Noor Huda Ismail
Ashoka Fellow since 2013   |   Indonesia

Noor Huda Ismail

Yayasan Prasasti Perdamaian
In the midst of emerging radicalism often leading to terrorism, Noor Huda Ismail is developing the means to reincorporate former terrorists back into Indonesian society by bringing them through a…
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This description of Noor Huda Ismail's work was prepared when Noor Huda Ismail was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


In the midst of emerging radicalism often leading to terrorism, Noor Huda Ismail is developing the means to reincorporate former terrorists back into Indonesian society by bringing them through a reconciliation process, allowing them to safely transition back into their communities to live normal and productive lives.

The New Idea

Noor Huda, by understanding that in the terrorist network there are different groups with different roles, focuses on 80 percent of the potential and existing terrorist groups, which includes three main groups: control groups that consist of young students in pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools), “cheerleaders,” those who operate on the fringes of the network, and the operators themselves. The remaining 20 percent are made up of the ideologues, considered the most extreme, and usually, unreachable. The network is based primarily on social interactions in which individuals are tied to each other through their kinship, discipleship (teachers/supervisors), worship, and friendship. By breaking down these bonds, Noor Huda tries to shift their existing alliances.

In reaching out to them, Noor Huda is developing different processes in accordance to where these groups are in the terrorist scouting process, such as the consecutive stages of pre-detention, detention, or post-detention. In the pre-detention process, Noor Huda develops a tracking system in which he learns from the dossier, by monitoring the court, by studying the integration, and by cross checking with the level of pre-detainees former network. Noor Huda further observes their level of engagement in the network and creates a “heart connection” at the detention stage. This allows him to influence the former detainees and to change their network at the post-detention stage. As an early detection system and to develop a counter-narrative against the ideologues, Noor Huda reaches out to young people at the pesantren, the secular high schools, and the Rohis (student Islam group). Through different activities including journalism, training, and civic education, Noor Huda is promoting critical thinking and character building, especially for malleable young students who can be easily swept into the terrorist network by radicals.

Noor Huda is building a more humane, alternative model to rehabilitate ex-detainees by attempting to reintegrate them into society. This stands in contrast to the current government’s security-based approach, where upon their release ex-detainees are monitored by intelligence officers and are required to periodically report back to the authorities. Noor Huda applies a Jesuit approach learned during his schooling, to win their hearts, hands (welfare) and heads (ideology). He is introducing meaningful employment for the ex-detainees at different levels, which range from being cooks in kitchens to managers at offices. These outlets, which are led by the ex-detainees, employ young people who are dropouts, orphans, or economically disadvantaged. In the terrorist networks, this group has the potential to be a different kind of cheerleader. In Islam, caring for orphans and the poor is important, which appeals to the ex-detainees. Furthermore, it allows social interaction with a wide array of customers and a sense of responsibility for others. Gradually, the ex-detainees open up to different values, new perspectives, and new networks.

The Problem

In 2007, the International Crisis Group (ICG) reported that the deradicalization program in Indonesian prisons succeeded in making two dozen former Jamaah Islamiah (JI) members cooperate with the police. Additionally, 450 terror suspects were sent to jail. By 2012, however, the police arrested more than 700 terror suspects and 650 people have been sentenced, incarcerated, and released. However, around 225 of these people have unfortunately returned to their network and were apprehended once again for their involvement in terrorist activities at a higher level. It is estimated that around 200 detainees, which is double the amount in 2012, will finish their sentence and will be released in 2014. Though the government has been routinely successful in finding terrorist suspects and sending them to prison, this practice allows them to connect with each other and reinvigorates recidivism to take place inside the prisons.

Urwah, for example, was sentenced to three years in prison for concealing a Malaysian terrorist, Noordin M. Top. He was only considered to be one of the “cheerleaders” in the periphery of the terrorist network when he was first sent to jail. However, once in jail, he became more radical and upon his release he amplified his role, acting as an executor of several bombings. Noordin was killed during a police raid in 2009. The teachings and the strong bonds established between the terrorists inside the prison led to continuing interactions outside. The prisons also allow anyone to visit the detainees. For example, those who have been released make regular visits to ensure that the detainees maintain their commitment to radical causes. As terrorists, they are placed higher in the social hierarchy of their groups and thus receive solidarity support through prison visits from their friends, relatives, and admirers. This support enables them to maintain their spirit of jihad.

