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The Family Behind the Bombings

13 minute read
Simon Elegant/Kuala Lumpur

The village of Tenggulun in Indonesia’s East Java province is small (pop. 2,600), 200 kilometers from the nearest city Surabaya and not generously blessed by nature. The climate is dry and the soil arid. But Tenggulun is prosperous nonetheless: for decades, its residents have forsaken the surrounding teak forests and stunted cornfields to work in Malaysia, remitting money home to their families. Nur Hasyim, an 82-year-old quadriplegic, knows that pattern: at least four of his 13 children by two wives spent years crisscrossing back and forth between the two countries.

Tenggulun is also a very religious place — although Islam has been both a unifying faith and point of contention. In 1992, two of Nur Hasyim’s sons founded a school to train local youngsters in the Wahhabi orthodox strain, one of Islam’s severest forms of fundamentalism. The vast majority of Tenggulun’s residents, however, follow the more moderate Islam of Nahdlatul Ulama, a religious society that has 40 million adherents across Indonesia. Rivalry between the two groups erupted one night in 1987, when a tomb of a local saint was burned down.

The culprit: Nur Hasyim’s son Amrozi, the handsome, smiling terrorist trotted before television cameras by Indonesian authorities last week. According to the police, Amrozi has confessed to buying and transporting the explosives that killed 191 people in Bali last month. At the press conference, national police chief Da’i Bachtiar asked Amrozi, 39, about his involvement in the bombings, his accomplices and the years he spent in Malaysia receiving religious instruction. In a remarkable aside, Amrozi told his inquisitor, “I am a naughty person, sir. That’s what my family always say about me. They say I’m not easy to control.” In fact, the unfolding details of how a single hamlet in eastern Java spawned the Bali bomb plot — and many of its planners — tell a different story: of terrorists who rely heavily on blood ties and lean on family members to do their dirty work. In Amrozi’s case, his own eagerness to please his stern older brother may have ensnared him in Asia’s most brutal terrorist attack.

Amrozi revered his brother Ali Ghufron, two years his elder, who from boyhood had been the most devout of 13 siblings. Big brother’s devotion would eventually veer into fanaticism and take him near the center of Asia’s terror nexus: regional intelligence sources said last week they now believe he is one of the top two or three commanders of Jemaah Islamiah, the regional network of Islamic militants that has been blamed for a string of deadly bomb attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines. Ali Ghufron doesn’t go by his boyhood name anymore: he is better known as Mukhlas, the name he adopted in exile in Malaysia. Yet no matter his name, to Amrozi he would always be big brother, the wise elder for whom the younger brother could never do enough.

Since 9/11, much has been written about the various fonts of terrorism: ideology, politics, disenfranchisement, hysteria. The tale of Tenggulun suggests it can also run in the family and provides unique insights into how terrorists are spawned and their operations hatched.

Amrozi, the fifth of the 13 siblings, was always something of a black sheep; his older brother Ja’far Shodiq agrees he was always the “naughty” one. Unlike his brothers, most of whom graduated from religious schools, Amrozi never got beyond junior high and was best known for determined wooing of village girls and roaring through Tenggulun on his beloved motorbikes. When he ran short of cash, villagers say, he occasionally filched and sold household belongings of his father, who had become relatively wealthy through holding the lucrative office of village secretary for three decades.

Three boys in the family — Mukhlas, Ali Imron and Amin Jabir — left the village to study at Ngruki, 400 kilometers to the east, at a school established by Abubakar Ba’asyir, the Muslim cleric widely believed to be the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah and currently detained under suspicion of being involved in the Christmas 2000 Jakarta bombings. In 1992, two other brothers, Ja’far and Khozin, opened their own school in the village to teach Wahhabism. “We practically built it from scratch,” says Ja’far. “We built it with our own hands.” Amrozi wasn’t involved in the religious activities or the teaching, although Ja’far confirms that Amrozi was the one who whipped up the village feud by torching the saint’s tomb in 1987. Tombs are regarded as having special mystical powers by Nahdlatul Ulama followers, a belief regarded as primitive and blasphemous by adherents of Wahhabism. Even in a tiny hamlet like Tenggulun, the fundamental fissures about how to practice Islam cause tension between Abubakar’s supporters and more moderate Muslims.

