Transforming Terrorists

Updated On: Mar 07, 2006

Although it is more common to read of war on terror as literally a physical one, there seems to be a realisation that the real war is a battle for the hearts and, more importantly, the minds of the individuals behind some of the acts of terrorism.

The National Post (Canada) has highlighted some of the work done in Southeast Asia, particularly Singaporeand Indonesiain fighting the ideological battle. One of the examples of success is Mr Nasir Abas, formerly a leader of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) who has trained some of Southeast Asia’s worst terrorists including some of those who targeted western hangouts in Baliin 2002.  Mr Nasir Abas is now becoming a key ally of the Indonesian government in the war against terror in Southeast Asia by cooperating with police and “speaking out against terrorism to students, community groups and anyone else who will listen”.

After making hundreds of arrests, governments in the region have concluded that terrorism cannot be fought properly without confronting the ideology behind it. 

The Singapore government has formed a Religious Rehabilitation Group, comprising of about 20 Islamic scholars known as ustaz. One of the roles of an ustaz is to ensure that the Koran is properly interpreted. What the Singaporean police found was that many of the arrested terrorists had a narrow interpretation of Koran. To Mr Mohammed Ali, an ustaz, who works on the programme and is a research analyst at NanyangTechnological University in Singapore explained, “In the initial stage of the counselling programme, we listen to them, we let them talk. Then if we feel there are concepts that need to be countered, we step in.” The aim objective of the programme is to use the same texts from the Koran (from which acts of terrorism were justified) to show the detainees that they had actually misunderstood the true meaning of Islam.

Counsellors also work with the families of the detainees to make sure that the children stay in schools and do not walk the path of radicalisation. Public meetings are also held to raise awareness within the Muslim community as well as with the non-Muslim community.

While the focus on terrorists tends to be focused on male terrorists, Noor Huda Ismail in a commentary to the Straits Times, has raised the issue of Muslim women participating in violence. The role of women in these acts of terrorism has been brought to the spotlight after five women were recently charged for smuggling bomb detonators and explosive materials from Malaysiainto Indonesia. National Police spokesman Brigadier- General Anton Bachrul Alam was reported in the Jakartapost as saying, “Our investigations into these cases show that terrorist groups are likely to be using women to assist them.”

Noor Huda Ismail challenged the justification for involving women in these acts of terrorism. He argued that it is “only by distorting and abandoning Islam’s true teachings that anyone can kill innocent civilians. Moreover, Muslims clearly are the biggest victims of this terror.” When the male terrorists are killed or arrested, it is often the women who have to pick up the pieces to take care of the family.

Focusing beyond the family unit, a new school in Indonesiahas tried to shape the minds of Muslims by seeking to produce Islamic scholars who are able to use English. This new school is the first pesantren or Islamic boarding school to use English as its official language of instruction. The school, Pesantren Nawesea was officially opened by former President Aburrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid on 3 March 2006. The school is headed by Dr Yudian Wahyudi, a Harvard-educated Islamic legal studies scholar.

The school aims to produce Islamic intellectuals who not only possess mastery of Islamic religious texts but in other areas such as English writing. Journalism is one of the most important subjects offered to the students. The school has about 15 lecturers, most of whom hold doctorates or Masters’ degrees from universities in North AmericaEuropeor Southeast Asia.

While all these moves might not guarantee success, they form a key component in the war on terror. After all, it is only when this battle for the minds of man is lost that he does terrible things. 


Burden of Being Married to a Jihadist, The Straits Times, 6 March 2006

S-E Asia’s Strategy Takes Battleinto Terrorist’ Minds, The Straits Times, 4 March 2006(reproduced from National Post [Canada], 25 February 2006)

The New Face of Terror- Dujana Supports JI’s Pan- Islamic Vision, New Straits Times, 5 March 2006