JI arrests, 20 years on: How they joined the Jemaah Islamiah regional terror group

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SINGAPORE - In their minds, they were on the path towards righteousness. They were furthering the cause of Islam and becoming good Muslims.

But for some rehabilitated former Jemaah Islamiah (JI) detainees, all of whom are referred to by pseudonyms, that path was one of darkness and destruction, and multiple plots to destroy parts of their homeland.

The clandestine group, which had a presence in Singapore since the late 1980s, had a systematic process of talent spotting that involved casting its net under the guise of religious classes.

For Alif, who is now in his 40s and works as a dispatch rider, his first steps to radicalisation started in the home of a JI member conducting Arabic lessons.

After lessons ended, the class, which included JI leader Ibrahim Maidin, would discuss Islam.

Alif recalled how Ibrahim would drive home the point that Muslims will have problems in their lives until a caliphate is established.

"This is how he slowly convinced us. He told us, if we want to know more about this, then we have to organise classes to tell us more about Islam, what Islam wants us to do."

Former detainee Adam, who is in his early 60s and works in the transport sector, attended similar home-based discussions.

Wanting to be a better Muslim following his marriage, he sought out religious lessons and attended ones conducted by JI spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir and other visiting foreign preachers such as Abu Rusdan.

Adam was inspired by their passion, which fuelled his desire to want to die as a martyr and participate in jihad, or armed struggle.

Salleh, another former detainee who also attended lessons by foreign preachers, found them to be not only charismatic, but also convincing. Their explanation on jihad was one he had never heard local religious teachers talk about, and made him believe establishing an Islamic state was a religious duty.

"Their arguments and my limited knowledge of the issues they discussed at that time made me believe that what they told me was the truth... I trusted them and did not question whatever they taught me," he said.

Adam, Alif, Salleh and the other former detainees The Sunday Times spoke to said they were so inspired by these leaders that they were convinced to take a bai'ah, or oath of allegiance.

SPH Brightcove Video
The Straits Times interviews former Jemaah Islamiah members who were arrested in 2001 for their involvement in a plot to commit terrorist attacks in Singapore.

Some lied to their family members that they had to travel for work to take this oath in Malaysia, where JI leaders Abdullah Sungkar, and later Bashir, were based. The bai'ah was a pledge to be loyal to these leaders and obey all instructions they were given, and breaking it was a grave offence.

But once the oath was taken, it was a bond that brought new members into an inner, trusted circle.

Religious teaching continued, but with an emphasis on legitimising armed violence and terror. The end goal was to create a caliphate that obeyed God's law, as they interpreted it.

In the case of Alif, it led to an opportunity to train with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late 1990s alongside aspiring fighters from around the world. He rubbed shoulders with its founder Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept 11 attacks in 2001 in the United States.

Alif recalls Osama as a quiet and calm man when he listened to his sermons at the training camp. "He was very tall, very fair and he was left-handed. You can see that his eyes were always moving around and he seemed very calm... not very fierce," he said.

Another JI member who went overseas was Helmi, a logistics worker in his 50s, who had been a member of JI since 1994.

After several rounds of paramilitary training in Johor between 1996 and 1999, he spent three months at Camp Hudaibiyah in Mindanao, the Philippines, located within the camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

He learnt bomb making, weapons handling and guerilla tactics, and and performed sentry duties at the border of a MILF-controlled area.

The JI members knew they were part of an illegal organisation that was planning criminal activities, and took great pains to make sure they were not discovered.

For former detainee Alif, his first steps to radicalisation started in the home of a JI member conducting Arabic lessons. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

After 9/11, Johan, a former JI member who is now in his 60s, said members were told to shave their beards - a move right out of the playbook of the hijackers to avoid suspicion.

During meetings in members' homes, footwear was placed inside so as not to arouse suspicion from neighbours.

These discussions were never always in the same place, said Adam, who remembers how locations for their planning meet-ups kept changing to avoid alerting others in the area.

Former JI member Adam at the ISD Heritage Centre. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The use of codenames was the default, and JI members were taught a system of code numbers to be used when they were communicating via pagers. This system used numbers and items such as the date, time, place and urgency of any meetings.