By all accounts, Amrozi wasn’t pious, but his willingness to take violent action, say family members, confirms a pattern of idolizing and seeking to please his big brother. Ali Ghufron had left to seek his fortune in Malaysia in the mid-’80s. A few years later, Amrozi went looking for him. As he put it plaintively in an interview with Indonesian police, he “never came home … we hadn’t seen each other in such a long time.”

What Amrozi didn’t know was that his brother had fallen in with a group of fellow Indonesians living in Malaysia who shared both poverty and a militant brand of Islam. The leaders of the group were Abubakar and his mentor, Abdullah Sungkar. Both had fled Indonesia to avoid imprisonment by the government of then President Suharto for espousing radical views. Amrozi tracked his brother down to the town of Ulu Tiram in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. By then, Ali Ghufron was known by his new name, Mukhlas, and was a revered Uztadz (religious teacher) at a madrasah located 10 kilometers outside the town. At first, Amrozi was reluctant to force a reunion, fearing his lack of piety would not please Mukhlas. So, according to I Made Mangku Pastika, the two-star general leading the Bali investigation, Amrozi determined to make himself a better Muslim. Amrozi told police that for six months he supported himself as a motorbike mechanic in one of the numerous workshops that line the main road of Ulu Tiram. He prayed five times each day, and at night he read the Koran.

When Amrozi felt he was ready to seek his brother’s blessing, he was brought into the Tarbiyah Islamiah Luqmanul Hakiem, an Islamic school founded by Sungkar in a sprawling patch of rubber and fruit trees near the tiny settlement of Sungei Tiram. The isolated spot is a perfect place for a radical Islamic school: it affords privacy and, with the country’s main north-south highway only 20 kilometers away, the convenience of easy connections to the outside world — an important factor for the increasingly peripatetic clerics. “Sungei Tiram has always attracted radical Islamic teachers,” says the village headman Haji Saad Shamin. “As far back as I can remember, there have always been madrasahs here that were started and later abandoned.”

About 40 male students, some as young as five years old, studied at the school at any one time. Most were children of Singaporean Muslim parents. “They lived and prayed apart … they never mixed with other villagers,” says Saad. Like most madrasahs, the Tarbiyah began in a hut. Later, it sprawled to include a colonial-style single-story concrete building and another two-story brick-and-concrete annex.

Intelligence officials say that Southeast Asia’s most wanted Islamic militants first congregated in Sungei Tiram: Abubakar; Sungkar, who died of natural causes in 1999; Mukhlas; and a veteran of the anti-Soviet fighting in Afghanistan, Riduan (Hambali) Isamuddin, alleged operations director of Jemaah Islamiah until recently. The four men used the madrasah as a base to recruit their earliest disciples, later fanning out to preach their message of radical Islam.

One of their first recruits was the increasingly faithful Amrozi. “At that time Mas (brother) Mukhlas often gave me religious guidance,” Amrozi told police. “I also attended prayer gatherings and seminars given by Abubakar Ba’asyir. Since then I increasingly understood the real meaning of Islam. It was Mas Mukhlas who raised my awareness to fight the injustice toward Islam.”

In 1995, having been deemed sufficiently pious, Amrozi was sent home. There he opened a garage, but other than his continued love of motorcycles, villagers say he was a changed man, always dressed in religious robes instead of the jeans he had previously favored. He hardly ever laughed or joked anymore. And he displayed a new, steely resolve. After Amrozi came back from Malaysia, says Pastika, he led a demonstration to topple the village head. “This shows that Amrozi does have initiative,” says Pastika, “even though he only has a junior high school education.”

Amrozi also solidified his ties to the tight-knit network of Islamic radicals of which he was now a full-fledged member. In March 1999 he married Khoiriyanah Khususiyati, a former neighbor of Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, a Jemaah Islamiah bombmaking expert who was captured by Philippine authorities in January and confessed to involvement in a series of bombings in Manila in 2000. After his arrest, al-Ghozi led law enforcement officials to a cache of weapons and explosives amounting to almost one ton of TNT.

In 2000, police say, Amrozi was approached by a man named Imam Samudra, well known in Indonesia’s radical circles, for help in obtaining bombmaking materials for use in the religious conflict then raging in the city of Ambon. “I went to Surabaya and bought the materials,” Amrozi recounted later. “I sent those things to Ambon through an acquaintance of mine.”

