March 15, 2018

Associate Professor Julie Chernov Hwang Discusses Her New Book “Why Terrorists Quit”

Through interviews with current and former leaders and followers of radical Islamist groups in Indonesia, Hwang’s book examines why terrorists decide to leave their organizations of terror and how the state can help them reintegrate into nonterrorist society.

  • Julie Chernov-Hwang

Julie Chernov Hwang is an associate professor of political science and international relations in the Center for People, Politics, and Markets at Goucher. She studies the dynamics of terrorist groups, and her first book, Peaceful Islamist Mobilization in the Muslim World, looked at nonviolent political Islamist movements in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey. One reviewer called it "A very timely piece of work that is essential reading not only for scholars studying Islam and politics but also policymakers and diplomats who have to deal with societies with substantially Muslim populations."

In her latest book, she gets a view from closer to the ground. Why Terrorists Quit offers an outline of the elements that lead to the disengagement of active Jihadis. Her research for her latest book included more than 100 interviews with 55 current and former Islamic extremists, and the book tells in depth the stories of several of them. We spoke with Dr. Chernov Hwang about what she learned and how it applies to other extremist groups around the world. 

Goucher: I guess the first thing I'd like to know is how did you go about finding people to interview?

Chernov Hwang: When I was doing the research for my first book, I came to know certain Indonesians who were starting to do research on this in 2006, or they were starting terrorist rehabilitation NGOs. As I was trying to figure out the extent to which I wanted to do this research, they were building their NGOs and developing their contacts.

Then around 2010, I did a fieldwork trip to the Poso district with two co-researchers. Poso had been a hub of communal violence in Indonesia and [Muslim extremist group] Jemaah Islamiyah had established ties to local groups. We realized at the end of this fieldwork trip that actually the person we most needed to work through was the former student of my late co-researcher. She had been a human rights activist in the district during the violence. She was like an older sister to many [former jihadists], and through her, we were able to get access and then we built those relationships together.  

When I shared the focus of the research with them, my Indonesian colleagues who had been building their NGOs and embarking on their own research agendas liked what they heard and offered to introduce me to some of their contacts. It snowballed from there.

Goucher: Now, was that difficult? These folks are telling you things that could get them in a great deal of trouble in all sorts of ways, not only with the government, but possibly with their former comrades. Was it difficult to get them to open up? 

Chernov Hwang: Well, that's why you go back more than once. So someone talks to you, and perhaps they may have a general pat story.  Then you go back again and maybe you just hang out and then again a year or so later. Over time, you build a relationship. At a certain point, they feel that they can trust you, and then they share fuller stories. 

And as far as the dangers to them from their comrades, I would say that there wasn't much, because within Jemaah Islamiyah and its affiliates, there were people who were pro-bombing and there was also a larger circle that was anti-bombing. So you could go from pro-bombing to anti-bombing, and still live under the JI umbrella. In point of fact, in 2005, JI sloughed off the pro-bombing wing and it splintered from JI and formed its own cell, and they called themselves Al Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago, which was about admiration rather than affiliation.

Goucher: Were there things that surprised you as you started meeting these men?

Chernov Hwang: How ordinary they were. I think of all of the people I met, there were only maybe two who I think had the eyes I was expecting. I was expecting dead eyes. These were ordinary people and I think that that surprised me. Some of them were closed and not sharing. But most of the time they did have something that they wanted to share, since I was looking at the pathway out and how they came to the decision that they did not want to participate in acts of violence. I wasn't asking them about their participation in bombing X, I wasn't interrogating them. I was asking them about this change that they went through.

Goucher: Maybe this is a good place to get into your work. So you've identified these four common elements of disengagement. What are they and how do they work together?

Chernov Hwang: Well, the linchpin of successful disengagement is the establishment of an alternative social network of friends and family and mentors who can act as a counterweight to the in-group friends who might be inviting you to participate in this or that.

And that alternative social network doesn't replace the existing network, it simply counterbalances it, and can help facilitate a priority shift, where you decide "You know what? I was in jail for eight years. My wife is a really decent person, she stayed with me for eight years, she wanted to go to college. You know what? I'm not going to follow my friend and run up the mountain and join the East Indonesia Holy Warriors and go play jihadi. I'm going to provide for my family, and that's where I am right now. That was my life; this is my life now."

It can make you want to focus on building a career and building a profession and those priority shifts, the familial priority shifts, the career-based priority shifts, would be the second component.

The other component, which is written about in the literature, is a sense of disillusionment. For a lot of people, the first inklings where they decide that they want to disengage come from being disillusioned, and that can be with the tactics, leaders, in-group friends who become much more radical than you are comfortable with. It can be with a particular operation or your own role and your own inability to listen to your conscience. But in Indonesia, it's not enough. You could be disillusioned eight ways from Sunday and it's not enough without these the first two factors.

The fourth component would be cost-benefit analysis, and this is a broader Jemaah Islamiyah and Jemaah Islamiyah affiliates narrative, which is the costs of bombing outweigh the benefits. Whenever we try to do an action, our people are caught, our materials are confiscated. Now is not the time, Indonesia is not the place.

Goucher: The way I tried to understand cost benefit was as a sort of realization that "This is not the most effective way to achieve our goals." Is that correct?

Chernov Hwang: I think for JI and the larger groups, yes, it was, "This is not the way to achieve our goals. We need to build up our support base. We need to preach, we need to teach, we need to convince people to come to our side. The costs are too much." But in Poso, where 23 of my cases come from, a lot of these guys had gone to jail for their actions, and when they went in, their city had all these burned buildings. 

