President Obama didn't stop by Detachment 88 Headquarters during his recent visit to Indonesia, but if he had he would have gained valuable insights into strategies to defeat terrorists before they reach the battlefield.
Detachment 88 is Indonesian police's counter-terrorism unit, and they've had both notable successes and failures in their efforts against the al Qaeda affiliated Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group – all of which provide important counter-terrorism lessons for everyone else. I spent time in the unit's offices during a trip to South-East Asia with a team from the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies (QIASS) tasked with analyzing terrorism risk reduction strategies.
Indonesia was the final leg of our tour across the world during which we met with law enforcement officials, intelligence agencies, and community groups involved in running disengagement programs, as well as former terrorists – to learn what worked on them. Our findings were unveiled at Interpol's November General Assembly and the report was endorsed by the Interpol leadership.
On our travels we met with former terrorists from groups ranging from the IRA in Northern Ireland to JI in Indonesia. While their causes were different, one common theme in their advice was: Don't underestimate how you can reform terrorists while they're in jail and then utilize them against other group members.
"While I was operational I didn't have time to think about what I was doing," one former terrorist said. "I was too busy planning attacks and hiding from police. It was only when I was caught and had time to think did I begin to reflect on what I did." He was a senior member of JI and had worked alongside al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the mastermind of 9.11.