The hidden journey of a Singapore JI detainee

What is it that turns an individual to terrorism?

And how difficult is it to get them to return to a life of normalcy?

The life stories of those who take this journey and return offers insights.

So far, few terrorism detainees in Singapore have opened up on their plight.

But one ex-detainee, arrested for aiding the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) has done so, after being reformed and rehabilitated by a group of Muslim clerics, counsellors and officials who form part of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG).

His story is now part of the RRG’s 10th anniversary commemorative book launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last month during a two-day International Conference on Terrorist Rehabilitation and Community Resilience.

The RRG works to counsel and rehabilitate terrorists detained in Singapore because of their activities with the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

The detainee, whose real identity has not been revealed, writes as Abu Harith about his early involvement with the hard-line Darul Islam group based in Indonesia, before he formerly became a member of the JI, after it was formed.

He is among the 64 people detained under the Internal Security Act since January 2002 for their involvement in terror-related activities. Of these 64, more than two-thirds have been released after they were assessed to have been rehabilitated and not pose a security threat.

Last year, one of the detainees opened up on his journey to The Straits Times.

Abu Harith, in his lengthy piece in the RRG anniversary book, describes his induction, secret meetings, secret cells, the search for targets to attack in Singapore and his agony upon being discovered by the Internal Security Department.

There’s much more.

Abu Harith talks about his despair when his family gets to know about this clandestine activities, his disillusionment with the JI and disappointment as he realises the inaccuracies in the terror group’s ideology, his gratitude upon getting another chance and his relief after being with his family again.

He was detained for several years under Singapore’s Internal Security Act and is now released, but has a Restriction Order.

Here are some excerpts from his hidden journey: THE EARLY YEARS

I grew up in eastern Singapore with an extended family. My father was a trishaw rider, my mother a housewife. We were poor, but made do with what we had. I had many friends from all races. It was a happy childhood. I was very competitive and active in school, studied hard and obtained better grades than my siblings. My parents were proud of me.

I learnt to pray and recite the Al-Quran from my father. Later, my father sent my siblings and me to an uncle for weekly religious lessons..... Although not religious, I never neglected my prayers. I would stop playing whenever I heard the azan (prayer call) and go home to pray with my mother.

When I was 15, my parents migrated to Malaysia. My elder brother, elder sister and I chose to remain in Singapore and stayed with an aunt. As I grew up, I neglected my prayers. I even stopped praying altogether until I attended a religious class at my parents’ house in Malaysia. The ustaz’s words on the first few verses of Surah Al-Baqarah (the second chapter of the Quran) hit me hard as I had neglected my religious duties.

It was a turning point. I started to attend religious classes nightly and became very pious, wanting to practise Islam faithfully...THE INITIATION

One day in 1991, I travelled to Negri Sembilan to attend a religious lecture. There, I was introduced to Abdullah Sungkar, the founder of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) which was then known as Darul Islam (DI), and his disciple Abu Bakar Bashir who later led the JI after his death.

Abdullah Sungkar lectured on jihad. He was humble and down-to-earth. I was struck by his charisma and knowledge. His eloquence opened my mind to the notion of jihad and left a burning passion in me to perform jihad. Later, I learnt that DI members were going to Afghanistan to fight a “holy war” against Soviet occupiers and I volunteered myself. To my disappointment, I was told to go home as there was a lot to be done before I could go.

A week after I returned from Negri Sembilan, four men visited me. One of them was Mukhlas whom I had met in Ulu Tiram, Johor. Mukhlas introduced me to Mas Selamat Kastari, Ibrahim Maidin and another individual. ...He told me of groups performing jihad and invited me to join DI.

I agreed and was told that Abdullah Sungkar was the DI’s Amir (leader) and Ibrahim Maidin the DI Singapore’s Amir, whose instructions I had to follow. Through Mukhlas and Abdullah Sungkar, I became a strong believer of jihad. I then took the Bai’ah (oath of allegiance) to Abdullah Sungkar.GETTING INVOLVED

I attended weekly meetings held at other DI members’ homes. On Saturdays, we gathered to perform Maghrib prayers, followed by dinner. After Isyak (night) prayers, we had lessons on Tauhid (monotheism in Islam) , Fiqih (Islamic jurisprudence), Tafsir (interpretation, usually of the Quran) and Jihad. I was given a code name. ..The group also took other security measures during meetings, such as taking different routes to and from meetings; parking our vehicles a distance from the meeting place, keeping our footwear in the house.. and taking the stairs instead of lifts.

