A jailed cleric who has been widely described as Indonesia’s most influential Islamic State-linked ideologue denied allegations on Friday that he masterminded the deadly 2016 terror attack in Jakarta or instructed followers to kill “heathens.”
Aman Abdurrahman, 46, issued his first public rebuttal of the latest charges against him during testimony at the South Jakarta District Court, where he is facing the death penalty over allegations that he organized a series of terror strikes while behind bars.
Police said eight people died, including four militants, in two bomb explosions and shootings that unfolded during daylight hours on a busy avenue not far from Indonesia’s Presidential Palace.
Prosecutors on Friday asked Aman if he was involved in the attack, the first terrorist act claimed by the Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia.
"I didn’t instruct them to do it,” Aman replied. “I learned about it from other inmates who saw the news on TV.”
If convicted of charges that he plotted that attack, Aman could receive a life sentence or the death penalty, lawyers said.
Aman is the de facto leader of IS supporters in Indonesia, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. In January 2017 the U.S. government designated him a “global terrorist,” alleging that he founded the militant group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), composed of two dozen pro-IS groups.
Prosecutors said Aman had also inspired militants in a suicide attack that killed three police officers at a bus station in Jakarta last year and the Molotov cocktail blast that killed a 2-year-old and injured three other children at a church in Samarinda city in East Kalimantan province two years ago.
The attackers were inspired, prosecutors said, by Aman’s writings about “heathen” countries, and his translations of sermons by al-Qaeda figures, on millahibrahim.net – a site now blocked by the Indonesian government.
Aman denied this.
“My view of heathenism does not authorize bloodshed,” Aman told the court. “Like in Samarinda, that violates what I believe about how to behave towards Christians.”
He said his writings assert that a Muslim living among “heathens” is forbidden to steal from or otherwise disturb them – or to have physical contact with those who have fallen into “idolatry.”
“That’s the thrust of millahibrahim,” he said, apparently referring to the blocked website. “I never killed anyone.”
Prosecutors said they had studied Aman’s books and other writings known to have influenced militant groups, which were presented as evidence.
“There are orders to carry out jihad there,” prosecutor Mayasari told the court.
Inspiring militants while behind bars
Aman was first sent to prison in 2004 for seven years for a failed terror plot in West Java, but he was released in 2008 for good behavior.
He was re-arrested and again imprisoned in 2010 on charges that he set up a training camp for the now-disbanded militant group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) in Aceh province, at the northern end of Sumatra island.
His nine-year prison term on those charges was supposed to end in August 2017 as part of an Independence Day sentence-reduction scheme, but he was re-arrested a few days before his release after officials charged him of involvement in other terror attacks.
Aman’s trial spotlighted the loopholes in Indonesia’s overcrowded prison system, where terrorism plots are hatched and banned materials are smuggled in with ease, security analysts say.
“No question that Aman Abdurrahman is Indonesia's most important extremist ideologue, whose writings and sermons, disseminated online and over social media, influenced thousands,” Sidney Jones, director of Jakarta-based think-tank Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), told BenarNews.
Aman’s ability to reach out to his followers declined, as did his access to news about developments, when prison officials placed him in an isolation cell and took away his cellphone after the January 2016 Jakarta attacks, Jones said.
In April 2016, prison officials moved Aman from the maximum-security prison complex in Nusakambangan island, to a special isolation cell at the national police special operations headquarters in Depok, West Java, a suburb of Jakarta, Jones said.
The decision to transfer Aman came after police discovered that the four militants who mounted the Jakarta attack in January had visited him at least three times, officials said.
Intelligence officials believe Aman also made phone calls from Nusakambangan to someone in Raqqa, Syria, which was then an IS stronghold.
The phone calls were uncovered after authorities examined 14 mobile phones found in a jail cell he shared with Iwan Darmawan Muntho, who is on death row for his role in the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.
A link to Zarqawi
Aman, who was born in Sumedang, West Java, pledged allegiance to the militant group IS in 2014, according to court documents.
Aman attended Islamic boarding schools and studied at the Saudi-backed Islamic and Arabic College of Indonesia in Jakarta, also known as LIPIA, where he received a bachelor’s degree and graduated cum laude, according to the nonprofit Counter Extremism Project (CEP).
Aman began his career as a university lecturer but was dismissed in early 2000 for adopting a radical interpretation of Islam, CEP said.
Aman rapidly rose to popularity in the country’s low-tech extremist movement, security analysts told BenarNews.
Taufik Andrie, executive director of the Institute for International Peacebuilding, a Jakarta-based NGO, said Aman began promoting extremist views in 2004, after a court sentenced him to seven years in prison for bomb-making and terror activities.
While in prison, Aman apparently accessed writings attributed to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian-Palestinian writer also known as Essam Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi, a mentor of al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
“He became more active in interpreting al-Maqdisi's views and it was widespread,” Taufik told BenarNews. “It helped Aman gain popularity and he often received invitations to speak in many places.”
Solahudin, a terrorism researcher from University of Indonesia’s Center for Terrorism Studies and Social Conflict, said Aman started as a preacher at As-Shofa mosque in South Jakarta, and might have started gaining wider recognition in mid-2003.
“He is smart. He can memorize all verses in the Quran,” Solahudin told BenarNews.
On April 17, Solahudin told a court hearing that Aman was a source of knowledge for imprisoned IS sympathizers.
“The defendant is considered to be the most knowledgeable on IS ideology,” he said.
‘Those present chose an amir’
It was at the maximum-security Nusakambangan prison that Aman met Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists who carried out the 2002 Bali bombings.
Prosecutors said that Aman later collaborated with the ageing cleric to establish a jihadist training camp in Aceh, western Indonesia. Abdurrahman was arrested for his activities later that year and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority nation, has 477 prison facilities housing more than 201,500 prisoners, including 220 who were convicted of terrorism, IPAC said in a 2016 report.
“The poor physical state of the Indonesian prison infrastructure and serious overcrowding facilitates radicalization,” it said.
Navhat Nuraniyah, a research fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of Internatonal Studies, described Aman as “one of Indonesia’s most influential jihadi ideologues and a vocal promoter of ISIS,” the other name for IS.
IPAC, in its February 2016 report, said about 100 members of Indonesia’s pro-IS groups held a meeting on Nov. 20, 2015 at a hotel in Malang, East Java, and formed a new organization named Partisans of the Caliphate (Jamaah Ansharul Khilafah or JAK).
“Those present also chose an amir, but it remains unclear whether it is Aman Abdurrahman, although he is clearly the group’s dominant figure,” the report said. “Aman’s lack of jihad experience was a possible disqualifier.”