Updated at 4:52 p.m. ET on 2019-02-08
Authorities have portrayed him as a bomb expert – and he admitted to carrying out Indonesia’s first known bombing launched by a foreign terrorist, according to police.
Taufik Abdul Halim expressed no remorse while recalling how he tried to set off a bomb at Jakarta’s Atrium Plaza shopping complex 18 years ago.
The bomb, hidden in a Dunkin’ Donuts box, exploded prematurely, police said. It blew off part of Taufik’s right leg, and flying debris injured six other people.
“I have no regrets for what happened,” Taufik told BenarNews during a wide-ranging two-hour interview.
In it, he talked about his past, the struggles that one of his two daughters has had to go through as a child of a convicted terrorist, and what caused him to launch an attack in a foreign land.
“In Islam, we know that it is not permissible to murder women, young children and all that, but when we do our strikes and they are killed, what can one do? They are collateral damage,” he said. “They were affected by our attacks not because we purposely wanted to do it.”
Taufik, who returned home to Malaysia in 2014 after serving 12 years in an Indonesian prison, claims he never had a chance to build a bomb.
‘My decision all the way’
Still, militancy flows in the blood of some of Taufik’s relatives: His brother-in-law, Zulkifli bin Hir (alias “Marwan”) was killed in 2015 during a southern Philippine raid, which went awry and led to the deaths of 44 police commandos.
Marwan was suspected of heading the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia terror group, the U.S. State Department said in 2007, as it offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest. Washington had accused Marwan of involvement in deadly bomb attacks in the Philippines.
Marwan’s brother, Rahmat Abdhir, was in an American prison in 2008 for financing terror activities, according to news reports. Marwan’s cousin Mohamad Nazir Lep, an alleged member of the militant groups Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda, is also one of the two Malaysians still being detained at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
But Taufik, 43, said he was never influenced by Marwan, contrary to claims by Indonesian police.
“It was my decision all the way right from the beginning. They do their own thing, I do my own thing,” he said.
“It is like when I wanted to go to Maluku I told him (Marwan) I wanted to go. He did not ask me to go there. It has nothing to do with him or the others. He knew I was going but my siblings or parents were not aware,” he said, referring to the Indonesian province.
Indonesian authorities said Taufik had placed the bomb in the donut container, and was carrying it into the Atrium mall when it went off too soon. Police said "it was Indonesia's first known attack by an international terrorist," according to the Los Angeles Times.
The bomb was meant to be detonated at a church inside the mall area, Taufik said, as he provided previously unreported details about the bombing.
“There were a few people in our group,” he said. “Our initial mission wasn’t to launch an attack (at the mall), but to assassinate a few people who were the leaders and provocateurs in the earlier Maluku sectarian conflict.”
Taufik was referring to deadly clashes that broke out between Muslims and Christians in the Indonesian province, including in several areas of its capital Ambon, in the late 1990s.
He said the original targets of that bombing had been tipped off, “so we had to do something, and the plan changed.” Members of his group delivered bombs in three other target places, including a church, he said, but the person who was tasked to carry his bomb had cold feet.
“So I decided to deliver it myself,” he said. “But the package exploded before it arrived at the intended target.”
“I would have run if I could, but I realized I didn’t have a leg,” he said.
Due to his serious injuries, Taufik had to be hospitalized under heavy guard. Three months later, authorities charged him for the explosion and his links to other terror attacks.
Taufik was initially sentenced to death, but it was later redacted to 20 years imprisonment after his attorneys filed an appeal.
Taufik has been closely watched by the police since he was deported to Malaysia after serving his sentence in the neighboring country. Five police officers were present while BenarNews was interviewing him at a site chosen and paid for by the police.
About 50 convicted terrorists and Islamic State (IS) sympathizers were being monitored by Malaysian police nationwide since 2013, according to Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the director of the police’s counter-terrorist special branch.
“Our team is always monitoring Taufik to make sure he does not return to his old activities,” Ayob told BenarNews, as he acknowledged that Malaysian police had no reason to arrest Taufik because he had not been involved in any criminal activities in his home country.
Life after prison
After his release from prison in 2014, Taufik returned to Malaysia and started a new life with his Indonesian wife, whom he married while in prison. He is believed to be working as a farmer and lives with their two daughters.
Taufik is a free man who can visit his relatives any time. But he complained about freedom.
“People see life in prison being hard, but actually being free is harder,” he said. “Day-to-day survival is hard. Right now all I think of is my parents, my children, wife and my siblings.”
Taufik, who wore an oversized purple collared shirt and a sarong during the interview, said no one ever dared to confront him about his past, even though he knew that his village neighbors were aware of his history.
“I was approached by kids at the mosque. They kept asking me what happened to my leg and asked me if it was blown off in an explosion,” the bearded Taufik said. “So, there I knew they would not be able to get this information without having it being told to them.”
Throughout the interview he conveyed his answers to the questions in a soft and barely audible voice; the bomb blast back in 2001 apparently affected his hearing.
He wore a prosthetic leg, but walked with an air of confidence as he strode in and out of the interview room.
He said that although he could tolerate people’s perception about him and his past, it somehow had indirectly affected his 13-year-old daughter.
“One day, she came home crying. She was bullied. Someone said something about me. It was about me being in prison,” Taufik said. “I told her that not all those who went to prison are bad people.”
As he answered questions, Taufik remained calm. He did not deny what he had done, even providing insights about his teenage years when his family lived in the violence-hit Kashmir region, and how he ended up undergoing training in 1994 at a camp of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-backed militant group.
The militants trained him in how to use assault rifles, he said, and he also received training at a camps controlled by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But he rebuffed claims from authorities that he was a bomb expert.
“I know the parts and I know what would make a bomb, but I have never made one,” he said.
Not even the one he was holding in Jakarta, he said. “Another group assembled it and we just made sure it was delivered to the intended location,” he said.
But he said he had accepted the consequences of his former militant links.
Asked if, given a chance, he would change anything about his past, Taufik hurled back a serious stare and minced no words:
“What if, what if, what if,” he said. “It is delusional.”
“What I have now, what I have to do, that’s all there is. I am firmly in reality,” he said. “I am in a village with one leg missing, so I have to do what I have to do, what I am capable of doing.”
Nani Yusof contributed to this report from Washington.