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Repentant Terrorists

Aired December 22, 2005 - 18:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST (voice-over): When a terrorist turns.

NASIR ABAS, FMR. JI LEADER: I feel very sorry. And also I feel there is a sin upon me.

MANN: One of Asia's most feared extremist has a change of heart.


Hello and welcome.

Terrorists don't seem like a sensitive lot. By definition, they're people who do things beyond the pale, unconscionable things. So consider the case of a terrorist who began to doubt what he was doing, listened to his conscience, and is asking others to listen as well. Is he sincere or just a manipulative figure trying to escape his past?

On our program today, a post-capture conversion. Here's CNN's Mike Chinoy.


MIKE CHINOY, CNN SR. ASIA CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Training for jihad in the jungles of Southeast Asia, members of the radical group Jemaah Islamiya fighting to turn the region into an Islamic state linked with al Qaeda and blamed for terrorist attacks from Bali to Jakarta to Manila. Now the man who set up and ran JI's main training camp, 36-year-old Malaysian Nasir Abas, has broken with his fellow holy warriors over the issue of attacks on innocent civilians.

ABAS: Our job is just to protect our belief in Islam, to protect the Muslims, to protect our homeland. That is jihad. But if you -- if we are -- if jihad is meaning to kill the civilians, non-Muslim, that is not jihad.

CHINOY: Like many Muslim extremists, the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan 20 years ago is what drew a teenaged Abas to jihad.

ABAS: People all over the world say that they are Mujahedeen, doing the holy war, defending their rights, defending Islam. So I am willing to go there.

CHINOY: Abas spent six years in Afghanistan fighting the Russians, working as a weapons instructor at a jihadi training camp. Here he met and became friends with the men who would later form the core of Jemaah Islamiya. Men like the Indonesian preacher Riduan Siamuddin, also known as Hambali, who became JI's key liaison with al Qaeda and is widely considered to be the mastermind of the October 2002 Bali bombing, and is now in American custody.

ABAS: He's always preaching to hit a non-Muslim. They say that non- Muslim is Islam's enemy.

CHINOY: In the mid-1990s Abas returned to Southeast Asia and established Camp Hudibiya (ph) in the southern Philippines. Thousands of Muslim fighters were trained there.

ABAS: Teaching how to use guns, how to fight against the troops, military, because what I'm teaching is just use for in battlefield, to use for defending their homeland.

CHINOY: Among his close associates in the southern Philippines was Indonesian Fatar al-Gozi (ph), who became one of JI's top bomb makers, responsible for a December 2000 blast in Manila in which a dozen people died. Al-Gozi (ph) was later shot and killed by Philippine police after escaping from jail.

By that time, Abas had risen to become head of Jemaah Islamiya's Mantiki (ph) or Division Three, in charge of all activities for eastern Malaysia, the Southern Philippines and Northern Indonesia.

On October 12, 2002, Jemaah Islamiya carried out its most spectacular attack, blowing up two bars packed with Westerners in a resort island of Bali. Over 200 people died. For Nasir Abas, who knew almost all of those involved but did not know of the plot, it was a turning point.

ABAS: I feel upset when I heard some of my friends, some of my students, some of my relatives, you know, like Ali Grufanis (ph), he is my brother-in-law. He is involved in the Bali bombs of October. So I feel upset, yeah. I think that this is the wrong way they have chosen. They misused the knowledge.

CHINOY: Six months later, as Indonesian police continued their crackdown on JI after the bombing, Nasir Abas was arrested and jailed for almost a year on immigration charges.

ABAS: When I got arrest, I say thank God that I got arrest. So this is the time for me -- this is a chance and the time for me to explain to the people, you know, that the ideology is wrong.

CHINOY: But the bombings continued, attacks on the Australian embassy and the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta. And just this past October another suicide attack in Bali which left 20 dead.

But a growing number of people inside Jemaah Islamiya agreed with Abas. The organization split over the value and morality of terrorism. Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group is one of the leading experts on JI.

SIDNEY JONES, INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP: We have seen the Jemaah Islamiya organization as a whole in fact pull back from bombing and distance itself from attacks on foreigners.

ABAS: . not agree with the bomb in the (INAUDIBLE) area.

CHINOY: Released from prison, Abas began to speak out in public, denouncing his one-time comrades, urging that the battle against what he calls the deviant ideology of Osama bin Laden be taken to Indonesia's religious schools or pasantran (ph), where many young terrorists have been recruited over the years.

ABAS: We explain to them that the ideology is deviant, it's deviation of Islam, a misunderstanding, misinterpretation about -- Islam is about holy Koran. So that we must do. We must make a debate with any preachers that believe that that is jihad.

CHINOY: The Indonesian authorities are following Abas's advice. And the Bali blasts in October gave them a new weapon. The suicide bombers prepared videos beforehand justifying their options, videos the government shared with the country's religious leadership, some of whom had been reluctant to challenge the extremists.

JONES: I think the video where you had suicide bombers explaining their actions in terms of their commitment to Islam shocked people.

