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Commentary: Southeast Asia Faces Challenge in Reforming Extremists

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
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Indonesian police escort a group of suspected terrorists before their trial in Jakarta, June 15, 2016.

With the growth of extremism in Southeast Asia, governments and their partners must develop capabilities not only to fight but rehabilitate suspected terrorists in custody.

The terror threat is becoming acute in the maritime region of Southeast Asia – composed of Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia – where half a billion people live.

Almost a thousand alleged terrorists incarcerated in Southeast Asian prisons, especially those in Indonesia following the 2002 Bali bombings, will be released in the coming decade.

Without proper rehabilitation programs, it is very likely that some terror suspects will pose a security threat. Others will infect their friends and family with their militant ideas and ideals, while a few would be expected to join the terrorist iconography.

With the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and its global expansion, the region needs to build a robust capability for rehabilitating terrorists and confronting extremism. To accomplish this, governments should invest in understanding IS and community-based rehabilitation capabilities.

Seductive power of IS

Because of the global growth of militant extremism, the number of people sent to prison for participating and supporting IS will grow exponentially.

Many governments with their community partners have worked to deter terrorist recruitment and radicalization. But the appeal and seductive power of IS has made many susceptible to indoctrination and vulnerable to recruitment.

To transform the lives of those potential recruits, mainstream society must prepare rehabilitation programs. Without rehabilitation, prison will not prepare them to reject extremism. They would not embrace coexistence and moderation.

But unlike Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka, most countries have no comprehensive rehabilitation programs tackling extremism. Although IS recruited from 120 countries, less than a fifth of the countries have adopted the U.N.-sponsored programs.

Developing Rehabilitation Programs

Building rehabilitation programs requires leadership, a legal framework, a dedicated organization and expert resources.

The world has started to understand that no one agency can develop and implement criminal or terrorist rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation is an enterprise where government, private sector, community organizations and academia work together.

Prisons often lack the knowledge and skills to transform the inmates they hold. Only a few countries have the resources to build within their prisons the expertise to return suspected terrorists back to mainstream life. They rely on the private sector for resources, the community for support and academics for assessment.

The best private companies devote significant resources to train and, after release, recruit beneficiaries. Similarly, community leaders and institutions pave the way and build bridges to bring back those deviants to the mainstream.

Academia train the specialists to work in prison and community settings. In addition, the institutions of higher learning and think-tanks can develop and refine the assessments to measure the degrees of radicalization and de-radicalization.

Drawing expertise from different sectors

Diverse partners should come together to develop different approaches of intervention. A visionary, goal-oriented and creative leadership is essential.

The key is to understand and manage the risks.

Rehabilitation is a risk worth taking because it achieves good for the individual and family, workplace and community.

Leaders should draw expertise and resources from different sectors to chart and sustain the lives of the beneficiaries.

Success depends on drawing relevant partners from multiple sectors and the ability to hold them together to achieve a common goal.

The beneficiaries are best transformed in settings where they can make it. Some may end up being in the security forces and other government jobs, others at universities and institutions of learning, some in private sector and companies.

The classic detention and prison are not the ideal settings for embracing change for the better. Punishment to deter re-offending and rehabilitation to prepare for release should be the twin goals of all facilities.

What will secure Southeast Asia?

It is essential to build lethal capabilities to address the immediate threat, but strengthening rehabilitation and community-engagement capabilities will secure the region.

Governments that are lacking resources – such as the Philippines – to transform those in custody should build strategic capabilities in two areas: rehabilitation and community engagement.

They should invest in building larger prisons, as space is essential to build good rehabilitation programs. They should create a dedicated rehabilitation authority and develop an appropriate rehabilitation framework, ensuring that efforts to transform a suspected terrorist into a productive citizen will not be wasted.

If the community is infected, the re-integrated suspect may be influenced by another extremist. He may relapse.

It is most important for all governments to control recidivism.

For a successful re-integration of a suspected terrorist, there should be parallel efforts to build programs to immunize the community against extremist ideas and ideologies.

Rohan Gunaratna is professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technology University and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.

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