Jemaah Islamiah and the road to martyrdom

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 12:00am

The talk around the table in the safe house in Indonesia turned from pleasantries to serious business - which western target to bomb.

After the Bali bombings in October 2002 and the JW Marriott hotel attack in Jakarta the following August, another statement against the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had to be made.

Malaysians Azahari bin Husin and Noordin Mohammad Top and Indonesian Dulmatin, leading members of Southeast Asia's most feared terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), were in agreement that Australia, with more than 800 troops in Iraq, should suffer.

Last Thursday, the fruits of their agreement became a reality when a van carrying a 200kg bomb exploded outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta.

That was the likely scenario depicted yesterday by US researcher Zachary Abuza, the foremost expert on JI who has spent years studying the group, though he stressed little accurate information was available on its operations.

Despite warnings from Australian intelligence operatives that JI could soon launch another attack on western interests, Dr Abuza said he did not believe another attack was imminent.

'It takes Jemaah Islamiah a long time to carry out operations,' he said. 'That simply reflects the reality of their situation - that it takes a long time to procure explosives, put together bombs and find someone willing to become a martyr.'

Under Dr Abuza's scenario, months before the meeting that led to last week's bombing of the Australian embassy, the roots of the mission were being put in place when a recruiter for the terrorist group approached a young man in a mosque.

The recruiter had noticed how devoted to Islam the man was, going to the mosque five times or more a week.

Before long, the two were friends and the man, from a poor family and without regular income, was being indoctrinated in the ways of JI - its objective of a pan-Islamic state in the region and adherence to the extremist thinking of fundamentalists including Osama bin Laden.

Months later, the man was bound for the southern Philippines on a motorboat to learn how to avenge the deaths of his religious brethren in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr Abuza said JI had several methods of recruitment - through kinship, friendship and talent scouts at religious schools and mosques. 'Kinship is important ... but religiosity is still the most important trait they look for in their members,' said Dr Abuza, who is in Manila on sabbatical from Simmons College in Boston. 'Jemaah Islamiah comes to you. You don't go to them.'

The recruit would have been sent to a training camp in the rugged, mountainous region between Cotabato City and Marawi on the Muslim-majority island of Mindanao. The area is controlled by the independence-minded Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The organisation's links with JI are ambiguous. Some members have admitted ties in the past, but deny that they continue.

Experts such as Dr Abuza claim that there is little doubt that the relationship continues and that JI recruits are taught how to make bombs and indoctrinated into becoming suicide bombers under the patronage and protection of the MILF.

Efforts by the Philippine military, aided by equipment and training from the United States, have failed to dislodge either group.

Training camps are also believed to operate in Bangladesh, where authorities deny they exist, and Pakistan, where officials recently arrested 19 JI members.

While the young man was learning the necessary skills that would lead him to drive the van and its deadly cargo into a crowd outside the embassy, the materials to make the bomb were being assembled in Indonesia.

Over many months, the necessary chemicals were bought in small quantities by JI operatives so as not to attract attention. Only a few members, working in a cell, knew of the operation. With more than 200 arrests of JI members since the September 11, 2001, attacks, there was good reason to keep the bombing plans known to as few people as possible.

'Jemaah Islamiah only has about 500 members and the number of actual terrorist operatives is few,' Dr Abuza explained. 'Most are involved in other activities like education, recruitment, running safe houses and procuring explosives and the like.'

After several months, the young man was deemed by his trainers to be capable of carrying out his mission. He made his way back to Indonesia and stayed in a safe house while the final touches were put to the embassy bombing plan.

Last Thursday, the van pulled up outside the house and the man got behind the wheel. He was shown the bomb, given a briefing on how to detonate it, and drove off on his final earthly mission - and JI's next stage in its bid to annihilate its enemy.