Making of a terrorist

On Jan 14, Sunakim (above) and three other militants attacked bystanders and policemen at a busy intersection in Jakarta with guns and homemade bombs. He was released from prison last August after serving five years for training at a terrorist camp.
On Jan 14, Sunakim (above) and three other militants attacked bystanders and policemen at a busy intersection in Jakarta with guns and homemade bombs. He was released from prison last August after serving five years for training at a terrorist camp.PHOTO: XINHUA
Sulaiman, the younger brother of Sunakim, with their grandmother Sumani at their home in Desa Kalensari. Sulaiman said his brother stayed with them from Dec 23 until Jan 2.
Sulaiman, the younger brother of Sunakim, with their grandmother Sumani at their home in Desa Kalensari. Sulaiman said his brother stayed with them from Dec 23 until Jan 2.ST PHOTO: FRANCIS CHAN

Ten days after Indonesian militants loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacked bystanders and policemen in the heart of Jakarta, questions hang over the radicalisation paths of the attackers. The Sunday Times Indonesia Bureau's Francis Chan and Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja trace the journey of a small-town boy turned ISIS hitman.

The electricity was out that night at Sulaiman's home in Desa Kalensari, a small farming village in West Java about a three-hour drive from Jakarta.

The 27-year-old, who occasionally sells pulsa - mobile phone top-up credits - for a living, was about to turn in for the night when he heard a neighbour banging on his door.

"He showed me photos on his mobile phone of a man who had shot some people and bombed Jakarta," said Sulaiman. "I thought, 'This cannot be, that man in the photo is my brother, Nakim'."

Nakim also goes by Sunakim, the name registered with the local authorities, as well as Afif, acquired sometime in 2009 when he joined a Jemaah Islamiah (JI) paramilitary training camp in Jalin Jantho, Aceh.

The 34-year-old was arrested in 2010 together with 70 other militants for training at the camp, which was funded by Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the JI terror group.

Sunakim's seven-year jail sentence was cut by two years for good behaviour and he was released last August, even though he refused to take part in a deradicalisation programme at Cipinang Prison, where he was held. His family thought he had turned over a new leaf after he was out, said Sulaiman.

The Sunday Times on Wednesday tracked down Sulaiman in Desa Kalensari, where he lives with his two children, father and grandmother. Sunakim's wife and their seven-year-old son also live there.

There are 21 mosques spread throughout the village of just under 100,000ha of land, mostly padi fields, according to village head Jajat Suhija.

The mosques serve the 1,600 Muslim families living in the area, most of which, including Sunakim's, are poor, he added.

Sulaiman said at least four of his siblings died in their infancy because the family could not afford proper healthcare.

"Nakim also had a weak lung, always sick," he added.

Partly because of their age difference, Sulaiman said he did not know the company his brother kept or any of the other three attackers.

"I also do not know where he went immediately after he left Cipinang, but he came and stayed with us from Dec 23 until Jan 2," he added. "We ate grilled duck, chatted and went to the mosque together."

That was the last time that Sulaiman saw his brother.

Twelve days later on Jan 14, Sunakim and three other militants struck at a busy intersection in Jakarta with guns and homemade bombs. Police identified the three as Muhammad Ali, 39; Dian Joni Kurniadi and Ahmad Muhazin Saron, both 25. All four men were killed.

Sunakim would become the face of the brazen attack after he was caught on camera, shooting randomly into the crowd and at policemen.

His family, however, remembers him as a pious son and a caring big brother, who was also the family's sole breadwinner before he joined JI.

After he was jailed in 2010, his father returned to work as a grave- keeper at the village cemetery, relying on cash handouts from visitors who went there to pay their respects.

As Sulaiman recalled, the family no longer received festive goodies or health supplements such as high-calcium milk powder that Sunakim would bring when he visited his parents and grandmother.

Years earlier, Sunakim had moved to Desa Duren, another small town in West Java, to take up vocational training and, later, a job at a nearby tyre manufacturing plant sometime in 2001 or 2002.

It is believed that Desa Duren, about a two-hour drive from Desa Kalensari, was where Sunakim might have first been exposed to extremist ideology.

Village official Tanuwijaya said Sunakim started growing a long beard, or jenggot - often associated with people who have extremist beliefs.

He remembers Sunakim as a teenager living at the Pondok Pesantren Miftahus Sa'adah, a moderate Islamic boarding school, because he could not afford rent.

Mr Juanda, the school's principal, said he had to expel Sunakim after finding out that the 16-year-old was forcing extremist views on his classmates.

Village head Abdul Halim believes Sunakim was influenced by a group of long-bearded outsiders who gathered in Desa Duren to exchange extremist ideology.

"I disbanded the group in 2008 when I became village head and Sunakim was part of it," said Mr Halim. "Next thing I heard, Sunakim was arrested in Aceh with the JI in 2010."

Sunakim returned to Desa Duren sometime in October last year to hand a letter to the parents of a fellow terror inmate named Anton, said Mr Halim.

"I do not think he managed to find Anton's family but that was the last time I saw him."

The police believe that Sunakim and his group were acting under the orders of Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian militant who is believed to be based in the Syrian town of Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold.

Terrorism analysts, however, suspect that the Jan 14 attack was orchestrated instead by Aman Abdurrahman, the leader of ISIS-affiliated terror group Tauhid Wal Jihad.

Abu Bakar Bashir and Aman were found guilty of helping to finance the JI training camp in Jalin Jantho and sentenced to 15 and nine years in prison respectively. Both are now held in Nusakambangan prison in Cilacap, Central Java.

Sunakim had apparently met Aman in Cipinang before Aman was moved to Nusakambangan in 2012.

Aman, regarded as a hardliner even among terrorist inmates, took Sunakim under his wing. It was also in prison that Aman and Sunakim pledged their allegiance to ISIS.

A former cellmate, Muhammad Jibril, told Tempo news that Sunakim was already declaring takfiri - a doctrine among Sunni Muslim militants who justify their violence by branding others as infidels - even before ISIS rose to prominence.

Jibril said Sunakim was very loyal to Aman. Both men refused to attend Friday prayers with other Cipinang inmates, preferring to conduct prayers separately with their own group.

The Indonesian National Police have since arrested 12 suspects and interrogated six terrorist inmates in connection with the Jan 14 attack - six of whom have had direct involvement in the attack. Investigations are continuing.

If Sunakim's journey from small-town boy to hardened terrorist shows anything, it is that the battle against extremism cannot be fought just in busy urban centres such as Jakarta but also has to be waged in the millions of sleepy villages in the far-flung regions of Indonesia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2016, with the headline 'Making of a terrorist'. Print Edition | Subscribe