Meet The Former Mujahideen Behind Indonesia's Fight Against Terrorism
Nasir Abas has been called a radical, a traitor, and a marked man. And he might be Indonesia's best resource in the fight against terrorism.
Photo by Renaldo Gabriel
It's easy to lose Nasir Abas in a crowd. He asked to meet me at a Javanese restaurant in Pejaten Village, a middle class mall in Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta. The mall was full of women and children shopping and eating after Friday prayers. It was all so normal, so typically Jakarta, that it was easy to forget why I was there in the first place.
I was about to meet man who was once a prominent member of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization that, at its height, was responsible for the deaths of hundreds in a series of bombings that left the region shaken and scared. Nasir was a seasoned mujahideen, a weapons expert who trained Islamic insurgents in the Southern Philippines and taught Bali bombers Noordin Mohammad Top, Umar Patek, and Ali Imron how to use a gun.
Today, he looks like an office worker. He walked in dressed in a gray polo shirt and Mont Blanc sunglasses. He had a close-cropped beard and a slight paunch. His wife and two young children were in tow, but they sat at a different table so we could talk in private.
Nasir now works as a business consultant. But a little more than a decade ago, he was training members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), teaching them how to shoot AK-47s so they could join JI in the fight to establish a Southeast Asia-wide Islamic caliphate.
Then, in 2003, he was arrested after leaving a JI meeting in Bogor, West Java. The organization's members were wanted after the 2002 bombing of two bars in the tourism district of Kuta, Bali, left 202 dead. The bombings exposed a rift in JI. Some members wanted to continue the attacks—and they did, with current or ex members of JI linked to the 2003 JW Marriott bombing, the 2004 Australian Embassy bombing, the 2005 Bali bombings, and the 2009 JW Marriot and Ritz Carlton bombings.
But others, like Nasir, didn't agree with the bombings. Indonesians paid the heaviest toll in the 2002 Bali bombing, making up the majority of those killed. And everyone, regardless of their nationality, was a civilian, a fact that sat heavy with Nasir. So when he was sitting in police detention, Nasir made a choice—he would turn against JI and help the investigation by spilling everything he knew about the terrorist organization and its involvement in the attacks.
"I didn't want to be indecisive," Nasir told me about his decision. "There was no way I could be a member of JI and also help the police. I thought, 'this is the path I need to take.' I had to fix the definition of jihad, clarify that killing innocent civilians was not taught in any religion."
He's been called a traitor, an ally of the kaffir, by his old friends. In 2004, Nasir was the key witness in the trial against JI leader Abu Bakar Basyir—the so-called godfather of JI. Nasir was the only one to testify that Basyir was the leader of JI. During his testimony, members of JI shouted from the stands, calling Nasir a liar and a traitor.
If it bothered him, Nasir didn't let it show. He told me that he's met Basyir as recently as 2013, when they shook hands and offered each other advice as friends. And he continued to help Indonesian counter-terrorism investigators, becoming one of the country's best resources on regional terrorist networks, according to some experts.
"He has the knowledge of jihadi network in Indonesia that can't be obtained by any outsider," explained Sidney Jones, the director of the counter-terrorism think tank the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC). "In my opinion, his information helped the police arrest half of JI's members after the first Bali bombing."
By the time of his arrest, Nasir had already lived a long life waging jihad. His path to Islamic radicalism took him from a small town in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, to the mountains of northern Afghanistan, the jungles of Mindanao, in the South Philippines, and the center of one of Indonesia's worst periods of sectarian violence in Central Sulawesi.
But it all started in a small mosque in Kuala Pilah, Negiri Sembilan, and a chance meeting with Basyir and Abdullah Sungkar, two Indonesians who were on the run from Suharto's regime over their involvement with Darul Islam and Negara Islam Indonesia—which were both trying to establish an Islamic caliphate in Indonesia.
Nasir was born to a middle class family in Singapore. Both his parents were ethnically Indonesian, his mom Javanese and his dad Minang, but they were Malaysian citizens. As a child, Nasir showed little interest in Islam. He often forgot to pray five times a day, and his family was, by his memory, pretty moderate.
But his father took exception with the way some of the local mosques practiced Islam. He eventually decided to hold Friday prayers in his own home, a decision that convinced his neighbors that a Wahhabi was in their midst. Eventually, the police showed up at Nasir's door and arrested his father on suspicion of heresy.
"We were Sunni Muslims, but we were wrongly accused of being Wahhabis by our neighbors," Nasir recalled. "My dad chose to pray at home because the mosque's etiquette of praying at that time didn't fit with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad."
The arrest changed the young Nasir. He dropped out of school and dove into the Quran, studying the different interpretations at the Maahad Ittiba' Ussunah mosque and Islamic boarding school. The mosque was led by Hashim Ghani, a friend of Indonesian radicals who provided a meeting place for Darul Islam and Negara Islam Indonesia members on the run.