We memorised important telephone numbers and did not leave any paper trail that could identify members. We even had a shredder. We tried not to wear traditional Malay/Muslim clothes to avoid attracting attention. We kept a low profile and used codenames to refer to locations...We did not tell our wives about our meetings to prevent leaks.

After Abdullah Sungkar’s group broke away from DI to form the JI in the early 1990s, the group began to use military terms in Arabic and adopt a military stance in preparation for the establishment of an Islamic state, or Daulah Islamiyah.

The smallest unit in the JI was the Fi’ah (squads). Three Fi’ahs made up a Qirdas (platoons), four Qirdas, a Wakalah (battalions) and five Wakalahs a Manthiqi (brigades). The four Wakalahs in Malaysia and the Wakalah in Singapore formed a Manthiqi headquartered in Kuala Lumpur.

With this new military-like formation, the JI Singapore was tasked to form the Tajnid (training) group to teach JI members subjects like Unarmed Combat, Field Formation, Security, Knife, Fighting, Knife Throwing and Weapons Handling.TRAINING AND RESPONSIBILITIES

As a Tajnid trainer, I learnt silat (Malay martial arts) in Johor Baru to prepare for the Unarmed Combat training. We had theory lessons on the use of small arms to recoilless cannons, rifles and RPGs. We learnt to use C-4 explosives and claymore mines.

The training was to prepare JI members to be operationally ready to overthrow the regional governments and establish a Daulah Islamiyah based on Syariah.

As a trainer, my responsibilities included preparing the training programme and schedules, updating JI Singapore’s yearly activities, and recceing training locations.

I also oversaw the security of JI Singapore and organised religious classes for JI members and Muslimah (our wives). We conducted outdoor team-bonding programmes for the Muslimah, too, which were intended to prepare them physically in case they had to go into hiding if their husbands were arrested.

I was also involved in Tamrin, an induction programme for potential JI recruitment candidates conducted over 12 sessions, including an outdoor jungle training, during a 12-month period.

I translated the Tamrin materials into English and delivered the lectures in English on Jihad and Jemaah for non-Malay speaking candidates.IDENTIFYING TARGETS

The Mantiqi directed every Wakalah to form a special secret group that would only be known to the Qo’id Wakalah. In Singapore, the group was called Ibnu Umar. I was selected to be a member with a few others and Mas Selamat as the leader.

Ibnu Umar was ready to carry out operational instructions from the Manthiqi. Ibrahim Maidin and Mas Selamat who were the Singapore Wakalah leaders, respectively, knew of Ibnu Umar’s existence but had no knowledge of its activities. Sometime in 1997-1998, Ibnu Umar received its very first instruction from the Manthiqi to list out targets in Singapore for attack.

I argued that the targets should be military instead of civilian.

We observed the targets for a few days to find out their daily routines and possible ways to launch attacks. We took videos of the locations and got a member to provide a commentary to describe the location and the surroundings.

The commentary was intended for Arab operatives executing the operation as we were told that they could only understand English.

The edited video was later handed to Manthiqi leader Hambali.WHY HE BELIEVED IN VIOLENT ACTION

People asked why I had believed in violent action. I had strongly believed that Syariah was a law created by Allah to bring peace to this world. To uphold Syariah, we must be in power as no secular government would ever adopt it. To gain power, we must overthrow governments in the region, including in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. We had seen how Muslims failed to gain power through peaceful elections in Algeria.

As we had no means to challenge the military might of any country, the only way was to destabilise governments through guerrilla warfare such as bombing and terror activities. I believed at that time that the use of violence was justified.