CHINOY: A month after the latest Bali bombing, the government scored another success. Azhari bin Husin, believed to have designed the bombs used in all of JI's big attacks in Indonesia, was killed by police in a shootout.

But there is still a desperate hardcore led by Malaysian Nordin Top, JI's leading strategist and recruiter, thought to be the man in this video justifying the Bali blasts. In November he commissioned this Web site, which sent chills through the foreign community here.

(on camera): The Web site contained maps and diagrams of areas of Central Jakarta frequented by foreigners and advice about how to take advantage of the capital's notorious traffic to get up close with a gun, kill a Westerner and get away.

(voice-over): The man who actually produced the Web site was soon arrested, but the episode underscored the danger that still exists. For his part, Nasir Abas is struggling with the guilt of knowing how many terrorists he trained.

ABAS: The worst mistake? When I knew some of the students misused the knowledge that I had teached them. Yes. Then I feel very upset with them and I feel very sorry and also I feel there is a sin upon me.

CHINOY: In the battle for the soul of the Islamic world, there aren't many people like Nasir Abas, a terrorist leader who came in from the cold and chose to speak out knowing men he fought with now want him dead.

ABAS: Yes, I'm worried, yeah, I'm worried. But I'm always be aware, you know. And I believe that God always protect me and my life is in the hand of God. If God's will, I cannot stop it.

CHINOY: Mike Chinoy, CNN, Jakarta.


MANN: Jemaah Islamiya may be weakened, but it is still a threat. We'll take a closer look after a break.

Stay with us.


MANN: Jemaah Islamiya is still a very dangerous group. In the raid last month which led to the death of Azhari bin Husin, police discovered 35 bombs that were described as ready to use. They also found a videotape that threatened attacks against Americans, Australians, British and Italians. The U.S. government says Indonesia is now unsafe for Westerners.

Welcome back.

So with some members of the group still quite willing to keep on killing, how much do the doubts and divisions inside Jemaah Islamiya really count for?

A short time ago we got in touch with Zachary Abuza, professor of political science at Boston's Simmons College and author of "Militant Islam is Southeast Asia: Crucible of Terror."

We talked about Nasir Abas and his decision to leave Jemaah Islamiya.


ZACHARY ABUZA, AUTHOR: Nasir bin Abas was really the first and one of the only people that split away within the organization over this. He did not believe that targeting innocent civilians was legitimate jihad and this person certainly was committed to his cause. He just thought that the targeting of individuals and civilians was wrong.

But there has been very few other people who have actually recanted or felt that this was a wrong strategy. One of the three brothers who were responsible for the Bali bombings basically said in his trials that he was repentant for what he did, but people like them are far and few between.

MANN: What influence have they had? Has anything about Jemaah Islamiya changed as a result?

ABUZA: I don't think so. Leaders of Jemaah Islamiya have denounced Nasir bin Abas. The spiritual leader of the organization, Abu Bakar Baasyir, has lashed out towards Abas with all sorts of indicatives.

What you do see more in JI right now is there is a debate over targeting Western interests, but it's not a moral issue, whether it is the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do. It's whether it's a counterproductive strategy or not in that when they go after Western interests, such as Bali or the J.W. Marriott Hotel, that gets the government to crackdown hard on them, and really gets the Americans and the Australians involved.

There are many within JI that simply think that right now that that strategy is counterproductive, and they're putting much more of their emphasis into fomenting sectarian violence out in the outer islands of Indonesia, that attract very little attention by the Indonesian government and no attention whatsoever from the West.

MANN: That's intriguing. And yet there was that raid last month in which the police say they found 35 bombs and a tape warning that there would be more attacks against Westerners.

ABUZA: Right. And I think that's clear, that this is not a monolithic organization. It's a very horizontal organization with individual cells that are going to go off and do their things.

Since 2002, there really has been a breakdown in the central command and control of the organization. So you still have cells of individuals, such as the late Dr. Al-Zahari (ph), who was killed last month, as well as, you know, others, such as Nordin Mohamman Muktab (ph), that still want to take the fight to the West. Most, whether they want to or not, are more focused on rebuilding JI's depleted ranks.

MANN: Well, let me ask you about that. How good or how effective have been government efforts in Indonesia and elsewhere to destroy JI?

ABUZA: Well, they've been pretty good. There have been more than 300 arrests around Southeast Asia, around 200 in Indonesia. The problem, though, is that you're not going to decapitate an organization like JI. They can simply recruit and tap new leaders faster than they can be arrested. And so any counter-terror strategy that's based on going after the leadership alone is bound for failure.

My main criticism of the Indonesian government and other governments is that they have not gone after the social networks of terror. For example, they've identified madras linked to JI or the Indonesian government hasn't even banned JI as an organization. So simply being a member of JI is not going to get you in jail in Indonesia unless the authorities can link you to a terrorist attack.

Likewise, there are all sorts of JI-related charities and NGOs, civil society organizations, that are free and operating in the open.