Big brother had been even busier. While his mentor Abubakar had returned to Ngruki in 1999 after the fall of Suharto, Mukhlas remained at the Sungei Tiram madrasah, spending more and more time in Singapore where he recruited a core group to conduct surveillance of possible targets for terrorist strikes in the city-state. According to Singaporean police, Mukhlas employed his own relatives: one of those arrested in January 2000 was Hashim bin Abbas, his brother-in-law. Another detainee, Sanin bin Riffin, detailed to police how he carried out surveillance and drew maps of potential targets in Singapore, such as of water pipelines, on Mukhlas’ orders.

Their plans were foiled, however, that April when a group of Islamic radicals associated with Hambali botched a bank robbery at a branch of the Southern Bank in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya. Two of the robbers were killed and one was captured. Astonished Malaysian police, through interrogations of the surviving robber, began piecing together the subterranean world of militant Islam. More raids and arrests followed, leading police to the Sungei Tiram madrasah, which they shut down in May 2001 and locked up 12 teachers.

Mukhlas, forewarned, had fled back to his home village. The brothers’ reunion, however, was short-lived, as Mukhlas and Hambali, according to police and intelligence officials, traveled to Afghanistan in late 2001 to aid the Taliban in their struggle against the U.S.

It isn’t clear whether Mukhlas was at the next critical meeting in the long road that lead to Bali: a mid-January conclave of Jemaah Islamiah leaders in southern Thailand. Hambali certainly was present, though, with an attendee reporting that the furious Jemaah Islamiah commander ordered a significant change of tactics following the disruption by police of the group’s plan to set off seven truck bombs in Singapore. From now on, Hambali ordered, the group would attack soft targets: bars, nightclubs and restaurants frequented by foreigners. But despite his pre-eminence at that meeting, regional intelligence officials say they are certain Hambali soon handed over day-to-day operations of Jemaah Islamiah to Mukhlas. “Hambali was too well known,” an official says. “He could still give orders but he had to get out of the region, so he went back to Pakistan. We’re 200% sure he’s still there and that’s why Mukhlas is still in charge.”

Though Mukhlas’ name has been known for some time, it is only in the past few weeks that intelligence officials have recognized his lethal role. “He and Hambali are very similar men,” says Rohan Gunaratna, author of a seminal study of al-Qaeda. “They are both very experienced operatives, long-term thinkers and strategists who speak little but demonstrate their thinking through action.” They also share an utter ruthlessness in delegating the most dangerous jobs to subordinates, friends or family. In Hambali’s case, his ambitious plan to set off a series of 15 bombs simultaneously in Jakarta on Dec. 24, 2000, left 19 dead, three of them his own men. Although Mukhlas was intimately involved in conceiving and planning the Bali attack, regional intelligence officials say he appears to have delegated operational authority to Imam Samudra, a militant already being sought by police for suspected involvement in the Christmas bombings.

That version of events is confirmed by Amrozi, who says he met with Samudra (a.k.a. Hudama) several times in August and September this year to discuss the Bali bombing. The last time they met, “we had a chat after praying together at the Great Mosque in Solo,” Amrozi told police. “It was there that Hudama planned to do the bombing in Bali. Hudama said he would send me some money and a car that would be used to carry out the bombing.”

Amrozi, ever faithful, followed his orders carefully, purchasing the van and the chemicals used in the bombing and ferrying them to Bali. When he, Samudra and a number of the other planners met at that beach paradise, Amrozi was quickly reminded of his place in the pecking order: “At one point I asked them where I was supposed to take the car and explosives,” Amrozi recounted. “But Hudama told me it was not my business anymore. Before I left to return home I saw a Nokia 5110 mobile phone that was connected to a number of cables. I asked Hudama about it, but again he told me it was none of my business.”

Amrozi is fatalistic about his future, “I leave everything to God” and unremorseful, regretting only that he killed so many Australians instead of Americans, his intended targets. He did, however, express regret to his “parents, brothers and sisters and other relatives over the event that has caused so much trouble.” He added that only he and his younger brother Ali Imron were involved, pointedly leaving out Mukhlas’ name. That’s real loyalty. Amrozi faces a long jail sentence and possibly the death penalty. Two younger brothers, a nephew and several friends accused of aiding in the Bali plot have disappeared and are being sought by police; other siblings have had to face days of questioning by police and raids on their homes. Amrozi’s mother and his father, the quadriplegic Nur Hasyim, were forced to flee their house to avoid hordes of journalists. In contrast, older brother and mentor Mukhlas is still at large. For the self-appointed storm troopers of militant Islam in Southeast Asia, it seems family comes a distant second to fulfilling their brutal conception of God’s will.

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