I was drawn to join the JI through a systematic indoctrination process. The JI leaders effectively made use of the two main sources of holy text that Muslims must adhere to - the Al-Quran and the Hadiths - to strengthen the ideological appeal of the doctrine.

At JI meetings, the first item on the agenda was to reinforce that jihad was an obligation for Muslims. The second was the Sam’u wa Tho’ah (listen and obey the leaders) principle.DETECTION AND DETENTION

Despite our counter surveillance tactics, the authorities managed to track our activities. In December 2001, I heard a knock on my door. It was the dreaded knock I had feared. The men at my door identified themselves as Internal Security Department (ISD) officers. I trembled. Many things went through my mind - I was the sole breadwinner in my family; my eldest child was only 15 years old; my youngest was three; who would take care of them?

When I was ready to accept detention, I felt the need to protect my JI brothers. I could not betray them because of the bai’ah I had taken.

I made up stories to mislead the investigators. I knew that I would be locked away as I was deeply involved in JI. I worried how my family would suffer, and how my wife would support the family. I felt a sense of regret, hopelessness and helplessness.

My wife was ignorant of my JI activities though she knew I was a JI member. As a dutiful wife, she had never questioned my actions.

When she learnt about my JI activities, she was disappointed and angry that I did not confide in her, and had betrayed her trust. She was ashamed of my actions and could not even face her family. She worried about the effect on our children.

My brother who visited me was very angry. He asked me if I wanted to kill him with the bomb at Yishun MRT. I did not what to say. I was ashamed and remorseful.REHABILITATION

I learnt the true meaning of Islam during my detention. I was given a copy of Tafsir Al-Quran, a book of explanation of Quranic writings. On studying the Quran, I came to the realisation that what I had done to obtain Allah’s blessings was in fact something that Allah condemned. Islam advocates peace to bring harmony to the world. While Muslims should show compassion and mercy, JI, on the other hand, killed innocent people who did not utter a word against Islam or Muslims, let alone wage war against Muslims.

I felt betrayed as I had sacrificed 10 years of my life to the JI cause. Despite being an educated person and someone cautious about other people’s opinion of Islam, I was gullible and stupid to buy into JI ideology.

My guilt was so overwhelming that on several occasions, I contemplated suicide. Each time I opened my eyes, I saw the four walls of my detention cell, reminding me of why I was there.

The same wave of emotions washed over me frequently. I gave up hope of redemption and freedom.

What kept me going was the constant support I received - from the doctors and psychologists, and members of the community who volunteered their time to counsel me. Everyone had words of advice and comforted me. My case officer played a vital role. I recall clearly what he told me during my early days in detention: “Brother, our job in ISD is very simple. We just want to keep Singapore safe. That’s all.”

Those words touched me deeply. I remembered a Hadith in which the Prophet had said that when Islam is upheld, a woman can travel safely without any worry.

What JI had done was the opposite. Instead of peace, they advocated violence and terrorism. The people I once deemed Kafir (infidels) and enemies of Islam were the source of my strength. The one who opened my eyes to true Islam was a non-Muslim.

To my surprise, all the ISD officers and staff I encountered were compassionate and understanding. The JI had indoctrinated its members that ISD was cruel and would torture us if we were caught.

This is untrue and baseless.WORDS OF ADVICE

Do not follow blindly. I offer these words of advice to other Muslims, especially the younger generation who are looking for a purpose in life: Whenever there is a religious group that encourages you to keep the group or its activities secret, it is good to stay away from them and alert the authorities. There are no secrets in Islam. Islam should be spread and its activities are open. Secretive groups may be deviant grups. Always learn from accredited asatizah.

Read and understand the Quran, not just recite it. Reciting is good but understanding is better, as it protects you from being manipulated by people with ulterior motives. Islam advocates love, peace and harmony.

Prophet Muhammad had been stoned, wrongly accused and even had faeces thrown at him but, he showed compassion and forgave his enemies. Yesterday, I was a JI member bent on violence and bloodshed. Today, I am a man given a second chance at life.

Tomorrow, I want to be the best that I can be in life, as a father and as a citizen. I cannot undo the past, but I can change my future. - Translation of Muslim words by Norzulriyah Haron