Latest research rejects claims by Indonesian presidential candidates Prabowo and Jokowi that money can solve terrorism

Armed members of the Indonesian Mobile Brigade Corps guard a gate of the brigade headquarters in Depok last May after several police officers were injured during a riot involving detained terrorists. Adi Weda/EPA

Latest research rejects claims by Indonesian presidential candidates Prabowo and Jokowi that money can solve terrorism

Terrorism was one of the main topics in the first round of Indonesian presidential debate last week. Both candidates – the incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and challenger Prabowo Subianto – agreed that economic woes were the root causes of terrorism.

Throughout the debate, Prabowo emphasised the importance of improving the people’s welfare through economic development initiatives as a solution to terrorism. In the same spirit, Jokowi’s administration has introduced a strategy to eradicate terrorism by giving financial support to former terrorists so they can start a new life after jail time.

However, such economic incentives are ineffective and could actually backfire, as they can provoke further resistance from extremists who believe they are executing God’s divine command. These personal values – not economic reasons – drive them to engage in terrorist acts.

We have conducted research in 59 prisons throughout Indonesia from 2015 to 2017. Based on observations, interviews and group discussions involving more than 200 inmates, we found that providing financial assistance to terrorist inmates may not always be effective as their main reason for committing acts of terrorism was not directly driven by economic problems.

The story of ‘Dudi’

The government’s deradicalisation program is one of its soft approaches to convince former terrorists and their supporters to abandon violence and radicalism. Under this program, the government grants economic incentives in the form of monetary assistance to well-behaved terrorist inmates.

With the aim of helping terrorist inmates who have willingly disengage from their groups to start a new independent life, the government manages the program through its National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT). The government claims that the program can help former inmates reintegrate into society. However, the efficacy of the program in preventing former inmates from relapsing and being involved in other terrorist attacks is still questionable.

The story of Dudi (not his real name) raises questions about the efficacy of these financial incentives. During our research, we have conducted observations and interviews with terrorist inmates involved with the deradicalisation program both while in prison and after their release. Dudi is one of them.

Dudi is one of the terrorist inmates who was suspected of still being involved with his former terrorist group after his release. He was one of the suspects in terrorist attacks in Surabaya, East Java.

Previously, Dudi was arrested for attending six months of military training by a terrorist faction in Poso, Central Sulawesi. During his time in prison, his good behaviour had earned him the privilege of receiving economic incentives under the government’s deradicalisation program.

For almost three months after he was released, Dudi sent in photos of his newly established barber business, which was set up with the government’s help. It was only a week after he sent those photos that Dudi’s name appeared in the news of a terrorist attack in Surabaya.

His experience shows that although former terrorists receive financial aid, their ideologies may not change.

Money can’t buy values

Research in Israel and Palestine by Jeremy Ginges and Scott Atran in 2009 found that providing economic incentives to former terrorists is ineffective.

Ginges and Atran argue that enticing individuals with a radical belief to relinquish their sacred values by giving them financial aid could backfire.

Through their values, those with a radical paradigm are convinced they are obeying God’s command (jihad). These values justify the acts of terror they have committed, and it is clear that they are willing to sacrifice themselves to defend their own beliefs. Their values stem from their religious and cultural teachings.

For ideological reasons, they latch on to their highly revered values which can drive individuals to commit violent acts when they join a group. Their identity fuses with the group’s; its purpose becomes their own.

These values and principles cannot necessarily be traded off for money. Many terrorists are willing to leave their families and wealth, live in exile and risk arrest or even death for these values.

For example, Azahari Husin, the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombing and other terrorist attacks in Indonesia, had a doctoral degree from the United Kingdom and worked as a lecturer at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. .

The perpetrators of the Surabaya attack last year also came from an economically stable middle-class family.

If these values are the reason behind the terrorist attacks, then a solely economic approach would not be effective. Providing monetary aid could actually be interpreted as an effort to buy off their beliefs and would trigger resistance and end up failing.

Why giving out money is not the solution

Ginges and Atran’s study mentions at least two key arguments why providing economic aid to former terrorists would not be effective:

  1. These extremists would actually see economic assistance as a bribe to exchange their sacred values.

  2. There is still no effective monitoring system and inconclusive indicator to measure the efficacy of the economic program. So far, a program is deemed successful when the inmates can cooperate. However, findings have shown that this kind of cooperation may be temporary. Occasionally, they cooperate because they want to be released early.

The need to understand the root cause of terrorism

Learning from Dudi’s case, it is time to re-evaluate the government’s deradicalisation program of giving economic incentives to former terrorist inmates as the approach has yet to be proven effective.

Policymakers in Indonesia need to understand the root cause of terrorism well so that they may apply the most appropriate strategies. Terrorism is still a very real threat to Indonesia because when a terrorist perishes, a thousand more can rise, especially in the internet era that we live in today.


Rizkina Aliya translated this article from Indonesian.

This article was originally published in Indonesian