Terror suspects: Al Qaeda brainwashed us

Associated Press/February 18, 2007

Jakarta, Indonesia -- Basri sports a crude tattoo of Mickey Mouse on his wrist and spent his youth drinking alcohol and jamming to Nirvana songs in a rock band.

He was never religious, and even now struggles to remember verses from the Quran, Islam's holy book.

Yet until his arrest this month, the 30-year-old was one of Indonesia's most wanted Islamic militants.

He was accused in the beheadings of three Christian girls and a string of other attacks on Sulawesi island, a key terror front in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

In interviews with The Associated Press, Basri and four other militants detained with him said they were uneducated men, seeking to avenge relatives killed in a Muslim-Christian conflict six years ago.

They said they were brainwashed by members of the al Qaeda linked Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiyah.

"I was like buffalo with a ring though my nose," Basri said in the interview, which was arranged by police officers who were present through most of it. "If I was pulled, I had no choice but to follow."

Fertile terror recruiting ground

Basri's story shows the complexities of the anti-terror fight in Indonesia, where poor education, poverty and bloody religious fighting in remote provinces continue to provide recruits for Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings and other attacks on Western interests in Indonesia.

It is also a reminder of how al Qaeda's penetration of Sulawesi in 2001 helped create generations of Indonesian Islamic hardliners who are recruiting locals to fan the flames of religious conflict in the area even today.

Police say Basri has formally confessed to taking part in the school girl attack in late 2005, including personally beheading one of the three girls as they walked to school along a quiet jungle path overlooking the town of Poso.

Basri and the other suspects said they evaded arrest for years, learning weapons handling and bomb-making skills from revered Jemaah Islamiyah instructors who either fought or trained in Afghanistan or the southern Philippines -- another Southeast Asian terror hotspot just a short boat journey from Sulawesi.

The crackdown on Sulawesi that netted Basri saw more than 20 suspected Islamic militants killed or arrested -- including several Jemaah Islamiyah ringleaders. But police warn that several more escaped and have likely traveled to the country's main island of Java.

Basri repeated his confession to the AP, describing in detail its planning and execution.

"The preachers told us it was a form of worship," he said. "They said, 'The Christians cut of the heads of Muslim girls in the war, so know it is payback time."'

He killed 20, then cried

Basri claimed he was sorry "not just from my mouth but from deep in my heart."

But he nevertheless joked and laughed as he described how it took two swipes of his machete to lop the head off one of the girls.

Another suspect, Aat, described leaving a bomb in a crowded Christian market that killed 20.

"I didn't think it would be as powerful as that," he said. "I cried the next day."

Central Sulawesi saw 18 months of fighting between Muslim and Christian gangs six years ago that killed up to 1,000 people from both faiths.

Several Arab and Spanish al Qaeda members spent time in the province, handing out weapons and instructing Indonesian fighters at a coastal camp, according to Gen. Abdullah Hendropriyono, the intelligence agency's head at the time.

"It is a fact that al Qaeda took these people to Poso in 2001," he said after showing a reporter video footage of terror training seized from an Arab fighter at the time. "They wanted to create a religious war."

Basri, who goes by a single name, said he did not take part in those training sessions, but was nevertheless a frontline fighter in the war, describing how he saw several relatives killed.

A vow of secrecy

Indonesian authorities occasionally allow media access to terror suspects during investigations. Officers present during the interviews of Basri said this was to counter reports in hardline Islamic media that the men were being tortured or arrested without any evidence and to encourage other militants to give themselves up.

Basri and the other men described how they took an oath of secrecy with Jemaah Islamiyah teachers in 2003 before joining them for weekly indoctrination lessons that were wholly focused on the need for jihad, or holy war, against unbelievers.

In 2005, he and other militants took shooting lessons on a boat at sea, he said.

"These men did not pray or fast, they were gangsters seized upon by these preachers, who told them what they were doing was good, legal and justified by Allah," said Nasir Abbas, a former Jemaah Islamiyah leader in Sulawesi who has since turned police informant.

Basri's arrest came weeks after senior officers made public calls for him and the other men to turn themselves in and meet with local hard-line Muslim leaders to try to enlist their help, with no success.

Police raided their stronghold, sparking gunbattles that killed 14 militants.

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