When it came to stake-outs, meetings and classes, members made sure to park their vehicles at a distance before making their way to their destination. If a lift was involved, they would not take it directly to the intended floor, but would get off a few levels above or below and take the staircase.

"Sometimes in the flat, when we have some meetings, we don't allow our spouses to listen in. So they will not know what our activities are, or what we've been discussing," said Adam.

Around the mid-1990s, the local JI group began looking at staging attacks here.

Johan said the Sept 11 attacks were a strong motivating factor for the JI to push on with their terror plans. "We felt happy with the successes of Al-Qaeda. JI members here were envious, we felt we can do something to show our capabilities too," he said.

Former detainee Johan at the ISD Heritage Centre. He conducted training missions and was treasurer of the local JI group. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Shortly after 9/11, Ibrahim Maidin issued JI members here a survey to determine their level of commitment to the cause of establishing a caliphate, and to supporting terror operations overseas.

The survey asked if they were ready to sacrifice their lives in carrying out attacks against US interests. Several JI members had indicated in the forms that they were willing to die for the cause.

But the attacks could not happen overnight, and members were assigned different tasks to prepare.

Alif, for instance, was tasked by foreign JI bomb-maker Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, alias Mike, to obtain ammonium nitrate to make the bombs and to source a place to store the chemicals.

The chemical is a controlled item here, and he would have needed to register a company to bring it in. "It's not so easy, you need to have paperwork to bring the thing here, because usually, cleaning companies will order this thing," said Alif.

JI had about four tonnes of ammonium nitrate in storage in Johor, but six times the amount was needed for their plans. Some of the places Alif considered to use as storage spots for the chemical included shophouses in Onan Road in Joo Chiat.

Alif and Adam were also involved in reconnaissance work. They would stake out potential targets for attack. Such work started before 9/11, and targets such as embassies were chosen to inflict as much damage as possible to the reputation of the US and its allies.

Details of these plots were discovered only when the authorities moved in on the first batch of JI members in December 2001.

Officers from the Internal Security Department (ISD) seized documents on the attack plots and bomb making information, as well as photographs and surveillance video of the intended targets, including the embassies and government buildings.

Fake passports and forged immigration documents were found too.

Among the first group of 15 individuals picked up that month was local JI leader Ibrahim Maidin, then a condominium manager.

Among the first group of 15 individuals picked up that month was local JI leader Ibrahim Maidin, then a condominium manager. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS

The news sent shockwaves through the group, and panic gripped members when they heard of the arrests of their comrades.

Some like Adam and Alif were arrested later that month, and some like Salleh were caught in 2002.

Their detention under the Internal Security Act would mark a new chapter in their lives.

After initial interrogations by investigators uncovered that they had been deeply radicalised and indoctrinated, religious counsellors were roped in to help them turn away from the JI and its teachings.

In an interview, Salleh said these sessions helped him understand where JI went wrong, and how to contextualise Islam to Singapore.

"I had been misled by JI's misinterpretation of the concept of jihad, to the point that I supported armed jihad," he said. "But Muslims in Singapore are not oppressed and we are free to observe and celebrate key religious practices and festivals without restrictions."

As for Johan, he said he had been brainwashed by the JI that the ISD would torture members and make them insane, but he experienced neither in the six years he was detained, which he described as a blessing in disguise.

"Hopefully, this can be a lesson to everybody that this danger is real," he said of the temptation of radicalisation and groups such as the JI.

"You have to be cautious of that and always keep track of the mainstream teaching of Islam."

Johan's journey: From weapons training to planning to crash plane at Changi Airport

Like several other Jemaah Islamiah (JI) members, Johan (not his real name) travelled overseas for weapons training. He attended a two-week camp in the Philippines, where he learnt how to wield guns and handle explosives.

With this experience, Johan was made a training head for JI and conducted training missions for other members in Kota Tinggi in Johor.

He also served as treasurer of the local JI group, collecting 2.5 per cent of each member's salary every month, and took charge of how the funds were used.

Besides funding their plans for attacks, the money was used for JI's business ventures, which included operating a childcare centre in Malaysia, running religious classes here and a local distribution service for dates and religious books.

Things seemed to be running smoothly until the arrests by the Internal Security Department (ISD) in December 2001 spooked members.