Nasir was 15 when he first met Basyir and Sungkar. The men were impressive, he said. They understood Islamic texts and spoke fluent Arabic. He spent hours talking to the both of them, but they never spoke about jihad or terrorism, Nasir told me.
Then one day, the mosque's head cleric, Hashim, took Nasir aside. It was time for him to go on a religious study, either in Perlis— a small state in northern Malaysia on the Thai border—or Afghanistan. It was his choice. Nasir quickly chose Afghanistan, in part because it was closer to Saudi Arabia, a place he thought of as the root of all Islamic study. But it was 1987 and Afghanistan wasn't a place to study. It was a place to wage war.
"At the time, the world's eyes were on the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan," Nasir said. "All the media were reporting on the jihad and the mujahideen. Before I left, my dad said to me 'since I can't go, you go and represent me.'"
Basyir and Sungkar had connections with mujahideen in northern Afghanistan. They made arrangements for Nasir and dozens of other Malaysian, Indonesian, and Filipino men to stay at a mujahideen training camp in Peshawar, Pakistan—a tribal region along the Af-Pak border. Nasir was among the fifth generation of Southeast Asians to arrive in the region.
There was a war being fought at the mountainous border of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. But first, Nasir would have to finish his studies. The mujahideen enrolled Nasir in a school that was part military academy, part high school. It was a shock for a kid who hated homework and studying. It took him four years to graduate from mujahideen high school.
"I had to repeat Year 1 since my grades were all red because of mathematics," Nasir said with a laugh. "During years 2 and 3, I actually ranked first in class and was told to become an instructor for three years."
The school's instructors also taught their students the art of war—a topic that captivated the teenaged Nasir. While his friends played football or lounged around during their breaks, Nasir would wander the munitions warehouse, studying the guns, motors, and bombs.
On holiday breaks, the students were sent to the front, where they faced their biggest test: the battlefield. Nasir spent six years out there, losing friends and eventually getting shot in the hand. He showed me his left hand, where a rough scar ran across his palm from where someone stitched shut a gunshot wound.
It was his worst injury from the war. But he skirted death countless times. He was there when a bomb exploded, tearing off his friend's right leg. Another friend died in a Soviet air strike only a few meters from Nasir's position.
"The fear was there," Nasir said. "But I never thought about syahid [becoming a martyr]. If I die, then I die. This is the lesson I learned during the war."
The Soviets withdrew completely in 1989. They had lost the war. But the Soviets stuck around in other ways, supporting the regime of then president Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai. The US, meanwhile, continued to support the mujahideen. So the war went on, with the mujahideen fighting against the Soviet-backed Afghan government, instead of the Soviet Union itself.
By 1992, the mujahideen marched on Kabul. Najibullah's government collapsed and he fled to a UN compound where he lived for fours years. When the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996, Najibullah was reportedly castrated and dragged through the streets of Kabul behind a Toyota Hi-Lux before he was eventually hanged from a tree with piano wire.
The war was over. Afghanistan would remain in Taliban control until 2001. But Nasir was already involved in a new war back in Southeast Asia. In 1993, Nasir left Afghanistan, flying back to Malaysia where he ran into Basyir and Sungkar again. Basyir had left Darul Islam. There was a new organization, he told Nasir, something that was secretly growing in Muslim communities throughout Southeast Asia. He told Nasir the new group wanted to establish an Islamic caliphate, but not just in Indonesia. No, this group had its eyes on something bigger: most of Southeast Asia. It was called Jemaah Islamiyah.
JI had a man who went by the name Hambali in its ranks. The man, who was born Encep Nurjaman, had big ambitions. He would fight to establish a caliphate that ran from Thailand to the Philippines and install himself as its caliph or ruler. His Muslim state would be an Islamic superpower, a broad and powerful Sharia state covering most of Southeast Asia. And he had some powerful connections in his corner, including a direct line to Osama Bin Laden.
Hambali's ties with Al Qaeda were so strong that he was called "the Bin Laden of Southeast Asia," in the press. But before JI could rise, it had to start training a new generation of jihadis. And there was no one better than Nasir, a man who had spent years training mujahideen in Afghanistan.
Nasir set up shop at a MILF training camp in the jungles of the Southern Philippines. Over the course of three years, Nasir, and his senior instructor from Pakistan, a man named Mustafa or Abu Tholut, trained no less than 500 new fighters at their jungle camp.
"The students only had to bring us rice or anchovies," Nasir said. "Initially, we had them clear the forest. I was in charge of recruitment and weapons smuggling."
But Southeast Asia was a dramatically different terrain from the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. Nasir had to adapt his methods.
"In the Philippines the weapons were smaller than in Afghanistan, so I just taught them to fight with what we had," he said.
