Nasir Abas, an ex-leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) who fought in Afghanistan and the Philippines, says he left the jihadist organization after it started targeting civilians.
The 45-year-old Malaysian was among thousands of young Southeast Asian Muslims who went off to fight the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
During his six years there, he met some Indonesians who later became notorious figures linked with terrorism in Southeast Asia. JI is the organization that carried out the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, and several smaller-scale attacks.
Among the Indonesians were Abu Bakar Bashir, the JI leader now imprisoned in Indonesia; Hambali, who is incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay; and Ali Ghufron, also known as Mukhlas, who was executed in 2008 for his role in the Bali attack.
While in JI, Nasir rose to head its Mantiqi III cell, whose operations covered Malaysia, the Philippines, and some parts of Indonesia.
He says he quit JI in 2003 because he did not agree with the movement’s shift toward terrorism, or Osama bin Laden’s call for Muslim radicals to undertake violent jihad.
Nasir has never been imprisoned for his years in JI. He now works for Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) as a consultant on its program to de-radicalize and reform terrorists.
Despite this, he says he still feels an emotional connection to his one-time mentor, Abu Bakar Bashir.
On April 15, Nasir sat down with BenarNews to talk about his experiences.
BenarNews: How did you come to join Jemaah Islamiyah?
Nasir: I met some Indonesian students in Malaysia when I was 16 years old and studying in Kuala Pilah, Malaysia. I was interested in getting to know them because they knew about Islam.
Two years later, they offered to take me to Afghanistan, and I agreed. At the time, my knowledge of Afghanistan was limited to books and news reports.
I departed from Kuala Lumpur to Karachi, then Peshawar and Sadda [on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border], with a group of 15 people. The trip was organized by some Indonesian people in Afghanistan.
After I arrived in Afghanistan, I realized that my friends were members of the Islamic State of Indonesia (NII). A lot of Indonesians were there.
I was placed at the Military Academy of Afghanistan Mujahideen, as part of the academy’s fifth generation.
They explained the goal: to return to Indonesia and continue NII’s mission of establishing an Islamic state. Although I am Malaysian, I understand that the establishment of Islamic State is a responsibility of all Muslims.
I was in Afghanistan for three years and graduated in 1990. I became an instructor, teaching at the academy from 1990 to 1993.
In 1993, the two leaders of the NII, Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar, left the NII and formed a new group …. From that point, I was no longer NII, but JI ….
BenarNews: Were you ever involved directly in militant actions?
Nasir: I was a weapons instructor after graduating in 1990 with the rank of second lieutenant. I taught about operating guns, machine guns, and artillery.
I was never involved in acts of terrorism, but I was involved in the war in Afghanistan.
In 1993, I went home, and, in 1994, I opened a camp in the Philippines. I fought alongside the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] ….
Terrorist actions killing civilians and not in a war – that I oppose.
In 1999, Hambali accepted Osama Bin Laden's invitation to all Muslims to seek revenge on Americans and their allies by killing civilians.
I did not agree. Hambali and other members agreed, including my brother-in-law Mukhlas, alias Ali Ghufron ….
My hands are clean of civilian casualties. But if the question is about the blood of soldiers, then yes, because of the war.
On April 18, 2003, I was arrested and interrogated by the Indonesian police. Soon after that, I decided to leave JI.
BenarNews: Was your sister’s marriage to Mukhlas part of a strategy to strengthen the organization?
Nasir: That was not the intention. I considered it normal.
We like people who are like us, don’t we? Not just in how we think, but in who we are.
Bataks prefer Bataks, Javanese prefer Javanese.
It wasn’t something strange. It was only because of the proximity.
BenarNews: What is your understanding of Jihad?
Nasir: Jihad means to fight with of all of your strength. So jihad does not only mean “war.” Jihad can also mean learn, work and preach.
Jihad fi sabilillah means war in Islam, and it is not a priority.
I am a strong defender of Islam, and I know that the first JI mission was not to reach the goal through war, but through propaganda, economic efforts, tarbiyah [education] and others means.
Why didn’t any wars occur in the 1980s when the first generations of Indonesians returned to Indonesia? Why did the incidents of violence in the name of Islam mostly occur in the 2000s?
This is because, initially, all JI members agreed to a no-war movement.
I led the Mantiqi III region, which included Malaysia, the Philippines, and some parts of Indonesia.
I was responsible for my jamaah [followers]. I tried to prevent them from being influenced by Osama and Hambali.
BenarNews: Why did you leave JI and how has your life been ever since?
Nasir: I knew JI had a mission to establish an Islamic state. Al-Qaeda had a mission for revenge.
It was not correct to insert al-Qaeda’s mission into JI’s mission. That’s what I didn’t agree with.
My loyalty, my marriage, my work were all for Islam. Actually, my life has always been ordinary, except for how I used to hide my JI activity.
After I left JI, it was hard to break away emotionally. I still have an emotional connection with Abu Bakar Bashir, even though we disagree with each other.
I do not agree with the bombings despite the perpetrators also being my brothers and family. Killing civilians is not true to Islam.