A great number of the detainees were actually sympathizers who became involved on the fringes of the radical movement, in contrast to the ideologues and actors. As it stands, the prison system in Indonesia is not well prepared to deal with convicts of terrorism; there is no system of separation of terrorists from other criminals, and the interactions within the prison create an open market place for ideas to spread. Those who were initially only sympathizers become more deeply indoctrinated by the influence of ideologues. These people are also recruited and maintained for deeper involvement through kinship, discipleship, worship, and/or fellowship.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Justice does not have effective post-detention care to assist the released prisoners on reentering society. Upon their release from prison, ex-detainees are left isolated, given no support or rehabilitation. While the police use a reactive approach; apprehend the same or new terrorist suspects once they’ve committed terrorist acts again, whereas many citizen organizations (COs) do not even attempt to work on the issue of ex-detainees, either on the basis of prejudice or perceived risk. The resulting marginalization and discrimination of ex-detainees was identified as one of the factors causing them to seek out their former colleagues upon their release. All these factors contribute to their recidivism. In fact, the Bali bombers were initially sympathizers who were recruited and then “promoted” as operators. Noor Huda perceived the Bali bombings as an entry-point for him to start working on the problem.

The Strategy

Noor Huda recognized a key gap in the system: assisting ex-detainees in assimilating back into society through a safe and sustainable way, most often through providing meaningful employment. Noor Huda is applying a citizen-based approach, independent from the government and religious groups, which if affiliated with these groups would trigger suspicion, apprehension, or even opposition from the potential participants. In order to prevent ex-detainees from reconnecting with their previous reference groups and getting involved in illegal activities once again, Noor Huda devised an appropriate follow-up program. Noor Huda sets up services for ex-detainees who fall within the “cheerleader” category, providing them with alternatives to rejoining their previous colleagues, recognizing that this group might still be open to alternatives, this includes the sympathizers whose sentences are relatively shorter and might be considered for early release on parole. The people who Noor Huda provides services for are not hardcore ideologues or operatives who are deeply ingrained in the movement.

This first step toward working with ex-detainees is to win their trust. In order to do this, Noor Huda and his colleagues visit the detainees in jail to establish personal relationships and to discuss their future. In building these relationships with the inmates, Noor Huda is able to use his experience from having been a pesantren student to relate with the inmates, showing them that alternative life paths are possible to people who come from such backgrounds. In addition, Noor Huda and his colleagues also study up on the backgrounds and personal histories of the detainees by obtaining copies of their police interrogation dossiers.

When the background investigation confirms the potential of the “candidate”, the next step upon their release is the disengagement from their original reference group or organization. One way to achieve this is through their engagement in activities that are not only economically viable and provide them with an adequate income, but should also be personally engaging and meaningful. In addition, the activity should provide ample opportunities for interactions with a diverse range of people as a way of overcoming their ideological stereotypes.

The ex-detainees are reintroduced to society through business enterprises. Initially, Noor Huda experimented with setting up both a fish farm in the north coast of Java and a car-rental operation in Jakarta. However, these experiments were not successful and the individuals put in charge did not stay. Another experiment was an activity in making and selling screen-printed t-shirts. However, this small enterprise also proved unsuccessful since the person in-charge produced t-shirts printed with terrorist slogans. Noor Huda realized these enterprises were not conducive to the organization’s overall effort of rehabilitating ex-detainees. Reflecting on these failures, Noor Huda concluded that one important component that missing was the social interaction with others. He thought he could accomplish the social interaction piece by focusing on the culinary sector. For the last two years, Noor Huda has set up a bakery, two restaurants, and several smaller food stalls have been started and are doing well through support given by an international chef and his network; they are being managed by ex-detainees. The ex-detainees have been trained by Noor Huda and his team, and are given a sense of ownership through shares in the businesses in which they work. He then relies on the ex-detainees who have shown the most success through this rehabilitation, to recruit others into the program.

Presently, the businesses are running mostly by themselves and are not operated by the Yayasan Prasasti Perdamaian (The Institute for International Peace Building-YPP), Noor Huda’s foundation established in 2008. However, Noor Huda is already planning to spread this idea to other locations and engage others to hire ex-detainees. So far, of ten ex-detainees and over twenty dropouts employed in the restaurant businesses, none have returned to their previous comrades.

Noor Huda has also started new initiatives, including in-prison trainings for the prison officers. Noor Huda has reached eight prisons where terrorist detainees are sentenced. He also runs writing workshops and journalism trainings at pesantrens and other public high schools to prevent similar influences at an early stage. Besides being an opportunity to develop and maintain his relations with the pesantrens, Noor Huda expects that some of the class discussions will contribute to the development of a wider perspective on the part of the santri (students of the pesantren).

