How Al Qaeda lit the Bali fuse: Part three

A bomber tries to realize his vision of a global Muslim uprising

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Imam Samudra may well be the most hate-filled and defiant of the men on trial for last year's terror attack in Bali.

On June 2, as he entered court to face charges that he was the field commander for the bombing that claimed 202 lives at two nightclubs, Mr. Samudra pumped his fist into the air and exhorted his lawyers to join him in chanting "God is great."

He has told journalists he was gladdened by the deaths, informed interrogators that God will reward the attackers, and described a decade of plotting that led to the most devastating terrorist act since September 11.

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He has also confessed without remorse to participating in six fatal bombings.

Samudra is a "true believer" - a member of that tiny minority in any society who thinks all means are justified in pursuit of a utopian vision. In his case, Samudra believes there is a conspiracy against Muslims led by the US and its allies.

His dream is to spark a global Muslim uprising through isolated acts of terror - a hope shared by Osama bin Laden.

In normal times, men like Mr. Bin Laden or Samudra are frustrated in their quest to win more operatives to their cause. To almost everyone, their extreme views are too difficult to swallow.

They make their greatest inroads when passions are inflamed by war and injustice.

For most of the 1990s, Samudra's ambitions were frustrated by a dearth of like-minded comrades. But that changed with religious war in the Maluku provinces in 1999. A number of well-publicized massacres by Christians in the provinces sparked a wave of sympathy among millions of Muslims in Indonesia and in neighboring countries such as Malaysia.

It was an opportunity that Samudra's Al Qaeda-linked terror group, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), was quick to capitalize on. Fresh recruits began to trickle in to Maluku to join in the fighting along with Indonesian and Malaysian veterans of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union's occupation during the 1980s.

For some, it was a short jump from anger at Christians in Maluku to anger at all Christians and at Indonesia's secular government; from concern about domestic matters to an interest in the grand conspiracy theory spun by Al Qaeda.

Changing young men's perspectives

Samudra and his colleagues worked hard to encourage this evolution in thinking. They'd been whispering in the ears of young men for years, winning one or two converts at a time. Now Maluku had given them a megaphone. They recruited young men to fight in Maluku, and from them culled future operatives. The war was also used to build sympathy for their views in the general Indonesian population.

"Samudra? Well, he simply hates Americans,'' says Lt. Col. Yatim Suyatmo, chief spokesman for the Bali police. "But for many of the people under him, their anger was focused by speeches about the suffering of Muslims in Ambon."

A typical new recruit

Taufik Abdul Halim was a typical new recruit. In June 2000, the young Malaysian and eight others - spurred by videos of men suffering - arrived in Maluku from the porous eastern border on Borneo. Today Halim languishes in a Jakarta jail, without the bottom half of his right leg.

His trial documents show how Maluku served as a gateway to terrorism.

In the village of Siri Sori, Halim fought under a commander Haris Fadillah, famous for his aggressive tactics against Christian villages - and the father-in-law of Omar al-Faruq, accused of being a top liaison between Al Qaeda and JI.

At the end of February 2001, Halim and a small group of comrades were sent to Jakarta. There they were met by Edi Setiono, a JI member who asked Mr. Halim's group if they'd be willing to participate in attacks on three Jakarta churches.

The men agreed, and the bombings were carried out on July 22 and August 1. "Our motivation ... was revenge," Halim said in his deposition. "In Eastern Indonesia, many Christians are involved in slaughtering the Muslim population."

Though they'd only met a few times, Halim says Samudra coordinated the operation. The bomb Halim was carrying went off early, claiming his leg, and leading to both his and Setiono's capture. But Samudra got away.

A dream of fighting in Afghanistan

The glowering and quick-witted Samudra, now 33, attended a religiously conservative high school in Serang in Banten Province and moved to the West Java city of Bandung in 1990 on a scholarship to the State Islamic Studies Institute.

He quickly dropped out as he became interested in the Afghan resistance against the Soviets and the movement to make Indonesia an Islamic state.

