The Straits Times
Published on Jan 7, 2012
Former detainee in exclusive interview: What JI did was wrong
Barely three months after the terror attacks in Sept 11, 2001, Singaporeans learnt they had home-grown terrorists in their midst. On Jan 6, 2002, they were told that 15 men from the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) had been arrested for plotting terror attacks in Singapore. Ten years on this week, a former Singaporean JI detainee gives Zakir Hussain an exclusive interview about how he came to join the group and his eventual rehabilitation.
IN THE late 1980s, M became more spiritual and wanted to learn Arabic.
His linguistic quest began at the Woodlands flat of self-taught charismatic ‘religious teacher’ Ibrahim Maidin. Another teacher conducted the class but through many discussions after class, M got to know Ibrahim.
And so began his life-changing journey into a secret world of militancy that the soft-spoken man had never known before.
The encounters in the flat led him to the company of extremist Indonesian preachers, a war in Afghanistan and, eventually, a life-changing episode spent in self-reflection and prayer in a detention centre in Singapore.
In recounting his struggles, M, who is now in his 50s, asked to be identified by just this initial to safeguard his privacy and better aid his reintegration.
Ibrahim, M recalls in his e-mail interview with The Straits Times, impressed him with his religious knowledge and his apparent piety from the long white robe he donned.
Ibrahim would later gain notoriety as the leader of the Singapore chapter of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) militant group. Now, 61, the Singaporean remains in detention.
When M first crossed paths with him in the 1980s, he had little inkling of Ibrahim’s affiliations with preachers from the hardline Darul Islam group in Indonesia. In the mid-1980s, following a crackdown by the then-Suharto government, many of them fled to Malaysia, where they continued to propagate their ideology and pursue their dream of setting up an Islamic state.
Ibrahim, at one time a condominium manager, came to know of them and was won over by their teachings. Over the years, dozens of other Singaporeans and Malaysians also became followers.
As their bonds deepened and their numbers grew, they formed a clandestine group, bound by an oath of allegiance and a misunderstanding of what their faith demanded of them. It evolved into the JI and set many of them on a path to battle in Afghanistan, and later, to plotting bomb attacks in Singapore and the region.
Many of them were introduced to the group in the same way M was.
During the interview, M recalls the seemingly innocuous beginnings: Ibrahim suggested that he attend a class conducted by an Indonesian preacher. M did not even know his name but, trusting his friend, agreed readily.
The preacher turned out to be one Abu Jibril – a leading figure in Darul Islam.
His real name is Muhammad Iqbal Abdurrahman. At one time a chief recruiter for the JI, the firebrand cleric was arrested in 2001 by the Malaysian authorities following a crackdown on Islamist militants and was designated a terrorist by the Americans in 2003. Upon his release in 2004, he returned to Indonesia, where he still pushes his message in a mosque just outside Jakarta.
But all M knew then was that the preacher lived in Malaysia.
Before long, M and several others went for an intensive course over a few days. Instructors included Abdullah Sungkar, the founder of the JI, and Abu Bakar Bashir, its spiritual leader who took over.
‘Although many things were taught, the main message put across was there was a need to start a struggle towards establishing an Islamic state,’ says M. ‘This would not be possible without a jemaah (group) and to be inducted into this group, we had to give our bai’ah (pledge of allegiance). This meant that we had to agree, listen to and obey the amir (leader) of the group.
‘The preachers told us that the establishment of an Islamic state must be pursued by waging jihad (struggle). According to the JI’s terminology, this meant the use of armed force to take over control of the state.’
M says he realises now that the interpretations are not in line with what mainstream Muslims believe.
‘I accepted their explanations then because they were charismatic and very convincing,’ he says, recalling the selective use of verses from the Quran by the preachers to push their arguments. ‘The way they presented themselves gave the impression that they were sincere and wanted only the best for Islam.’
Invited to join the group
AFTER the course, he was invited to join a group which he came to know later on as Darul Islam, led by Sungkar.
