'Terrorist whisperer' Noor Huda Ismail helps rehabilitate Islamic militants

Noor Huda Ismail sees extremists as people on a path he might have taken himself

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 4:52am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 4:06pm

An "epiphany" in Northern Ireland and a "watershed moment" in his native Indonesia put Noor Huda Ismail on track to become a "terrorist whisperer", helping convicted Islamic militants reintegrate into society.

Ismail, who has interviewed hundreds of former terrorists as a scholar and journalist, admits he could have been on the other side of that divide as an Islamic militant himself, as he told a Hong Kong audience yesterday.

Ismail was giving a talk at TEDx Wan Chai, the local version of the international event series at which speakers get 18 minutes to tell their life stories, under the slogan "ideas worth spreading".

He recalled being sent to an Islamic boarding school at the age of 12 and being taken under the wing of an older pupil called Utomo Pamungkas, or Hasan.

Ismail long believed Islam was a way to solve social problems, though he later became disillusioned by the school's teachings and its lack of critical thinking.

As a journalist, he was assigned to cover the 2002 Bali bombings - which killed 202 people, including 11 Hong Kong residents. It was a turning point for him because he found out one of the men behind the bombing was Hasan. "I thought to myself: how can a normal person get involved in such things?" he said. "It was a watershed moment."

The experience is part of the reason he has spent the past 10 years studying why people get involved in political violence.

In 2005, Ismail won a scholarship to study international security at St Andrew's University in Scotland, where he got to meet former IRA leaders.

"I learnt that ex-terrorists could be rehabilitated," he said. "No one is born a terrorist and eventually, they will question what they are doing."

In 2009, he started a café in Java and has since worked with about 15 convicted terrorists, in a programme on which they work in the kitchen but also in accounting and marketing, depending on interests and skills.

Mahmudi Haryono, also known as Yusuf, is one success story. Yusuf spent five years in jail for helping the JW Marriott hotel bombers, who killed 12 people in Jakarta in 2003. He now works at Ismail's café. The idea of a second chance might not appeal to those who have suffered at the hands of terrorists. But after prison, those hundreds of ex-convicts in Indonesia have few options, said Professor Greg Barton, international director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University, where Ismail is studying for a doctorate.

Some Indonesian ex-convicts "have already gone to Syria and Iraq so it's hard to overstate the importance of what people like Noor Huda are doing."