According to a detailed statement he gave police, he immersed himself in Koran reading groups that "emphasized the glory of becoming a martyr'' and dreamed of fighting in Afghanistan.

In 1991 he moved to Jakarta and met Enjang Bustaman, a man who could make his dreams come true.

Bustaman, better known as Jabir, had fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s alongside Riduan Isammudin - another Indonesian who would become famous under his alias Hambali as the operations head of JI and a full member of Al Qaeda in his own right. Both men received training at camps run by bin Laden.

A rising star

All of this made Jabir the Jemaah Islamiyah equivalent of a made man. He advised Samudra to join a Koran reading session at the Islamic Propagation Council - a group obsessed with an external conspiracy to 'Christianize' Indonesia - and bide his time. In 1991, Jabir came to Samudra and told him it was time for a "real jihad."

He arranged a visa and told Samudra to make his way to friends in Malaysia. Jabir warned him not to tell anyone, not even his mother, of his plans. From Malaysia, Samudra flew to Karachi and from there took a bus to the Afghan border, where he was met by one of Jabir's contacts. This man guided Samudra through the cold and unfamiliar landscape to bin Laden's training camp in Khost.

Learning the trade

There, Samudra learned the handling of assault rifles, rudimentary bomb construction, and the importance of maintaining secrecy in terrorist operations. Then he went to the front.

He stayed until mid- 1993, when he moved to Johor, Malaysia. The core group of operatives who would coordinate JI's terror attacks (Hambali, Ali Ghufron alias Mukhlas, Jabir, the Malaysian Professor Azahari bin Husin) were spending time here, as were the organization's spiritual leaders.

Samudra was now a made man himself. By 1998, the Suharto dictatorship had fallen, and trained operatives like Samudra were looking for an excuse to use their skills.

The right venue

The Maluku conflict provided it. Some time in 2000, Samudra opened a small training camp for would-be jihaddis in his home province of Banten, not far from Jakarta.

He traveled to Muslim schools and talked about Christian atrocities in Maluku. He showed videos depicting brave fighters protecting Muslim villagers, and urged the young men to take up arms. Samudra also peddled bizarre conspiracy tales: One of his favorites was about a Muslim girl named "Wawa." Samudra would tell listeners that she was raped by a priest as part of a national Christian strategy to impregnate Muslim women with "Christian" babies.

''This world is in the middle of a crusade,'' Samudra said, explaining his position to police interrogators. "After the attempts at 'Muslim cleansing' in (Maluku), it became clear that the people of the cross (Christians) will wipe out Muslims if the Muslims are too tolerant."

In late 2000, he approached Amrozi, the brother of JI leader Mukhlas, and asked if he could obtain explosives for the jihad in Ambon, according to Amrozi's deposition by police.

As a consequence, Amrozi struck up a relationship with a corrupt chemicals dealer in the East Java town of Surabaya. He would be used again for the Bali blast.

At the end of 2000, Samudra was the field commander for the city of Batam in the simultaneous bombings of nearly 30 Indonesian churches in 11 cities on Christmas Eve. Amazingly, only 19 people were killed in the explosions. Many of the bombs failed to go off, or exploded early. A symbol of the amateurish effort was the death of Jabir: He'd rigged a bomb to be detonated with a cellphone call, but had used his own phone. A friend called before he placed the bomb.
The organizers involved in the attacks avoided arrest - and Samudra and his friends learned from their mistakes.

A greater impact

By the time Samudra, Mukhlas, Amrozi, and a number of other operatives sat down together in Solo, Central Java, to make final preparations for the Bali attack, they were confident of making a greater impact. More than 20 men were involved in the plot, and they used more explosives, and more expertise, than they had before.

Hambali helped arrange $70,000 to be sent from overseas for the attack.

"If they're allowed second chances, groups like this will do more damage,'' says Rohan Gunaratna, an author and expert on terrorism. "They are always evolving."

The JI was evolving in other ways, too, shown by its targets in Indonesia.

Its earliest efforts were against Christian churches whose congregations had ties to the Maluku conflict. Later, Christian churches in general became the target.