In the early 1990s, there came a split. Sungkar condemned the Sufi or mystic ways of the group’s Indonesian leader, Anjengan Masduki, as blasphemous. He and his followers started their own group – the JI.
M, meanwhile, remained enthralled by the Indonesian preachers’ tales of persecution and struggles against the Indonesian state, which fired him up even more.
‘The stories they told me of how Suharto oppressed and persecuted those who struggled for an Islamic state, convinced me that they were the ‘good’ guys. I trusted them and did not question whatever they taught me,’ he says.
It was not long before religious discourses at weekly meetings moved on to camping trips in Sedili in Johor, where members took part in military-style exercises and learnt armed combat.
After what was essentially basic training, M was among several picked to go to Afghanistan. In the harsh terrain there, he learnt how to handle firearms and explosives. He was also sent to the battlefront for sentry duties in the war between the Afghan mujahideen and government forces.
The JI leaders saw it as their mission to establish an Islamic state covering much of South-east Asia, and the purpose of sending men to Afghanistan was to prepare them to take up arms, M explains.
On his return, M in turn became an instructor who did as he was told to instil in others unquestioning loyalty to the JI’s leaders.
Before long, doubt crept in.
In part, this had to do with M attending classes with religious teachers here, who were not associated with the JI.
‘Spending more time away from the JI due to work and other activities disrupted my activities with the group. It helped me to form a different opinion of the group whenever I compared them with other religious groups in Singapore,’ he recalls.
Even as his misgivings grew about the JI’s obsession with violence and its willingness to take innocent lives, he found it hard to make a clean break. The oath of allegiance held him back.
‘I did not revoke the bai’ah as I was told that doing so was to commit a sin.’
In late 2001, a Muslim Singaporean got wind of a JI member’s plans and tipped off the authorities. As a result, the local JI network was monitored and broken up, the regional authorities were alerted and more arrests were made across the Causeway.
Over the next year, 36 persons were arrested in Singapore, of whom 31 – M included – were detained in 2002. In later years, more were caught.
Now, M looks back in regret at failing to recognise the JI’s misuse of religious concepts, its distortion of the faith and for not sounding the alarm.
That he was once a part of the JI, whose members dealt death and destruction in their bombings in Bali and Jakarta, is a source of remorse too. Says M: ‘These acts are not jihad; I consider them to be terrorist acts which I condemn.’
Direction of Mecca drawn in detention cell
THE day he was detained in 2002, M was a man riven by doubt and regret.
He had been having second thoughts about his membership in the JI and its belief in violence to create an Islamic state. But he could not bring himself to break his oath of allegiance to it.
‘Rather, I had tried to sweep everything under the carpet,’ he recalls.
In a way, his arrest took the decision out of his hands.
‘When the detention order was served to me, I accepted the danger that I had posed to national security,’ says M, who was a member of the JI’s syura (consultative council) and had received military training in Afghanistan.
On the first day of his detention at the Internal Security Department’s Whitley Road Detention Centre, M was allowed to make a telephone call to his wife.
‘She was deeply worried. I assured her that I was all right,’ he recalls. ‘Subsequently, when I was allowed family visits, my wife and children saw that I was well taken care of. During these visits, I told them that I was allowed to perform my religious obligations, and my rights as a Muslim were well respected.’
It was not what he had expected. While in the JI, he explains, it was drummed into him that the authorities would treat him harshly and prevent him from performing his religious obligations should he be detained.
What M encountered was quite different: He was given a prayer mat, and the sign showing the direction of Mecca, to which Muslims face during prayers, was already drawn on the floor of his cell.
‘A Gurkha guard would knock on my cell door and inform me of prayer times,’ he adds.
During the fasting month of Ramadan, arrangements were made for him to have his meals at the specified times – after dusk and before dawn. Dates were also provided for him to break his fast.
‘As I was permitted to keep a copy of the Holy Quran in the cell, I read it daily, and often completed reading the entire Quran on a weekly basis,’ he recounts.