When they got out of jail, their city was alive again and new buildings were being built and they were having festivals and people were out and about and there was a palpable dynamism. You can either be part of rebuilding your city, or… what? And that was the realization, that the context was different. You had a war context before, it's now a peace context.

Goucher: Can this model of disengagement be applied to other groups?

Chernov Hwang: Oh, yes. If we look at the factors, and we look at John Horgan’s work on the IRA and Tore Bjørgo on Scandinavian skinheads ... You find that disillusionment, cost-benefit analysis, priority shifts all play a role, and relationships play a role as well. They're just outsized in the Indonesian case.  If you look at Christian Piccolini’s book, White American Youth, about his disengagement from an extreme right gang in Chicago, relationships were the linchpin there as well.

This tells us Indonesia is not so unique and Islamist extremist groups are not so unique. People who leave extremist groups or go inactive in extremist groups need that alternative social network.

Goucher: In terms of the alternative social network, I was really struck by the story of, you call him "BR." He just starts hanging out with this group, the Struggle for Women's Equality.

Chernov Hwang: Yeah, it was in his neighborhood, it was something to do.

Goucher: Which would seem, I guess, in opposition to his previous beliefs. It seems like a weird place for him to suddenly decide, "Oh, I think I'll hang out here."

Chernov Hwang: Well, by his account, he found it to be a very useful place to get information. He's in a small neighborhood, and the group set up shop there; they're talking in a way that he hadn't heard before. He starts going there and hanging out there, at first to get information, and then he realizes he likes the people. And he especially like A.B. And then she asks him, "Hey, take me here, take me there."

I think it was something to do. It was a different way. He had already participated in the political assassination of [a prosecutor on his way home from church] and he'd felt the stirrings of disillusionment. He'd felt, "This isn't right, I shouldn't be doing this." But he didn't have the mental wherewithal at the time to say, "I'm out." He was still in that groupthink.

But this shows us there was a part of him who wanted a different way, who wanted a fuller picture of the Poso conflict and this was an alternative community for him. I think that they genuinely cared about him, not just A.B., but the others as well. Because they took on the risks of hiding him. And from them, he was able to learn an alternative perspective on the conflict.

Goucher: Something that struck me about him and about many of the people you spoke to is that they don't do these things lightly. I mean, and I don't know how much of that is your writing about them and your interviewing of them, but they seem to enter into these things thoughtfully, in a way that ... I don't know, was surprising, somehow.

Chernov Hwang: I think that most do. Ali Imron, who participated in the Bali bombing was someone for whom it was all very simple. "I want to be like my big brother." That was what prompted him to get involved to the extent he did.

But for many others, they really didn't take it lightly. They thought very deliberately about what they were doing at many different steps from joining to participating in terror attacks to disengaging. And I think Ali Fauzi is interesting because he's from the same extended family as Ali Imron, but he is thinking very deliberately at just about every step of what he's doing. To the point where he gets an order and he says, "No, I'm not going to do that."  When he’s invited to participate in a bombing, he refuses.

And that showed a lot of sense of self that I think the others didn't have. Many of them followed along, even though they internally knew it was wrong. They actually argued about it. However, ultimately many went along and deferred to seniors.  There's this concept, sami’na wa atho’na, which is "I hear and I obey," so throughout the book, one of the reasons disillusionment isn't sufficient for disengagement  is that your sense of obeying your seniors, or your older brother, can trump your own internal sense of right and wrong. 

Goucher: And Ali Imron was the one who sort of demanded that you use his real name, right? Why was that so important to him?

Chernov Hwang:  Ali Imron wrote a book about his life. He feels that he made this mistake in participating in the bombings, but the reason he is alive today is to keep others from making the same mistake. So he will talk his story to the end of time if it keeps others from making his mistakes, and he feels that that is his responsibility in this life. And so for him, it was imperative.

Goucher: So in terms of the programs that you looked at, which was I guess how you began on this path: As far as disengagement, were they effective?

Chernov Hwang: I think the civil-society-based programs—Ali Fauzi's Mutual Aid Society, the Institute for International Peace Building—I think those were effective in doing what they needed to do on small scale. I think the fact that they were able to foster those priority shifts and help facilitate the new relationships—I think those were effective. The government programming, post 2010, less so.

Goucher: You write in the preface about an interview with a guy who had not disengaged. 

Chernov Hwang: Yeah, "Yuda." He was one of four who had not.

Goucher: What struck you about those interviews? Were they different from the others who were out of that life?

Chernov Hwang: I was struck by the fact that their families were behind them. They supported their continued participation in violence. For example, Yuda’s mother told him that if he surrendered, they would kill him. For the longest time, I did not know if she meant the police would kill him or his parents. In 2016, I had the opportunity to meet him again and he confirmed it was his parents.  Another guy, who came from a Jemaah Islamiyah family--his parents, his brothers, his sisters were all in it-- told me that his father’s dream for him was to die a martyr.  How do you get beyond that?

It goes back to the importance of developing those alternative networks of support outside the movement. B.R. disengaged and has been reintegrating with the full support of his mom, his siblings, AB and her circle, and his pre-conflict friends. He has this huge support network. Yuda had none of that.

Disengagement and reintegration are possible. However, you can’t underestimate the importance of family support and the power of friendships and relationships in those transitions.

Interview by Chris Landers