The path ended late on Oct. 12, 2002, at the Sari Club and Paddy's Bar in Kuta, Bali haunts favored by young tourists.

The objective, as police spokesman Suyatmo puts it, "was to kill as many Westerners as possible." The conflict in the Maluku provinces had waned, and anger at the US invasion of Afghanistan had replaced anger at Christians in Maluku as their fuel.

Checking the results

Samudra was a mile and a half away from Kuta when the first bomb exploded in Paddy's, and the bigger car bomb ripped through the Sari Club across the street. The next morning, he took a motorbike to survey the wreckage, pleased with his handiwork. Soon the police were closing in, and he was arrested on Nov. 21, as he prepared to flee the country.

His court case is likely to drag on for months, and could end with the death penalty. He's told his lawyers he'll "embrace" death, because he believes his reward is waiting for him in heaven.

Indonesia moves quickly on Bali trials

Earlier this week, the trial began for Mukhlas, the Indonesian cleric accused of coordinating the Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people last year.

Prosecutor Putu Indriati told the court that Mukhlas, also known as Ali Gufron, had arranged $30,500 to finance the attack, organized coordinating meetings, and picked the operatives. "When he heard on the radio about the bomb exploding on Bali, he thanked God," Putu said.

What she didn't mention were allegations by Indonesia and foreign governments that Mukhlas was the acting director of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist organization at the time of the attack, nor that JI is linked to Al Qaeda.

"We don't really want to use those words 'Jemaah Islamiyah' because then we're trying to prove something much bigger,'' says Lt. Col. Yatim Suyatmo, a spokesman for the Bali police. "Of course, there are indications that some of the suspects were involved with this group, but we want to focus on proving the case before us."

Nevertheless, Mukhlas's trial is part of a steady rain of prosecutions that Indonesia is bringing down upon alleged members and associates of JI. The trials of two other key figures in the Bali bombing, alleged field coordinator Imam Samudra and Mukhlas's younger brother Amrozi, began last month. More than a dozen less-important figures in the attack will be tried soon.

JI's alleged spiritual leader and co-founder, Abu Bakar Bashir, is currently being tried in a Jakarta court on treason charges; and a group of men with ties to JI are on trial in the city of Makassar over charges they killed three people in a bomb attack on a McDonald's restaurant.

Little new information has emerged so far, since most police allegations were obtained by the press prior to the trials. But the evidence, which has included the confessions of men like Amrozi and Samudra has appeared overwhelming.

The prosecutions amount to the only real systematic attempt to go after a branch of Al Qaeda through a court system since September 11. It is a sharp contrast to the pace of the US court process. In the 19 months since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, only one alleged member of that conspiracy, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged.

The rest of the 600-odd men captured on suspicion of belonging to Al Qaeda have been held in a sort of legal limbo at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The US approach was never an option for Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who needs an open and credible judicial process for the stability of her government. Indonesia's predominantly Muslim population was skeptical in the immediate aftermath of the attack that it had been carried out by a Muslim group.

Instead, Indonesian newspapers were filled with speculation that the bombings were organized by disgruntled Indonesian generals or perhaps by the CIA.

The prosecutions have undercut that sympathy, with Indonesian polls conducted by the influential news magazine Tempo and others now showing a majority of Indonesians believe the men on trial were involved in the attacks.

Key terror operatives

Imam Samudra
Charged with being the field commander for the bombing attacks in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002.
Enjang Bustaman
Also known as Jabir; was killed in the Christmas Eve bombings in Indonesia in 2000.
Riduan Isammudin
Also known as Hambali, the operations head of the terror group Jemaah Islamiyah.
Amrozi
On trial for Bali bombings; a logistics operative for the Bali bombing.
Mukhlas
Also known as Ali Ghufron; chief coordinator of Bali attacks; brother of Amrozi.
Abu Bakar Bashir
Alleged spiritual leader and cofounder of Jemaah Islamiyah, a terror group with ties to Al Qaeda.

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