Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Terrorism vs license to kill

In the investigation following the July 17 hotel bombings in Jakarta, at least six suspected terrorists, including Syaifudin Zuhri and Syahrir, were killed during raids by the police's elite counterterrorism squad, Detachment 88.

This squad is highly trained and has a license to kill. As a result, they managed to dramatically weaken this terrorist group's ability to mount major attacks in Indonesia. The squad's daring efforts clearly deserve credit and public appreciation because its members have demonstrated their tireless commitment to the task, risking their own lives in doing so.

However, does the killing of suspected terrorists not also mean that the police will lose the opportunity to glean valuable information from them, thereby further restricting their movements, curbing potential future operations, gaining knowledge of their sources of funding and other intelligence besides?

This is a legitimate question, and one that the authorities must address properly.
Why? Because like it or not, these days, with the popular use of various means of communications such as text messages, email and blogs, radio and newer social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, the public are now starting to wonder whether these terrorists, especially iconic figures such as Noordin M. Top, are real people or just mythical manifestations - mere avatars of terror. Some deem the whole focus on terrorism and terrorists to be mere hocus pocus.

Maybe these points sound irrational, even silly, considering the clear evidence of the results of DNA tests on the body of Noordin. His body has been sent to his family in Malaysia.

Why would doubts still linger? What more do skeptics wish to see? Could it perhaps be signaling the very important message that the public wants to see more professional work from the authorities?

Yes, indeed, we the Indonesian people suffered for a very long time under the acute and systematic "dumbing down" process that marked the iron rule of Soeharto's New Order regime. And so today, even though we now have widespread freedom of expression, we the Indonesian people still love our conspiracy theories.

Don't tell me you haven't heard of the conspiracy theories that emerged after the July 17 twin hotel attacks in Jakarta. Sadly, they were endorsed by obscure pundits in the media whose names we may never even have heard of.

Even our President conducted a highly personalized and awkward press conference that stirred more divisive political discourse than it provided assurance.

One of the classic examples of Soeharto's "dumbing down" of the nation concerns the case of "Komando Jihad". Many serious studies have been done by academics on the subject.

Their findings reveal the entrenched involvement of former leading Indonesian military intelligence agents Ali Murtopo and Pitut Soeharto.

These two men allegedly provoked former senior members of Darul Islam, the movement that sought to create an Islamic state of Indonesia, to revive their aims to fundamentally change Indonesia's secular system. Syaifudin Zuhri, killed by Detachment 88 on Friday, was dubbed by the police "someone who had connections with al-Qaeda". Such pronouncements evoke among those of who can remember bad memories of "dumbing down".

Although the police stated that their claims were based on information extracted from two laptops found during the raid near Surakarta in Central Java that killed Noordin, imagine how vital Zuhri's position was. Without him alive, how can we measure the level of truth of such claims?

The good news is that at least two other people may have the answer.

The first is Muhammad Jibril, the founder of the Ar Rahmah website and the son of known hard-liner Abu Jibril. Muhammad Jibril had been a member of the Al Ghuraba group in Pakistan. This group was never involved directly in any violent activities but clearly had knowledge of the groups involved and their plans and objectives in the region.
According to the police, Muhammad Jibril traveled with Zuhri to Pakistan to establish solid contact with al-Qaeda operatives. They also flew to Saudi Arabia to solicit fresh funds for the jihad movement here in Indonesia.

The other is Muhammad Ali, a Saudi Arabian who was staying at the JW Marriott Hotel prior to the bombing and who is known to have made certain phone calls. His face was captured in photographs together with Zuhri, who wore a glowing white robe. Ali wore a yellow shirt and, at that time, had a moderate beard.

But with the death of Zuhri, these suspects are unlikely to give the police a full account of their involvement in the recent bombings. They are smart enough to know the police will not be able to cross-check the information they provide. As a result, it is unlikely we will be able to complete the investigation into the trail of possible foreign funding, an investigation that is crucial to ascertaining "who's who" in the current terror paradigm.

Prospective donors to terrorist attacks will simply look for other players who will be ready to make good use of their money for a violent jihad. This means that we may, God forbid, see further attacks.

Zuhri is also a key figure to understanding how Noordin managed to transfer his recruiting skills to him or indeed to other jihadists whose existence remains unknown to the authorities. Some may argue that Noordin was able to win the hearts and minds
of a handful of otherwise normal individuals whom he "brainwashed" into being his deadly suicide bombers because he was not Indonesian and had no emotional connection to Indonesia or its people. Zuhri was Sundanese, a people known for their amiability. From the ranks of these affable young Muslim men, Noordin was able to carve out committed, violent killers.

What then are the implications of these killings on the morale of the terrorist groups concerned? Has it demoralized them?

The answer is no!

In a recent interview, one former Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) member sent to prison for terror offences, stated his intent to continue the violence as long as conditions allowed. He said the deaths of Zuhri and Syahrir would neither deter nor reduce their commitment to the cause, adding, "We understood on the day that we joined the group that we risked being killed in action, but to do so is an honor for us because heaven awaits us there."

Known radicals and hard-liners continue to promote these men as martyrs to a rightful cause, warriors in a just fight. Prison has failed to prevent dangerous and committed individuals from re-offending.

Detachment 88 is killing suspects and failing to take them alive. These are the points to which the discourse on terrorism must turn.

Noor Huda Ismail, Jakarta. The writer, the executive director of an international institute for peace building, earned a master's degree in international security at St. Andrews University, Scotland

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