There was a solid stream of new recruits during those years. Basyir and Sungkar had set up the Al Mukmin Islamic boarding school, or pesantren, in Ngruki, a neighborhood in the city of Solo, Central Java. The school, referred to as a "jihad factory" in the press, is responsible for indoctrinating generations of young Indonesians with Basyir's radical ideology. The men had a second pesantren in Malaysia, Lukmanul Hakim in the Ulu Tiram neighborhood of Johor Baru. Both taught students the history of Darul Islam and Negara Islam Indonesia, and later spread JI's believes on jihad throughout the region.
JI was structured much the same as Al Qaeda. An amir, or spiritual leader, was at the top. Sungkar was JI's first amir, and later Basyir took over. Under the amir was the Markaziah, or council, which supervised the Mantiqi, or province. All the way down at the bottom was the Wakalah, or a district. JI was setting up a government, but first it had to win the war.
So it set up operational wings covering propaganda, logistics, and, of course, insurgencies. Soon, JI was known worldwide as its members began to bomb high-profile locations in Indonesia. The bombings never sat well with Nasir. He was used to death, years of war in Afghanistan made sure of that. But he didn't like JI's focus on soft targets, civilian locations like hotels, churches, and bars. He wasn't alone in thinking this, he said.
"Bomb attacks were never part of JI's agenda," he told me. "Many members of JI disapproved the last bomb attack."
A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) uncovered similar divisions in JI. "There were indications of discord in JI. Some members disapproved the JW Marriott hotel bomb attack. There were differences regarding jihad and robbery under the name of operation funding or fa'i," the group wrote in a report on the terrorist organization titled "Jemaah Islamiyah in South East Asia: Damaged but Still Dangerous."
By that time, Nasir had risen through the ranks of JI to become the head of Mantiqi III— a region that covered Sabah, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and the southern Philippines. His last task was to run the group's military operations in Poso, Central Sulawesi, a region that was embroiled in a sectarian war between Muslim and Christian militias that left more than 1,000 dead. More than 160 people died in a single attack as masked Christian militias cut power to a Muslim town and slaughtered everyone hiding at an Islamic boarding school.
But when Nasir arrived in 2003, the war was already over. Yet, Islamic militants had continued the battle, committing fresh atrocities in the region in an effort to reignite sectarian tensions. In 2002, Islamic terrorists set off a series of bombs in buses and markets throughout Central Sulawesi that left dozens dead—most of them Christians.
Nasir wasn't involved in any of these attacks. His time as the head of the Poso military division was short-lived. He arrived in the region in 2003 and was arrested months later. Indonesian security forces begun to dismantle JI in the following year, hunting down and jailing everyone they could find with ties to the organization.
The arrests were largely successful. JI was badly weakened, and today it's faded into obscurity. Basyir continues to teach others his vision of an Islamic caliphate, but he does it behind bars at Indonesia's high-security island prison Nusakambangan. None of this would've been possible without Nasir's help.
He's adamant that his work with the police was limited to an exchange of information.
"I don't work with the police," he told me. "I only help them. I never received anything from the police or the government."
But Jones said that his knowledge was still indispensable to the country's counter-terrorism efforts.
"He knows about bomb signatures, about whether the person creating it was trained in the Philippines or not," she said.
But others think Nasir was taken advantage of by the Indonesian government. When he was arrested, police had no evidence that Nasir was involved in any of the JI bombings. He was only jailed for six months on an immigration violation. Nasir, a Malaysian national, had crossed into Indonesia on fraudulent documents.
Al Chaidar, a terrorism expert at University of Malikussaleh, remembers meeting Nasir during his research on Darul Islam. He found Nasir to be a hardworking, patient, and intelligent man.
"We didn't talk too much, but it was clear that he was a modest individual," he told me. "However, it seemed like the government, at the time, over-exploited him to conduct its de-radicalization efforts even though he basically agreed to do so."
The insurgency continued on in Poso after Nasir's arrest in ways that ran in direct opposition to his beliefs on targeting civilians. In 2005, militants brought back one of their most sadistic methods, kidnapping three Christian school girls and beheading them during the holy month of Ramadan.
A new terrorist leader rose to prominence in the region and shifted the battle toward the police. The man, Santoso, waged an Islamic insurgency against Indonesian security forces for years as the head of the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur. He was killed in a gunfight with police last year. But by then, the terrorists no longer posed much of a threat.
Indonesia is now fighting against a new breed of terrorists—small, isolated cells with ties to Bahrun Naim, the head of the Indonesia faction of ISIS. It's a world that's left the likes of Nasir behind even as his old friends line up to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. (Basyir later recanted, saying his didn't fully understand the group's views).
Nasir now lives a quiet life, working as a business consultant and selling honey on the side as part of some multi-level marketing scheme. He has six kids and is currently applying for Indonesian citizenship. I thanked him for taking the time to go through his entire life with me. But before he left, I paused and asked, "do you ever miss the old days?"
Nasir paused for a moment and considered the question. He then smiled a bit.
"Sometimes I miss shooting people," he said quietly. "But that's out of the question now. I'm trying to get people to appreciate peaceful Islam. Back to sunnah nabi [the Prophet's true teachings]."