Navigator Insights

Engaging with extremists

Central to my tool kit of business skills has been my ability to engage with all stakeholder groups.  I was fortunate to have learned the foundations of my tradecraft in the diplomatic service for New Zealand where obtaining information to leverage opportunities for the country was at the forefront of any good diplomat.  My four years in Indonesia gave me an opportunity to engage with a spectrum of groups including former radicals and extremists.

A number of countries around the world continue to undertake what they call ‘de-radicalisation’ programmes where effort and resources are made to de-radicalise young men who given their backgrounds and in most cases poverty stricken circumstances went to countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan to be ‘schooled’ in the art of extremism and radicalism.  Some go on to become mujahedeen fighters around the world or terrorists.

Following the Bali 1 bombings of 2002, Indonesia was no different – it threw significant resources at its de-radicalisation programme turning thousands of men back to mainstream Islam and in some cases Christianity (some radical Christians were joining the inter-religious wars on Maluku or Sulawesi).  It took years and significant resources but as the most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia’s leaders understood the need for its own internal security and its responsibility in the global fight against extremism in whatever form.

New Zealand had its own small part to play.  Low level, but equally important.  Much of it was face to face.  We were and continue to be a trusted listener.  Our independent foreign policy was well known amongst the radicals and our multiculturalism to them ‘real.’   Think about it – I was a Samoan born, New Zealand diplomat, who spoke Bahasa Indonesian, had a beard and long hair (ok, grew it to fit in!), and who at the first and second meeting didn’t ask questions but sought to build a rapport.  It was about the long term relationship, not the short term gain.

I was fortunate to have been part of a well-known international effort in supporting Indonesian efforts.  I had a number of ‘contacts’ with a couple who were at the extreme end of the spectrum.  One of them was a former Afghanistan Mujahedeen trainer, Nasir Abas.  He is a Malaysian who received his “calling” to support his Muslim brothers in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.  His exploits within the J.I. terrorist network has over recent years become public.  His de-radicalisation is one of the most successful in Indonesia leading to stopping more young Indonesians going overseas and his intel led to the capture or killing of well-known terrorists across Southeast Asia including those who participated in the Bali 1 and 2 bombings, bombing of the Australian Embassy (Jakarta) and various hotel and church bombings across Indonesia.

Abas still travels overseas with a protection entourage speaking to those who wish to hear his story. I last saw him a couple of years after leaving Jakarta at Singapore airport having a latte at Starbucks.  I said hi to him and asked after his young family.  He asked after my former boss.  We chatted for a couple of minutes; he commented on how well I looked being out of the stressful environment of Jakarta.  I joked about the last time I saw him some publisher was turning him into a “comic book superhero” for schools and pesantren’s (Muslim religious schools).  He said “Whatever we need to fight evil, my brother.” Assalamualaikum (may peace be upon you) were the last words I said to him.

As I walked away to catch my plane, I looked back and saw a visual that still remains – a former mujahedeen trainer, former leader in South East Asia’s leading extremist network, police informant, now leading peace advocate with a price on his head, and now having a Starbucks latte, showing photos on his Nokia phone to his travelling partner, his white robe accompanied by his Adidas bag, and about to catch a plane to another country trying his best to get more young men to see ‘right from wrong, good from evil.’

So when New Zealand businesses seek my services about how difficult it is to engage with their clients or stakeholders; I can’t help but grin.

Our Navigator Partner Peter Fa’afiu is an experienced executive with governance covering human rights, media and education.