The Jihadis' Tale

  • Share
  • Read Later

When Indonesia's police started cracking the case of last October's deadly Bali bombings, they quickly identified two Islamic militants as playing central roles in the planning and execution. One was a 42-year-old village preacher named Ali Ghufron, also known as Mukhlas, who recruited two of his brothers to help assemble and transport the bombs that killed 193 people. The other was Imam Samudra, 33, a man who spent most of his adult life as a professional militant and was described as the mastermind of the plot. Within weeks, the police managed to apprehend both men. Mukhlas fought back with a sword and scissors before being subdued. Samudra surrendered quietly.

Police now have confessions from both men. TIME has seen the confidential documents. They provide startling revelations about the scale and complexity of the Bali conspiracy, and about the fervor and reach of the people behind it. The confessions help establish for the first time a link between Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda and the Bali bombers, most of whom belong to Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a Southeast Asian network of Islamic militants. Regional security and intelligence agencies have long suspected that al-Qaeda and JI are connected, but until now, they had no verification from JI operatives themselves. The confessions show, too, the surprising depth of JI's roots in Indonesia and describe the leadership role played in the group by one of the country's most charismatic Islamic clerics, Abubakar Ba'asyir.

The confessions also offer a chilling insight into the shadowy, closed universe of Islamic militancy in Southeast Asia—a world in which grimly dedicated, self-proclaimed warriors fight in an apocalyptic global struggle that pits Muslims against what Samudra calls "the international crusade" carried out by the U.S. and its allies. As a senior Western diplomat in Jakarta puts it, the Indonesian investigators "have turned up a JI organization that is probably more intricate and more deeply embedded in Indonesian society than perhaps they or we even thought."

That's an unsettling realization even as the Indonesian authorities continue to prosecute the investigation with an intensity that few outsiders had expected. Last week the second of Mukhlas' brothers, Ali Imron, was arrested (another brother, Amrozi, was the first of the siblings to be detained), along with 12 other Indonesians on the East Kalimantan island of Berukang. That brings the tally of Bali suspects in custody to 17. An interrogation of Imron also led quickly to a raid on the home of an Islamic cleric in central Java, where a cache of weapons and explosives was seized. The rapid progress the authorities are making is commendable, but as the confessions by Mukhlas and Samudra indicate, solving the Bali case alone is not going to end Indonesia's—or Southeast Asia's—terror threat.


The biggest revelation from Mukhlas' 30-page confession concerns al-Qaeda and bin Laden himself. A self-professed senior leader in JI, Mukhlas says that "because of [his] Arabic language skills," he was introduced to bin Laden in a town in Afghanistan called Joji in the late 1980s. Mukhlas doesn't describe the meeting in detail, but does divulge that he and other top JI personnel were careful to nurture these ties to bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the years that followed. And Mukhlas says he believes al-Qaeda money was directly responsible for the bombs set off in Kuta, Bali, which were paid for out of a $25,000 grant provided to the plotters by Riduan (Hambali) Isamuddin, then JI's operations chief. "Since Hambali is not known to have any other big funding sources and because he often goes to Afghanistan," Mukhlas observes, "there is a strong possibility that the source came from Afghanistan, namely Osama bin Laden." In summing up their interrogation of Mukhlas, the Indonesian investigators echo this assertion, categorically concluding: "Jemaah Islamiah's jihad operations were funded by al-Qaeda."

That's a striking assessment, which appears to directly contradict statements by Da'i Bachtiar, Indonesia's national police chief, who has repeatedly denied that investigators have discovered clear ties between JI and al-Qaeda. On Jan. 8, he told reporters in Singapore, "We haven't come to any conclusion yet whether there is a link between Jemaah Islamiah and al-Qaeda." That there is a disconnect between a top official in Jakarta and investigators on the ground comes as no surprise. While Indonesian police have been lauded for their swift rounding up of many key conspirators in the Bali blasts, the stances taken by Indonesia's ranking officials have drawn more mixed reviews. In the months since the October bombings, senior government bureaucrats have sometimes refused to acknowledge that JI existed at all, at other times playing down the group's importance and size. "There's a lot of political pressure to keep Bali contained," explains Zachary Abuza, an American academic in Jakarta whose book on Islamic militancy in Southeast Asia will be published in May. High-level Indonesian politicians would like to see the investigation wrapped up quickly, says Abuza, and blame for the Bali attack placed on a small group acting alone. Hence the reluctance to make the link to bin Laden. "If they say there is an al-Qaeda connection, it opens up a whole new can of worms."