MANN: Even Nasir Abas got just a year in jail -- just a year in jail on an immigration charge.

ABUZA: Right. And Nasir Abas was a very senior leader within JI, really at the top of the organization at the time of his capture. Indonesian authorities, though, have given him very light sentences simply because of his role in working, a, with the police and intelligence services, identifying JI cells and the network and explaining how it worked. But probably more importantly, he's played a very, very key role in working with captured JI members and trying to re-educate them and teach them why what they were doing was wrong.

MANN: Do you think he really is sincere when he says he's sorry?

ABUZA: Well, I think he's sincere in that he believes that terrorism is wrong. That's not to say that he's not committed to the end goals of JI, and that is establishing an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. He simply has started to -- you know, came to terms that it could be accomplished without a campaign of violence against innocent civilians.

So I think he really has turned around, but I still don't necessarily agree with his goals.

MANN: Zachary Abuza, of Simmons College, thank you so much for talking with us.


What goes on in the minds of terrorists? A conversation about their motives after the break.

Stay with us.


MANN: Is al Qaeda having second thoughts about its own kind of killing? U.S. authorities say they intercepted a letter from al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahri to the groups leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. According to the United States, al-Zawahri cautions that "The Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable the scenes of slaughtering the hostages."

Welcome back.

If that text is authentic, it suggests that another group of terrorists is also considering its methods, though only for purely pragmatic reasons.

A short time ago we got in touch with Jessica Stern, author of "Terror in the Name of God." She said terrorists from a wide variety of backgrounds do rethink what they're doing for moral reasons too.


JESSICA STERN, AUTHOR: There are quite a few cases where some terrorists within a given organization decide that the leadership have gone too far. In fact, that happened when al Qaeda decided deliberately to target American civilians. A number of al Qaeda members quit because they thought that was counter to Islam. So this happens. And also some individual terrorists at the last moment will chicken out morally of an operation that they consider to be stepping over the line. That has also happened, in the case of Amshin Weiko (ph), for example.

MANN: Now, you mention al Qaeda. I'm going to interrupt to ask you about that because there is, of course, this famous letter that we alluded to, to al Qaeda in Iraq, saying that the grisly scenes of murder are hurting the group's popularity. That's not a moral concern, it's a pragmatic one. Do pragmatic concerns, mercenary concerns, tend to outweigh the moral issues?

STERN: Well, it depends on the individual terrorist. I think that terrorism is theater and the level of violence has to be moderated to attract the maximum number of supporters, the maximum number of recruits, and the maximum amount of financial assistance.

And so terrorist leaders have to think very carefully about how much violence is enough to make them look like the strong horse, as bin Laden would put it, but not like ruthless amoral killers, which is how Zawahri has begun seeing Zarqawi, at least according to that letter, if it's in fact truly a letter written by Zawahri.

MANN: So what is your sense? Are these people who are battling their own demons, battling within themselves to be sure that they're doing the right thing? Or are they the cold-blooded killers that everyone imagines them to be?

STERN: Well, I think that there are both types within terrorist organizations. I think there are people who see themselves as saints, who think that they are serving the broader interest, who believe that they are serving God as well as their co-religionists, who are under threat. And then there are those who are really in the business of terrorism either to achieve notoriety, fame, money or political power. And over time we see individual terrorists becoming more cynical, but we also see terrorist organizations sometimes moving away from the original mission and beginning to operate sometimes just for money. The IRA is a very good example of that. They're now offering their services to the highest bidder.

MANN: The IRA Republican movement, in Northern Ireland, is a good example. Jemaah Islamiya is maybe a better one, of groups that have been split over this issue, not just individuals having this debate but terrorist organizations that themselves can't hold together. How hard is it for organizations to debate these kinds of things, and do they tend to split? Do they tend to just rollover the people who are standing in the way?

STERN: They do tend to split. And in fact the real IRA came out of the IRA -- the real IRA that was responsible for the most significant lethal attack that was a more violent offshoot. We often see, actually -- especially as peace processes go forward -- splinter groups break off where the more violent individuals go, or a subset, go one way and those who don't want to become that violent turning away.

And this has happened in Egypt, it's something that we routinely see.

MANN: I just want to ask one last question. The fellow that we've been profiling on this program, Nasir Abas, had his change of heart after he was arrested. Does that make you doubt his sincerity? Do these conversions tend to happen on death row more often than when people are active and successful?

STERN: I think these reverses happen for all kinds of reasons. One young man that I met turned against a jihadi organization affiliated with al Qaeda when he realized that his boss, the leader of that group, was, he felt, taking advantage of young men, načve young men, using them as canon fodder in a losing jihad. And he was making a lot of money. He was morally repulsed by what he saw his leader doing.

There are so many different reasons. I know of another individual who did have second thoughts about what he was doing, in fact very serious second thoughts, while he was in prison. It can happen any time.

MANN: Fascinating stuff. Jessica Stern, of Harvard University, author most recently of "Terror in the Name of God." Thank you so much for talking with us.


And that's INSIGHT. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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