Treading the path from terror to repentance

Ex-terrorist commander now works to deradicalize fellow Muslims

Nasir Abas (photo by siktus harson)

When a bomb ripped a Bali nightclub apart in 2002, killing more than 200 people and sending shockwaves across the globe, Nasir Abas realised he needed an exit plan. Having homed in on the Middle East as the principal spawning ground for extremism, the international community suddenly learned of the growing terrorist threat in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Nasir was a key part of this threat.

As a senior member of the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist outfit Jamaah Islamiyah (JI), Nasir underwent three years of training in militant camps in Afghanistan and scouted possible sites for JI bases across Asia. In 1990 he became a weapons instructor at the academy in Afghanistan, and was then elevated to the seat of commander of JI’s Mantiqi 3, covering Sabah, Kalimantan, and Central and North Sulawesi in Indonesia, and Mindanao in the Philippines. It was his colleagues who engineered the Bali blast, having become the largest and most feared Islamic militant group in Indonesia.

“All I felt at the time was anger, confusion, and other mixed feelings. I could not believe that JI members used bombs,” he tells, explaining that the attack was an unacceptable move in the group’s fight to carve out an Islamic state in Indonesia.

The shock of the attack and the thoughts that sped through his mind in the following days came as something of an epiphany. It precipitated a sea change in Nasir’s thinking about violence in the name of Islam, and 12 years on, he is now spearheading a programme to deradicalize Indonesian terrorist convicts.

Backing the program is the government’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), working alongside Sarlito Wirawan Sarwono, head of police studies at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta.

Abas has weathered threats from other JI members, who consider his work traitorous, and penned the book, Inside Jamaah Islamiyah: A Former Member’s True Story, which details his life in the group.

Around 100 militants have gone through the program since it launched two years ago. One of these, Ahmad Sajuri, knew Abas from his JI days. As a 22-year-old in 1986, Ahmad travelled to Afghanistan and underwent three years of training in a mujahedin camp. Returning to his native Malaysia, he joined the terrorist outfit as a clerk, before being jailed in 2001 for five years on charges related to terrorist threats in Singapore and Malaysia.

“The recruitment of terrorists doesn’t stop,” says the 50-year-old father of seven. “To counter it we need an approach that really explores the life of perpetrators.” He says the approach taken by the program “helps soften the radical mindset of many Jamaah Islamiyah militants”, many of whom have been convicted following bombings and other violent attacks.

The team reaches out to university students, whom they deem to be particularly susceptible to radical teachings, and explains the processes and influences that often lead to someone becoming a militant. Workshops have taken place in various towns and cities across Indonesia – Nasir brings with him terror convicts to share their experiences and explain the psyche of the militant.

There is also a strong propaganda element that Nasir says encourages convicts or would-be terrorists to understand that “Islam is a religion of peace, not violence.” He adds: “We tour around with a police guard to see how non-Muslims care about Muslims.”

Despite the plaudits the program has received, funding is low (the government allocates only five percent of its budget to counterterrorism programs) and its scope remains limited. Ansyaad Mbai, head of the BNPT, said in March that the police had detained about 840 terrorists since the Bali bombing in 2002. Hundreds have yet to join the program, and instead remain confined to their jail cells, their radical mindsets intact.

Adrianus Meliala, an expert on terrorism at the University of Indonesia, said in a seminar recently that the fight against terrorism had become a political issue. “Fighting terrorism in the next few years will depend on who will be elected president in 2014,” he said, adding that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had done well to prioritize the anti-terror drive during his tenure.

Meliala also says that key stumbling blocks in the battle to eliminate terrorism are also found in the fact that the moderate Muslim majority allows extremist Muslim groups to infiltrate public institutions such as religious centers and schools. He also criticized the government for not acting to shut down blogs or sites that broadcast radical teachings, unlike its ongoing all-out war against online pornography.

There is also the matter of complicity of security forces. Sidney Jones, head of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said at a seminar in Jakarta last month that since 2005 many sharia bylaws have been passed by local politicians, many of them belonging to the Golkar Party and the ruling Democratic Party.

She added that radical groups continue to grow because elites in national police have not ordered them to be stopped, “and also because sometimes the police use those groups.”

For Abas, the terrain is pockmarked with uncertainties. “I don’t know what lies in their heart,” he says of the people who pass through his program each year. “I do hope through this program the extremists will open their minds and let God choose them to become an instrument of peace once they are freed.”

Published at UCAN, Nov.3 2013

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