Return to Indonesia

A reporter chronicles the revival of the world’s most populous Muslim nation a decade after its disintegration

Despite ongoing problems, Indonesia boasts one of Asia's strongest economies. (Ed Wray)
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Though diminished by arrests and internal strife, JI and splinter terrorist groups still pose a big challenge to the fulfillment of Yudhoyono’s campaign promise that “God willing, in the next five years the world will say, ‘Indonesia is something; Indonesia is rising.’”

I met Nasir Abas in a dingy Jakarta coffee shop across the road from Cipinang Prison, which holds some of Indonesia’s toughest criminals and most incorrigible terrorists. Abas’ own terrorist credentials were formidable. He had trained on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, set up a military academy in the jungles of the southern Philippines and taught half a dozen of the young men who carried out the first Bali bombing how to kill. His brother spent eight years in a Singapore prison for plotting a foiled terrorist attack. (He was released in January.) His brother-in-law was executed for his role in the bombing of Paddy’s and the Sari Club. Abas, 40, brought along a sidekick, Jhoni “Idris” Hendrawan, 34, who had taken part in three deadly terrorist attacks in Indonesia and been arrested while counting the money he had robbed from a bank to finance a future attack.

These days Abas has a new role: he works for the police. Abas helped officers question suspects responsible for the second Bali bombing. He has testified against JI operatives in court, leading to their conviction and imprisonment. His encyclopedic knowledge of the terrorist network provided authorities with a trove of intelligence. He is one of the first on the scene of terrorist attacks and often finds clues that only a JI insider would recognize. In his spare time he visits terrorists in Cipinang and other prisons, trying to convince them that killing civilians and innocents is un-Islamic. Some prisoners refuse to talk to him and call him a traitor; others, like Hendrawan, have bought into Abas’ deradicalization program and have forsworn violence. “I thought the students I trained would take part in jihad against forces occupying Muslim lands, like in Afghanistan,” Abas said. “Then the Bali bombing. This wasn’t jihad. Prophet Muhammad said it is wrong to do anything cruel, wrong to kill old men, women and children. After Bali, I came to realize many of my friends and relatives had strange ideas and thought it was OK to kill civilians.”

His conversion, he said, came after his 2003 arrest. “I always thought the police were my enemy.” But they called him Mr. Nasir and, after beating him the day of his arrest, never touched him again. If they had tortured him further, he said he would have been silent or given them false information. “They said, ‘We are Muslim like you. We aren’t against Islam. We just want to stop criminals.’ Even the Christian cops didn’t use bad words about Islam. I changed my mind about the police, and that was one turning point.”

Another, he told me, was when Cipinang’s commander came to see him in prison. “Bekto Suprapto was a colonel and a Christian. He told the ten men guarding me to take off my handcuffs. Then he told them to leave. I’m thinking, ‘What a brave man, because if I want to do something to him, I’m sure I could carry it off.’ We talked about jihad, about Christians and Muslims. He gave me a Bible and I ended up reading it. I started wondering why God hadn’t let me die or be killed. I answered my own question. He hadn’t because there was something God wanted of me. It was to do what I’m doing now.” Abas’ change of direction also had a practical benefit: it won his release from custody.

Abas—and mainstream experts on terrorism—say JI continues to recruit at its 50 schools and in the mosques it operates. But, they add, its leadership and structure have been severely weakened by Yudhoyono’s three-pronged strategy: first, to aggressively pursue terrorists, which has resulted in more than 400 arrests, several executions and the shooting death of JI leader Noordin Mohammad Top in 2009; second, to undercut the popular appeal of militancy by exposing it as un-Islamic; and lastly, to ensure that the government does not create more terrorists by treating prisoners brutally.

Recent elections offer a glimpse into the public’s changing attitudes. In parliamentary elections in 2004, Islamic parties won 38 percent of the vote; in 2009, the percentage dropped to 23. In a poll of Indonesians by a group called Terror Free Tomorrow, 74 percent said terrorist attacks are “never justified.” In another poll, 42 percent said religion should have no role in politics, up from 29 percent the previous year. Apparently, most Indonesians continue to embrace moderation and tolerance.

Indonesia’s ulema, or leading clerics, were long on the fence about terrorism, believing no Indonesians nor any Muslims could have been responsible for the attacks. Many never denounced the Bali bombing but did condemn a police raid in East Java in 2005 in which JI’s leading bomb master, Azahari “Demolition Man” Husin, was killed as a U.S.-trained counterterrorism unit raided his hide-out. Yudhoyono’s vice president, Jusuf Kalla, invited leading clerics to his house for dinner. He spoke with them for 50 minutes. He showed them pictures of huge stockpiles of bomb-making equipment and weapons the police had found at the hide-out. Then he showed them videos of young suicide bombers saying their goodbyes before heading out on death missions in search of martyrdom. “Do you still believe the police shouldn’t have raided the house?” Kalla asked. The clerics all agreed that the raid was justified. It was an important government victory to get influential opinion-makers on the record with a condemnation of terrorism.

“Indonesia has done far better than the United States combating terrorism as far as abiding by the rule of law goes,” said Sidney Jones, a longtime U.S. resident of Jakarta and a conflict analyst with the Belgium-based International Crisis Group. “There have been no witch hunts, no Guantánamos, no water boarding.” The Yudhoyono government, she said, treats terrorism as a law-and-order problem for the police, and the police in turn use what they call a “soft approach,” as they did with Nasir Abas. Everyone is charged in open court with reporters present. “Because of the information coming out of the trials, the Indonesian public became convinced that the terrorists are Indonesians, not CIA and Mossad operatives,” Jones said.

The Indonesia I visited this past October was a different country from the one I left a decade ago. Although 32.5 million of the country’s people still live below the poverty line, most Indonesians no longer wake up hoping they can simply make it through the day. The students’ agenda of the 1990s—democracy, civil order, economic opportunity, respect for human rights—had become the national agenda. Everyone I met seemed aware that Indonesia had been given something some countries never get: a second chance. The optimism was palpable. “If Indonesia were a stock, I’d be buying,” said Eric Bjornlund, co-founder of Democracy International, Inc., a firm in Bethesda, Maryland, specializing in international democratic development.


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