Intriguingly, Indonesian security officers continue to examine another, separate al-Qaeda association with the Bali bombings, regional intelligence sources say. Investigators are still trying to pin down the circumstances under which a hardened al-Qaeda operative named Syafullah came to be present on the island in the days leading up to the blasts. The Yemeni national, who entered Indonesia by using a fake U.S. passport a few days before the explosions in Kuta, is believed to have supervised the fine-tuning of the chemical mixture of the main Bali bomb to achieve maximum impact, leaving Indonesia just hours before the bombs went off. "Anyone can make a bomb," says a source close to the Bali investigation, "but to get that kind of devastating, incinerating explosion you have to really know what you're doing. Many people believe that JI doesn't have that technical expertise—and that Syafullah provided it."

While the Syafullah link is still being investigated, the confessions of Mukhlas and Samudra strongly suggest that al-Qaeda money has been at the heart of JI's growth in recent years, resulting in a deeply entrenched, meticulously organized paramilitary group armed with a fearsome stockpile of weapons that is carefully itemized in the Mukhlas document. The list includes everything from scores of handguns and automatic rifles to mines, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. According to Mukhlas' confession, JI is an impressively organized outfit with its own secret training facility: "The Islamic Military Academy Al-Jama'ah Al-Islamiyyah trains cadets in periods of two years or four semesters at a hidden site called 'Mu'askar.'"


Police believe that "academy" is located somewhere near Solo, the Central Java town in which JI's alleged leader Abubakar Ba'asyir runs an Islamic boarding school. The 64-year-old cleric, who has repeatedly denied any knowledge of JI and any connection to terrorism, has been under detention in Solo and Jakarta since his arrest on Oct. 19. The confessions by Mukhlas and Samudra haven't produced any direct evidence linking Abubakar to the Bali attack, says police general I Made Mangku Pastika, who heads the Bali investigation. And Abubakar says, "I have nothing to do whatsoever with the Bali bomb blasts." But Pastika adds that while investigators might lack direct evidence connecting Abubakar to the Bali attack, they are convinced that at the very least he has been a "teacher and inspiration" to Mukhlas and Samudra.

Rather than implicating others, the confessions are notable for the fact that both men seem intent on taking chief responsibility for JI's acts of terrorism in Indonesia. In Samudra's account, Mukhlas is conspicuously absent at all the planning meetings for the Bali bombings, meetings at which Mukhlas himself says he was present and in command. This is not an effort to inflate their own importance, says terror expert Abuza, but is designed to protect their brothers-in-arms and leaders. "It's part of their contingency plans for arrest," says Abuza. "They're trained to say 'the buck stops with me.' It makes investigators feel good about who they've captured and stops them from looking for responsibility higher up."

Yet the confession by Mukhlas states explicitly that Abubakar is indeed the group's undisputed leader—its emir, in JI-speak. Central to the emir's control of JI is the bai'ah (oath of fealty) that all members are obliged to swear on joining the network. The half-hour pledging ceremony is carried out in groups of four or five seated in a semicircle around the emir. It ends with a handshake—except in the case of women, Mukhlas primly notes. "The bai'ah is very, very important," says a regional intelligence official familiar with the interrogations of JI detainees. "It binds the member to the organization and the idea that the emir knows best and that they have to do his bidding."

According to a detailed breakdown of the JI structure provided by Mukhlas, the emir boasts virtually unchecked powers to appoint and dismiss top leaders, reprimand and punish members, and guide the direction of the network. His followers acknowledge that they will be subject to physical and divine retribution if they break their pledge of loyalty to him. Regional intelligence sources regard the confessions of Mukhlas and Samudra as evidence that Abubakar wields supreme temporal and spiritual authority within JI. Indeed, Mukhlas asserts that it was Abubakar who named him head of JI's mantiqi, or region, covering Sumatra, Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand. Mukhlas' predecessor in this key position was Hambali, who stepped down as JI's regional terror coordinator when he had to go on the run.

