drop to 25 percent,” he says. Middle school, he adds, is a critical time to reach these at-risk kids. It’s a period of transition, and recruiters know that and use social media to target young teens.
Most of the kids Talib and his group meet with know someone who’s joined a terror cell or been the victim of one, usually both. And these kids, like the survivors themselves, are not only the victims of attacks — they are also being victimized by their own government. Indonesians continue to be innovators in deradicalization and counterterrorism techniques, and yet government support for survivors is virtually nonexistent, leaving grassroots organizations and NGOs to lead the charge.
Efforts on the part of government are largely a matter of optics, says Dr. Muhammad Najib Azca, a researcher at Yogyakarta’s Universitas Gadjah Mada who studies the radicalization of Indonesian youth. And those efforts, he says, skew toward ceremonial activities, like hosting launches in luxury hotels, and have little impact on on-the-ground operations for either survivors or at-risk young people. “Government agencies do try to get in touch with NGOs, but events are still the backbone of their strategy,” Azca tells OZY. “We need the small, grassroots initiatives — they’re out there, but they just have no support.”
And the government’s seeming indifference creates a fresh threat, Talib argues, because it can push people to embrace terrorism. “They’re undereducated, their families and communities are undereducated, there are no jobs and lots of poverty,” he says. “The government isn’t really helping people, and most of the terrorists are coming from poor families. Joining a terror group is a way to make the government pay attention,” he adds. Many survivors have debilitating injuries and therefore cannot work, leaving their families without a primary breadwinner; meanwhile, assistance from the government never arrives.
“The door has been closed on us,” says Talib.
Since becoming involved with the foundation, Talib has had to work side by side with former terrorists — a reciprocal, if difficult, relationship that he knows is vital to the foundation’s goal of saving young Indonesians from being lured down a similar path. For the reformed terrorists, the program offers a form of absolution. For Talib, it offers insight into questions he has spent a decade asking himself.
Talib and his team at Yayasan Penyintas Indonesia remain focused on raising money to help survivors while extending their reach into more schools. But with near weekly arrests of suspected terrorists, an influx of returning fighters and a trove of accessible radical content online, any attempt to temper the influence of hardliners grows ever tougher.
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