Like several other JI members, Johan travelled overseas for weapons training. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Johan fled across the Causeway with about $11,000 accumulated from JI members and met up in Malaysia with several others, including Mas Selamat Kastari, who was head of the Singapore JI.

They then split up and travelled further north.

While abroad, Johan, Mas Selamat and others made plans to attack Singapore Changi Airport using a plane that they would have hijacked from Bangkok.

The group had even bought business class tickets from Bangkok to Singapore on Russian carrier Aeroflot, because of Russia's actions against Muslims in Chechnya, and because they felt it would be less secure than other carriers.

"We bought business class because it's closer to the cockpit. The main intention is to go inside (and take over) the pilot, so the plan was already set, and we waited for further instructions," he said.

They shaved their beards, checked into a hotel by the beach, watched movies on hijacking and even went shopping for hairspray to create flamethrowers to aid in the hijacking.

But the authorities were hot on their trail. Through its interrogations of those it had arrested, ISD was aware of the plan to hijack planes and crash them into Changi's control tower, and worked with foreign counterparts to send out alerts about the fugitives.

Mas Selamat Kastari, who was head of the Singapore JI. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mas Selamat's name was mentioned in Thai newspapers as a wanted terrorist, which spooked Johan and his team enough to abort their plans.

The group split up. Johan went on to Indonesia, where he spent more than two years living under fake documents which were given to him by JI operatives there.

He was arrested by Indonesian police in 2004 for immigration offences and served a two-year jail sentence before being deported to Singapore in late 2006, and detained.

Adam's assignment: Harm as many enemies as possible

In choosing its bombing targets, Jemaah Islamiah (JI) had one aim: To hurt as many of its enemies as possible, said former member Adam (not his real name).

The JI wanted to hurt personnel from the United States, and Adam explained that Yishun MRT station was selected because JI saw it as a place members of the US military passed through often as they commuted to their base in Sembawang Wharf.

Plans to recce the sites were meticulous, involving repeated visits and close study for potential bomb locations, using video camera recordings.

"We decided that a pickup point near the MRT station would be a potential place for us to put the explosive device, so that whenever the US military personnel there were lining up and waiting for the bus, we could remotely blast the explosive and kill or injure as many as possible," said Adam.

In choosing its bombing targets, JI had one aim: To hurt as many of its enemies as possible, said former member Adam. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Besides his reconnaissance work, Adam was also involved in sourcing firearms in Malaysia and Thailand to support JI attacks in Singapore.

He was also tasked with carrying out several assignments to conceal the group's activities, ranging from reformatting JI members' hard disks to exploring the construction of a website to conceal documents.

"Sometimes in the flat, when we have meetings, we don't allow our spouses to listen in. So they will not know what our activities are, or what we've been discussing," said Adam.

But their efforts to stay hidden were not enough to evade the authorities, who closed in on the network from December 2001. Adam remembers being at a loss as to what to do after he heard about the first wave of arrests.

Unlike some of his other comrades, he chose to stay in Singapore.

"I was expecting them to come look for me. If I just run to Malaysia, I'm abandoning my family," said Adam, who was arrested by Internal Security Department officers in late December that year.

Key JI leaders and associates

Ibrahim Maidin


Age: 71

Known for: Establishing the Singapore JI branch

Background: A charismatic religious preacher and former condominium manager, the Singaporean was inducted into the JI around 1989 and swore an oath of allegiance to Indonesian Abu Bakar Bashir, who was then the JI amir, or supreme leader. During his tenure as JI's Singapore leader in the 1990s, he personally recruited many of its members from his religious classes, and was largely responsible for the organisation's development. He was succeeded by Mas Selamat in 1999, and was among the first group of JI members arrested in December 2001.

Current status: Under detention in Singapore

Mas Selamat Kastari


Age: 60

Alias: Edi Heriyanto

Known for: Leading the Singapore JI network; plotting a revenge attack to crash a commercial flight leaving Bangkok to Changi Airport; escaping Whitley Road Detention Centre in 2008

Background: At one point Singapore's most wanted terrorist, he first joined as a member of Darul Islam - the precursor to JI - in 1990. The Singaporean went to Afghanistan for training in 1993, and was chosen by JI operations chief Hambali to be the leader of JI operations in Singapore in 1999. He fled to Johor after the arrest of JI members in December 2001. The arrests angered him and prompted him to hatch plans to hijack a plane from Bangkok and crash it into the Changi Airport control tower. Collaboration between ISD and its Indonesian and Malaysian security counterparts led to his first arrest in Bintan, Indonesia in 2003. After his escape from Whitley Road Detention Centre in 2008 that sparked a massive manhunt, he was recaptured in Johor, Malaysia in 2009, and repatriated to Singapore in September 2010.

