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Deradicalisation by Videoconference

Deradicalisation by Videoconference
18th December 2020 Cameron Sumpter
Cameron Sumpter
In Insights

The pandemic has pushed the boundaries of what is possible (and appropriate) on videoconferencing applications. Despite strange side-effects like Zoom fatigue and potential concerns over privacy, online psychotherapy has become common in this year of lockdowns, layoffs, and blursday doomscrolling.

Receiving professional mental health assistance from your own couch may be a sustainable proposition, but what about conducting counselling sessions aimed at deradicalising prisoners via video-link? Following the imposition of social distancing restrictions in Indonesia back in March, psychologists consulting for the national counterterrorism agency decided to give it a try.

Indonesia has quite considerable experience with attempts to engage and possibly rehabilitate prisoners convicted of terrorism offences. Police sought to develop personal relationships with Jemaah Islamiyah suspects arrested in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombing attacks, which killed over 200 people. Initially the idea was to learn more about the networks, but police officers soon realised that building trust and seeking common ground could have positive outcomes beyond gleaning information.

Experiments evolved over the years, through different approaches from civil society organisations and eventually the national counterterrorism agency (BNPT), which was established in 2010 to address a seemingly resurgent jihadi militancy. With convicted terrorists spread widely throughout Indonesia’s sparse prison system, BNPT finally opened a long-planned ‘deradicalisation’ centre in a compound in Sentul, south of Jakarta in 2017.

Secured by the corrections directorate but managed by counterterrorism officials, the collaborative project aimed to prepare small batches of cooperative inmates for reintegration as they reached the end of their sentence. No hardliners or committed ideologues are involved.

The facility came under early criticism for being inappropriately restrictive and poorly organised, leading to a recurrence of grievance among some residents. But a promising feature is a programme of interactive classes developed and run by psychologists from the University of Indonesia. Instead of trying to unravel ideological conceptions, facilitators elicit aspects of individual identity and explore sources of personal significance through discussion.

The current cluster is the fourth in the facility’s short history and consists of 16 reforming inmates. According to programme facilitator Dr Mirra Noor Milla, three-hour morning classes run from Monday to Friday, which are periodically followed up with one-on-one reflective assessment discussions.

Additional (but unconnected) activities include sessions organised by BNPT’s deradicalisation division, involving visits from former extremists and Islamic scholars. Through the afternoons and evenings, the prisoners may work in the compound’s garden, play table tennis, or watch movies (Korean dramas go down well, apparently).

Indonesia did not report its first cases of COVID-19 until early March, but by month’s end the government had passed regulation on ‘large-scale social restrictions’, which stopped short of lockdowns, but did introduce a raft of safe distancing measures and work-from-home requirements. The Sentul classes were subsequently suspended, but then resumed again in May, when a large screen, webcam and a microphone were installed in the prison classroom.

After some initially awkward moments, the classes began to run fairly smoothly. As usual, the resource person leading the group would ask for reflections on previous material before introducing a new task – perhaps a hypothetical situation intended to provoke thought on emotional reactions and/or personal values.

Once the students prepare their ideas, they’re encouraged to discuss them with the group. Dr Mirra said this worked well online because she was able to switch off her camera, which seemed to generate more open discussion as the students forgot she was observing and couldn’t fall back on their usual clarification questions.

But this soon proved a double-edged sword. While facilitators thought it was productive to have such open debates and space to work things out amongst themselves, conversations became a little too heated at times, and the students started calling for the regulating presence of a resource person.

Another issue was the normally private one-on-one assessment conversations. The inmate students could not be left alone with the technology, and having officers and IT people on hand seemed to inhibit the often deeply personal sharing sessions.

With social restrictions in Indonesia easing somewhat in October, classes reverted to in-person only arrangements, as the facility’s managing officials were keen to return to the status quo as soon as possible. Dr Mirra was left in two minds.

Probably the main shortcoming of the online approach was sustaining enthusiasm five days per week. Classes simply became boring without personal engagement. Rehabilitative counselling is also a fundamentally social process involving the development of trust, which appears to be difficult to replicate through the relatively impersonal nature of video communication.

That said, the experiment did work well at times, especially at the beginning before it became monotonous. Dr Mirra thinks videoconferencing technology can and should still play some role in initiatives attempting to rehabilitate and assist with reintegration, particularly in a country as large as Indonesia.

BNPT representatives, probation officers, and civil society practitioners do their best to visit former prisoners convicted of terrorism offences after they’re released, but distance and travel times mean that frequency is patchy at best. Unstable internet connections and a lack of effective devices may be obstacles, but holding regular online meetings where groups of reintegrating extremists share their experiences could prove a constructive exercise, for example.

While we may be thoroughly tired of Zoom meetings as we near the end of 2020, when real-world interactions eventually resume, the broad normalisation of videoconferencing promises to be a useful development. For processes of rehabilitation, on-screen discussions can never replace in-person connections, but they can certainly be a convenient supplement enabling more regular engagement.