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Sunday October 2, 2011

Fighting extremism via comics

Nasir Abas, a former Jemaah Islamiah leader, is now waging a private jihad to stop teenagers from being recruited for suicide bombings and other terror activities.

MALAYSIAN-born Nasir Abas is an unlikely comic book hero he is a former al-Qaeda-linked militant, leader of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and a weapons expert who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

His journey from an idealistic student to a militant and later an ally to the police in their counter-terrorism efforts has been turned into a 137-page comic book titled I Found the Meaning of Jihad.

The book comes as Indonesia suffered another bomb blast last Sunday when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in a packed church in Solo, Central Java, killing the bomber and injuring 27 people.

Launched on Sept 8 in Jakarta when the movie Captain America was playing in the local cinemas, it inspired the Associated Press to nickname Nasir “Captain Jihad”.

“Since then, I have received phone calls from people looking for Captain Jihad',” says Nasir in a telephone interview from Jakarta where he resides.

Nasir, 42, is a well-known figure in Indonesia for his regular appearances on TV and seminars where he speaks out against extremism and the twisted intrepretation of “jihad” as espoused by the late Osama bin Laden and slain Malaysian terrorist, Noordin Top.

Noordin is blamed for a string of bomb attacks in Indonesia, including the devastating first Bali bombings of 2002 which killed 202 people.

“The ultimate jihad is to struggle for peace for the people and nation, not just for Muslims but non-Muslims as well. It defends human rights,” says Nasir.

“Jihad such as suicide bombing, which kills innocent lives, is not true jihad,” he adds.

Nasir says he felt compelled to chronicle his life in a comic book because he wants to reach out to teenagers and young adults as they are most vulnerable to being recruited by militant groups.

“I know this from my own experience as I myself was recruited at the age of 15. By the time I was 18, I was sent to Afghanistan,” adds Nasir, who has written three books on terrorism which are mostly read by the older generation.

On July 17, 2009, Nasir's need to warn the young took on a greater urgency Jakarta was hit by two bomb blasts.

Dani Dwi Permana, 18, detonated a suitcase of explosives at the J.W. Marriott Hotel, killing himself and five others. He became the country's youngest suicide bomber.

Two minutes later, another suicide bomber, Nana Maulana, 28, struck at the neighbouring Ritz Carlton Hotel, killing himself and two others.

“I felt very sad when I saw the news of Dani's death. He was so young,” says Nasir.

Dani came from a troubled home. His parents had divorced and his mother left their home in Bogor, a city located some 64km from Jakarta, for Kalimantan.

Dani lived in a small house with his father and older brother.

When his father, who worked as a security guard, was jailed for robbery, Dani suddenly found himself largely on his own. With little parental guidance, the basketball-loving, helpful teenager whom neighbours described as “very nice” allegedly came under the spell of a radical cleric named Saefudin Zuhri, who belongs to Noordin Top's terror cell.

Zuhri recruited young Dani and persuaded him to become a suicide bomber targeting the J.W. Marriot Hotel.

“I don't want to have another Dani Dwi Permana,” Nasir said, adding: “I hope this book will equip young people with the skills to take care of themselves so that they don't end up being recruited by terror networks.”

JI and other extremist groups are highly secretive organisations, and their members are taught not to tell anyone including their families of their activities.

“When I first left for Afghanistan, I was told to keep it from my family,” Nasir said.

He is urging young people to be critical in their thinking and to question whatever they are told.

“Seek a second opinion. Don't accept things at face value. And don't keep things from your family,” he advises.

Nasir's life story gives a rare and interesting insight to the inner workings of JI and the ideology which directs their actions.

In his book, Nasir recounts how he disagreed with Osama's decree of Feb 1998 where he pronounced that killing Jews and Americans anywhere in the world was among the greatest obligation and duty to Allah for Muslims.

Osama's decree caused a split in JI as some members disagreed with him while others accepted his decree whole-heartedly.

The book tells how the faction which accepted Osama's decree later manifested their convictions by carrying out a string of terror attacks in Indonesia, including the Bali bombings, the Australian Embassy blast and others.

Quiet and contemplative, Nasir played a critical role in helping Indonesian police unravel and arrest militants involved in the Bali bombings by providing inside information.

His transition from militant to police ally came about when he was arrested by police in 2003.

The arrest was a turning point in his life. He was handcuffed and put into a cell with two men who happened to be Christians.

Expecting the worst, he was surprised when his cell mates fought for him to have his handcuffs removed so that he would be more comfortable. “It was my first close encounter with a Christian,” he says.

They also gave him clean clothes and a clean sheet to use as a prayer mat.

“I was very surprised,” says Nasir, who was also taken aback by the gentle treatment he received from the anti-terror squad chief Kol Bekto Suprapto, who is quoted in the comic book as saying: “If you don't agree with the bombings, let us together stop it.”

As Nasir disagreed with the death and destruction wreaked by his former JI colleagues, he decided to help with the investigations.

The decision to turn police informer was a painful one, as the mastermind of the Bali bombings was his brother-in-law, Ali Ghufron, who has since been executed for his role in the attack.

While Nasir is not involved in any of the bombings, he feels guilty as the bombers were once his students at JI's military academies in Afghanistan and southern Philippines.

He first trained new recruits on the use of firearms at the Afghanistan Mujahidin Military Academy before the camp was shut down and moved to the jungles of Philippines' Mindanao Island in 1994.

Named Camp Hudaybiyah, it is the stronghold of the separatists Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Nasir estimates he trained more than 850 men, out of whom 500 are from Moro while the remaining 350 are from Indonesia and Malaysia.

“The ones from Malaysia have all been arrested, there were only a few of them,” says Nasir. “As for the Indonesians, some have been arrested.”

Security analysts welcome Nasir's book, saying it is an “efficient way” to reach out to teenagers.

“Nasir's book is efficient for teenagers seeking an identity but not for militant groups as they already regard him as a traitor,” says Noor Huda Ismail, founder of the Institute of International Peace Building which runs a private deradicalisation programme for ex-combatants.

The comic book will be distributed to schools and pesantren (religious boarding schools) in Indonesia.

According to Noor Huda, militants remain active in recruiting new members through Quran reading classes which operate legitimately as well as underground.

“They also use websites, blogs, chatrooms, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“It is very hard to stop them as they are more active while moderate Muslims tend to be passive,” adds Noor Huda.

Nasir's efforts have drawn the ire of militants and he regularly receives death threats. But he remains undeterred.

“I hope what I am doing now will pay for my sins. I don't feel good having trained people who carried out bombings,” he says.

“Young people are the hope of the future and of every nation. They can do far more good than I can do.”

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