Current status: Under detention in Singapore

Masyhadi Mas Selamat


Age: 32

Alias: Muhammad Hanif

Known for: The eldest of five children by Mas Selamat Kastari

Background: When then-fugitive Mas Selamat was arrested in Indonesia in 2003, his son Masyhadi had remained in Indonesia, living under a false identity. After a dramatic arrest at his wedding in a village in southern Solo in October 2013, the Singaporean was deported the following month. He had allegedly been planning terror acts to be carried out in Singapore.

Current status: Under detention in Singapore

Mohammad Aslam Yar Ali Khan


Age: 57

Known for: Surveillance on him led to the first wave of JI arrests in Singapore by the ISD

Background: A Singaporean of Pakistani descent, Aslam fled for Pakistan on October 4, 2001, following the Sept 11 attacks on the United States. A tip-off to the ISD said that Aslam had claimed to know Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and to have fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The ISD kept tabs on Aslam and a group of his associates, and following news of his arrest in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance, the department made its first move to arrest members of the JI network in Singapore.

The married father of five was brought back to Singapore in December 2002 and detained.

Current status: Under detention in Singapore

Abdullah Sungkar

Age: Died at 62

Known for: Founding JI in Malaysia in 1993 with Abu Bakar Bashir

Background: The late Indonesian cleric prepared the ground for close ties between JI and Al-Qaeda in the early 1990s when he went to Afghanistan to take part in the Soviet-Afghan war. JI had developed from the Indonesian Islamic movement, Darul Islam, which fought a violent insurgency to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s. Sungkar had a close relationship with Abu Bakar Bashir, who eventually took over from him as the spiritual leader of JI in 2004.

Current status: Died in 1999

Abu Bakar Bashir


Age: 82

Alias: Abdus Samad

Known for: Masterminding the 2002 Bali bombings; taking over from Abdullah Sungkar as the leader of JI in 2004

Background: The cleric, who had a long history of militancy, was released from prison this year (2021) after serving time on terror-related charges. Bashir, who is married and has three children, has been in jail since he was arrested in 2009. In 2001, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for funding a militant training camp in Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh. The alleged mastermind behind Indonesia's deadliest terrorist attack - the 2002 bombings on Bali which killed 202 people - co-founded JI in the early 1990s with Abdullah Sungkar.

Current status: Released from prison in Indonesia

Encep Nurjaman


Age: 57

Alias: Hambali, Riduan Isamuddin

Known for: A key JI leader and its operational chief, who authorised and orchestrated many of the group's attacks, including the 2002 Bali bombings

Background: Known as the Osama bin Laden of South-east Asia, the Indonesian was the Al-Qaeda's primary link man in the region. In targeting Singapore for attacks, he was keen to create chaos by carrying out attacks here that implicated Malaysia, such as on water pipelines at the Causeway. He intended to create animosity between Singapore and Malaysia to provoke war, believing that the JI could then take advantage of the instability to overthrow the governments of the two countries to establish an Islamic state. He left Malaysia some time in 2001, and was later caught in Ayuttaya, Thailand, in 2003. In August this year, arraignment began for Hambali in the US over charges that include conspiracy, murder and terrorism.

Current status: In United States' custody at Guantanamo Bay

Ali Gufron


Age: Died at 48

Alias: Mukhlas

Known for: Playing a key role in the Bali bombings of 2002; taking over Hambali as JI's operational chief in South-east Asia

Background: Mukhlas was a principal of a clandestine Islamic school set up in Johor by followers of exiled JI leaders Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir. He replaced Hambali as JI head in South-east Asia in 2002, and was arrested that year in December for his role in plotting the Bali bombings carried out two months prior. He was reported to have remained defiant and even laughed during his trial, before being executed in 2008.

Current status: Executed by firing squad in Indonesia in 2008

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