Armed police secure the South Jakarta court before a ruling against radical group Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) on July 31, 2018. Photo: AFP / Bay Ismoyo
Armed police secure the South Jakarta court before a ruling against radical group Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) on July 31, 2018. Photo: AFP / Bay Ismoyo

In the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor last month, Brian Perkins wrote that Indonesia’s new anti-terror law, and its subsequent enforcement, was putting undue stress on already overcrowded prisons. While previously in deliberation for months, Indonesia’s Parliament passed the new law rapidly in the wake of a string of attacks in May that occurred in Surabaya, Sidoarjo and Riau.

Significantly, the new law criminalizes membership in or support of a terror group such as the ISIS-inspired Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), and permits police to hold individuals for up to 200 days after charging them with a crime.

Legislative advances, when not abused, are generally a good step toward combating terrorism. They create official options for actions that may be taken against convicted terrorists, open opportunities for investigations into suspected terrorists, and allow the government to have some degree of oversight over the counterterrorism atmosphere as opposed to a loose military or security force which acts of its own will.

However, while the law empowers police to take greater action in investigating and holding suspected terrorists, and allows courts to make convictions, Indonesia’s correctional system (which has already experienced a deadly riot in a prison housing extremists) is showing severe signs of strain.

As Perkins points out, Indonesia arrested upwards of 400 individuals under the new law between the time of its ratification and September 4, also bringing into question how many arrested individuals actually have ties to groups like JAD. A surge in arrests puts strain on an already overcrowded prison system with no room to house new inmates, while also bringing forth the challenge of separating radicalized individuals from those who have the potential to become radicalized.

On the opposite end of the Asian continent, in Syria, some prisons have been filled with accused ISIS members that seem to have hit a dead end. Makeshift prisons in northeastern Syria operated by the Syrian Democratic Forces were reported in June to be holding almost 600 suspected ISIS members of foreign origin. While the SDF apparently wishes to relieve itself of this burden by returning the prisoners to their home countries, the countries themselves have shown reluctance to take back their citizens.

The solution being considered may be that the US receive several high-priority individuals for housing in Guantanamo Bay, while the great majority be transferred to custody in Iraq, which is already likely stressed because of its own ISIS trials.

Ironically, Iraqi prisons were known targets of ISIS as early as 2012. In the following years, ISIS affected the escape of well over 1,000 prisoners in Iraq, helping to fuel its growth and highlighting the volatility of prisons in unstable areas.

Prisons may have also held symbolic value for ISIS as its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is believed to have been at least partially radicalized in prison and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was at one point held in the infamous Abu Ghraib.

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Iraqi soldiers patrol outside the Baghdad Central Prison in Abu Ghraib.

Worldwide, nations are struggling to find the ideal method of imprisoning convicted terrorists. Some, like Indonesia, lack the space and resources. Others, like Syria, are overburdened with foreign fighters. Moreover, Iraq has highlighted the delicate nature of prisons in unstable areas, and effectively countering radicalization in prisons is a global issue. To adapt to an increase in the volume of suspected and convicted terrorists worldwide, several options need to be explored.

First, anti-terrorism legislature and enforcement must be drafted with correctional capability in mind. While it may be very tempting to ratify new policing and judicial powers in the wake of an attack, an accurate assessment of prison capacity and capability must be accounted for to reduce over-stressing the facilities.

If needed, legislation should include provisions for temporarily increasing corrections capabilities in response to increased incarcerations. However, increased space should not be used as an excuse to arrest more individuals than is justified, as the prison may then fuel resentment in the population already most at risk of radicalization.

Second, much research into prisons and radicalization should be supported worldwide to understand better how to house convicted terrorists safely and reduce the opportunity for a prison to become a mere incubator of radicalization. De-radicalization or disengagement programs also need support, as they are ultimately what will permit rehabilitated individuals to  exit the prison safely, allowing a newly convicted terrorist to take his place.

Third, in times of undue stress nations should consider changing the way they sentence lesser criminals, such as drug offenders, to free up prison space for high-priority offenders such as convicted terrorists.

Finally, more powerful nations must take responsibility for their citizens who are detained abroad and, if needed, perhaps even be willing to take custody temporarily of other foreign nationals as well to reduce pressure on the primary nation, which may still be stressed by war and instability. In most cases, larger nations may have a better capability to process, house and secure convicted terrorists than smaller nations that are already overburdened with nationals from many other countries as well as a high volume of their own citizens.

Without a better method for handling sudden increases in arrested terrorists, many locations may retain significant security risks. Prison-based radicalization, rioting, and even large-scale escapes all may occur again when the next wave of global terrorism fills prisons around the world.

Joseph Hope

Joseph Hope is an independent researcher focusing on terrorism in the Indo-Pacific region. He is based in East Asia and is currently a Mandarin language student.