For the moment, says Pastika, Abubakar is resolutely refusing to answer his interrogators' questions. But the 51-year-old Balinese native is adamant that Abubakar will be prosecuted, despite speculation in Jakarta that pressure from hard-line Islamic sympathizers at the top levels of President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government could force his release. "He will definitely go on trial for immigration violations and we are gathering evidence in relation to the Christmas bombings in 2000," says Pastika. Abubakar faces a possible prison sentence of six years on charges of leaving the country illegally and longer if he is convicted of playing a role in the string of blasts that left 18 dead and more than 100 wounded on Dec. 24, 2000.


Beyond detailing links to Al-Qaeda and revealing how JI operates, the confessions by Mukhlas and Samudra provide a rare window into how they became radicalized. There is a practical side to their being extremists—networking, planning and training for specific terrorist acts such as Bali's. But there's also an ideological dimension—seeing the world as a black-and-white universe that pits Muslims against nonbelievers, and interpreting Islam in their own way to justify their actions. Unlike, say, many Palestinians or Kashmiris who turn to militancy, neither Mukhlas nor Samudra hail from impoverished or oppressed backgrounds. Mukhlas went to university; Samudra won a government scholarship on graduating from high school. But instead of pursuing mainstream professional lives, they embraced Islamic militancy under the formative influence of their teachers and mentors.

Mukhlas studied at Abubakar's Islamic school in Solo, and Samudra credits a man named Jabir, who is a radical cleric and close friend of Hambali, with sharpening his Islamic belief. Mukhlas and Samudra were also shaped by their experience as jihadis in Afghanistan, the former in the late '80s and the latter in 1990 with al-Qaeda, which honed an acute sense that Muslims everywhere—from Afghanistan to Bosnia to the Middle East—are persecuted by the West. While most Muslims interpret jihad as a daily personal and spiritual battle to be and do good, Mukhlas and Samudra speak of an "offensive" and "frontal" jihad. Indeed, in his confession, Samudra suggests with some frustration that even JI leaders such as Abubakar are too yielding. "I carry out jihad," says Samudra, "because it's the duty of a Muslim to avenge, so [that] the American terrorists and their allies understand that the blood of the Muslim community is not shed for nothing."

An integral part of this duty is the idea of syahid—dying a martyr's death. In his confession, Samudra says he was happy to die himself as part of the Bali attack but was pre-empted by other volunteers. He asserts that Iqbal, a JI foot soldier tasked with carrying the bomb that exploded in Paddy's Irish Pub on Oct. 12, took part in the operation with the full intent of becoming a suicide bomber, even leaving behind a will directed at "all Muslims," which Samudra planned to post on the Internet. Iqbal's action would make him the first recorded suicide bomber in Southeast Asia. An account by a witness to the Paddy's blast raises questions, however, about Iqbal's commitment: it describes how he initially tried to leave a package behind in the bar's toilet, only to return and retrieve it after it was pointed out to him.

Of course, the chief goal of JI operatives like Samudra, Iqbal and Mukhlas is to kill others. That stark truth is underscored in Mukhlas' confession by a list of materials recovered when police arrested him at a hideout in a small village in East Java. Along with several guns, officers also found books, pamphlets and maps that Mukhlas had apparently decided to take with him even on the run. These cherished volumes included The Terrorist's Handbook, How to Manufacture Poisons and How to Make a Bomb, which featured sections on topics like using mobile phones for remote-controlled detonation—the method employed in the biggest explosion in Kuta.

Most disturbing of all, Mukhlas' library shows how carefully organized and entrenched JI's terror network has become. Among his books was a text entitled Year 2000 Military Training Report. Written by a regional JI commander for his superior, it contains such details as the grades achieved by each trainee on the firing range. Mukhlas, like many fellow jihadis, also kept near him another seminal work, the Guide Book to the Cause of Jemaah Islamiah, Volume II: the Directives of Struggle, which outlines the group's aims and tactics. First published in 1996, it underscores how long and patiently JI's leaders have labored to build up the group.

It is possible, of course, that the Indonesian investigators have "hit JI in the heart," says a senior U.S. official in Jakarta, "but maybe that's wishful thinking ... How much is still out there that we don't know about? What is not coming out of the interrogations?" These are questions nobody can answer with any certainty. But the confessions of Samudra and Mukhlas provide a rare glimpse of an organization whose reach and professionalism outstrips what anyone had previously