On special occasions, beriani lunches were given by a mosque. And on Hari Raya, his family was allowed to visit. He had daily visits from a doctor too, to ensure his physical well-being.
‘As I did not suffer from any major illness, the only medicine I needed was Bonjela whenever I had mouth ulcers,’ says M. ‘Sometimes, he would stay a bit longer after examining me, and talk to me, possibly to ensure my mental health.’
Exercise was also part of his daily regimen. Twice a day, he was let out of his cell to exercise in an open yard solo. On these occasions, he jogged and did simple calisthenics exercises.
‘When I was allowed to have books brought to me by my family every week, reading became another avenue to relieve my stress,’ M adds. His reading fare included religious books as well as novels and magazines.
For M, the family visits not only helped him keep abreast of what was going on outside but also spurred him to turn a new chapter in his life.
‘The family visits made me look forward to the day that I would be finally released from detention and reintegrated back into my family and society. I became determined to be a reformed person and not someone who is a threat to Singapore’s security.’
Religious counselling was also a key part of his routine at Whitley Road.
Two Muslim religious scholars, or asatizah, would periodically meet M, giving him the opportunity to clarify his thoughts on concepts such as bai’ah, jemaah and jihad, after years of indoctrination by radical clerics from Indonesia.
‘I looked forward to the sessions with the two asatizah because I found them to be credible and well versed in Islamic teachings. Unlike the Indonesian preachers, they stressed that Islam is a peaceful religion and the violent ideology that JI advocated is actually against Islam.
‘They explained that the bai’ah was about remaining steadfast in doing good and refraining from doing evil. It was not meant to be an instrument to force people to commits acts of violence in the name of religion,’ he adds.
He came to see the concept of jemaah too in a new light: a coming together of individuals to work together to become good Muslims, and not as a joint enterprise to pursue a political agenda, even if it meant killing innocents.
As for the concept of jihad, it was not the violent ‘us versus them’ battles favoured by the JI. The scholars pointed M instead to the benign but no less challenging struggle to develop oneself and one’s society.
‘In Singapore’s multiracial and multicultural context, the JI’s form of jihad will lead only to racial violence and disharmony,’ M observes.
‘The Islamic state, (the asatizah) explained, was never achieved even during the Prophet’s era through wars,’ he adds. ‘This was in direct contrast to what I was taught.’
He stressed that at no time was he forced to accept any of these individuals’ views. Rather, he was allowed to reflect on the alternative views they offered and come to his own conclusions.
A second chance
AFTER a period of assessment by the Internal Security Department (ISD), a decision was made to release M on a restriction order. It came as a pleasant surprise to him as he was notified only on the day he was freed.
Only later did he learn that his wife and children were informed of his impending release, and arrangements were made for them to meet him. They were also guided on how to help in his reintegration.
‘They were overjoyed,’ says M, recalling their reunion after he was freed.
He notes too that they had not been left to fend for themselves while he was incarcerated: The ISD and Muslim groups helped out with matters such as expenses for household needs and the children’s education.
‘Due to the support and help my family received, I was able to re-integrate into society fairly quickly. I was not treated like an outcast and my neighbours were friendly and polite to me,’ he adds.
Taking stock of the many turns his life has taken, M says he has come to realise how important his family is to him and regrets having caused his wife and children needless suffering for his actions.
‘I was happy to be given a second chance,’ he adds.
Looking back, he credits the patience of the asatizah, and ISD officers and counsellors, for helping him to break the JI’s hold on him.
‘Throughout (my) detention, I was treated well, and given encouragement and guidance when required. This on its own was an encouraging factor.’
His mission now is to ensure his children continue to get the best education they can.
He also wants to help play a role, no matter how small, in rehabilitating other JI members.
‘I would like to make a strong statement that what the JI did was wrong. Muslims must be aware that violence advocated by the JI and like-minded groups has no place in Islam.’
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