"Everyone has the right to be prejudiced against me, and everyone has the right to distrust me because of my past sins. But I also have the right to defend myself and prove that I have changed. The best proof is to show performance or work."
Arif Budi Setyawan, a former convicted terrorist in Indonesia, wrote the above passage in an article titled "Twists and turns into Credible Voices: Reflections on Four Years of Freedom" — a marker of four years since his release from prison on charges of involvement in the Islamic State terrorist group.
In Indonesia, the National Counterterrorism Agency estimates that there were approximately 17,000 members, families and sympathizers of several terrorist organizations as of 2021. This includes around 1,300 people who have been arrested and imprisoned on terrorism charges since the Bali Bombing in 2002 which killed 202 people, mostly foreigners. In 2012, the Indonesian government implemented a so-called "deradicalization" program for terrorist convicts so that they could return to a path of peace and abandon the ideology of violence. Setyawan is among hundreds of former terrorists who have undergone the program and subsequently left terrorist groups.
Storytelling as deradicalization
Today, former terrorist convicts are now able to share their stories of radicalization and deradicalization through outlets like ruangobrol.id, a digital platform that focuses on issues of radicalism and terrorism.
Ruangobrol.id was founded in 2018 by a group of researchers, journalists, and former terrorists to ensure that stories like Setyawan’s were being told. The media platform was established under the auspices of PT. Kreasi Prasasti Perdamaian, a social enterprise that uses creative approaches to address social issues.
Noor Huda Ismail, an academic and researcher who helped launch ruangobrol.id, refers to this community as "credible voices" whose testimonies and life experiences can be used to fight against the terrorism movement itself. Their voices and experiences have high credibility among individuals who are also former terrorists or are at risk of joining terror groups, and play an important role when it comes to combating radicalization.
"Ruangobrol.id is designed to further assist former terrorists integrating into society and stem recidivism," said Ismail.
The importance of sharing stories
Ruangobrol.id provides a platform for researchers and contributors to publish their work in the form of articles, news, comics, books, podcasts and more, explained Eka Setyawan, a researcher and editor for the site. In addition to offering a way of reconciliation for former terrorists, the outlet also presents an alternative narrative from the large amount of information circulating regarding the issue of radicalism and terrorism, which mostly ignores the testimonies of the perpetrators themselves.
"We see the need to explore the stories of credible voices. The goal is to have richer information about what really happened, in the context of why and how someone became involved in terrorism. How were they when they were still in the violent group? How were they able to get out of the group?" said Setyawan. "Hopefully their stories can be a lesson for various groups, whether it's young people, parents and even state officials, to better understand the dynamics of the circle of terror group that is happening in Indonesia and even globally."
In addition to its website, the 21-person team at ruangobrol.id also reaches its audience on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. It also recently collaborated with Facebook to prevent the spread of radical narratives on social media platforms. "If there are several keywords related to terrorism typed on Facebook, they will automatically be redirected to ruangobrol.id’s website," said Setyawan.
In 2021, ruangobrol.id received an award from the Austrian Embassy in Jakarta for its role in suppressing acts of terrorism in Indonesia. Through the news narration that routinely explores the life experiences of ex-terrorism convicts, the Embassy said in a statement, ruangobrol.id is able to increase public awareness of the dangers of terrorism propaganda.
Seven years ago, Syarafina Nailah, 26, followed her family to Syria to join the Islamic State. When she lived there, Nailah and her family faced economic uncertainty and were often filled with fear due to the frequent violence. The combination of these factors made her realize the reality of the Islamic State’s propaganda, and that their proposed concern for the welfare of their members was false. In 2017, Nailah’s family returned to Indonesia where they feared being ostracized. Ruangorol.id gave Nailah a second chance, however, allowing her to contribute to media that fights against narratives of radicalism and terrorism.
"Humans are not free from mistakes," said Nailah. "I am grateful to be able to work for ruangobrol.id for peace through the comics that I draw."
Similar to Nailah, Setyawan realized the errors of his past ways, and now has the opportunity to clear his name by contributing to the public through peaceful outreach. He has written hundreds of articles since joining ruangorol.id in 2018, some of which include his experiences and reflections on when he joined a terrorist group. Setyawan also writes books, and speaks at seminars and workshops related to the counter terrorism program.
"I want people to understand this issue better so that they can prevent themselves and the people around them from being easily exposed to radical ideas," said Setyawan.
Counter radicalism movement
Ruangobrol.id was originally only created to accommodate the writings of former convicted terrorists. The site has since transformed into a counter-terrorism movement that hosts a variety of outreach activities.
Together with PT. Kreasi Prasasti Perdamaian, ruangobrol.id produces documentaries like Jihad Selfie, Pengantin, and Cubs of Caliphate, among others, and organize film screenings of them. The outlet also hosts trainings on terrorism financing, and eco-printing workshops for housewives, including wives and former female terrorist convicts. "Currently we are compiling a new book on terror group financing, containing stories from three credible voices," said Setyawan.
Setyawan believes that through educational activities ruangobrol.id is performing its duty of keeping people informed about the dangers that accompany joining a terrorist group. “There are many pro-radicalism and terrorism narratives out there, especially on social media. We can't be silent. That's why we try to educate people to choose the path of peace, instead of violence," he said.