Noor Huda’s wider strategy is to change public opinion about the people involved in terrorism by conducting advocacy campaigns through studies, publications, and presentations at meetings and conferences, and networking with other organizations, using the media and direct lobbying of government officials and the legislature to influence policy decisions. Through YPP, Noor Huda and his colleagues screened a documentary, “Prison and Paradise,” made by one of his colleagues, in 37 cities in Indonesia. Noor Huda invited members of the local committees to the shows, which include CO activists and academics. He also extends invitations to activists and academics to come to Semarang and see the former detainees’ social enterprises. The concrete outcome of these meetings has been the establishment of the Jaringan Masyarakat Sipil Peduli Perdamaian (Civil Society Peace Network).

Through his contacts with ex-detainees, current detainees, and the pesantren, Noor Huda has access to a rich network and source of information on the activities in the world of radical Islamic activism. This is part of his tracking system and can actually act as an early warning system. As a result, Noor Huda has become a maven in the field and is often sought out by the media and other parties in the field of anti-terrorism. In spreading the impact of his work, Noor Huda is preparing to replicate his idea in Poso, Central Sulawesi. Recently, he has also developed a cooperation and partnership with Google Southeast Asia to facilitate a wider dialogue and discourse on peace. He is also in early discussions to duplicate his model for gang members in Chicago.

The Person

Noor Huda’s parents were civil servants in Solo, Central Java. A lasting impression that Noor Huda has of his mother is that she set an example of caring for people by taking the less fortunate and disadvantaged into their home, and supporting their education. For young Noor Huda, this was an ongoing lesson in empathy and sharing. After finishing primary school, Noor Huda was sent by his father to pursue further education at the Al Muknim Pesantren of Ngruki in Solo, Central Java, where he spent his formative years. He excelled as a student and was a natural leader; making many friends. Due to his strong academic and personal performance, Noor Huda was recruited for a “scholarship” in Afghanistan, but was then rejected because he did not meet the criteria, not proving to align enough with the radical ideals of the group in Afghanistan. His strong discipline and religious education at the Pesantren has undoubtedly made a lasting impact on Noor Huda’s personality.

While at Ngruki, Noor Huda was inducted into the Darul Islam (DI) movement and was still a member while pursuing his further studies at the Institut Agama Islam Negeri (State Institute of Islamic Studies), the Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta, where he studied Arab Literature and Communications, and at the Gajah Mada University where he studied Communications and Journalism. However, in 1989, there was a rift in the DI, not only internally, but also with other radical Islamic groups. As the unhealthy rivalry continued and the different factions accused each other, Noor Huda became disillusioned and left the organization.

Noor Huda then pursued a more secular path. He graduated from the Gajah Made University in 1999. His first job was as a tour leader for tourists in the city of Yogjakarta. Although he only worked in that role for a short time, the job opened his mind and exposed him to tourists from many different nationalities and backgrounds. He then went to Jakarta and worked as the chief of Marketing Communication for the Jakarta Convention Center until 2002. Realizing that he had had enough working as a capitalist, Noor Huda became a stringer for the Southeast Asia office of The Washington Post from 2002 to 2005.

It was then that he was assigned to cover the story of the Bali Bombings and its aftermath in 2002. Noor Huda was astounded to find out that one of the perpetrators was his roommate during school. This made a lasting impression on him and he would later credit this event as a turning point in his life. He continued to question why some of his friends turned to violence and this question guided his life decisions. The following year Noor Huda applied and was granted a scholarship to pursue a degree at St. Andrews University, Scotland, where he focused on International Security, including the phenomenon of terrorism. Noor Huda enjoyed not only his formal studies at St. Andrews, which is a Jesuit university, but he was also impressed by their “heart, hand, head” pedagogical approach, which he applies to his work with ex-detainees today.

During Noor Huda’s time in Europe he traveled and visited several terrorist hotspots. He met with former members of the Baader Meinhoff gang in Germany, of the Brigatte Rosse in Italy, of the separatist group ETA in Basque, Spain, and several IRA leaders in Northern Ireland, where the reconciliation program initiated by the British government impressed him. Upon return from his studies, he worked as a consultant in risk assessment for companies considering investments in Indonesia. Noor Huda then set up his own research company, Nexus Risk Mitigation and Strategic Communication in 2006. With his approach of “do your research and research what you do,” Noor Huda is developing his work through a trial and error approach with ex-detainees. To further address the issues of radicalization, Noor Huda founded the Institute for International Peace Building in 2008.

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