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Tracking a reign of terror

The jihadist belief in mati syahid, espousing victory through death, presents an uncomfortable and troubling contest for would-be adversaries. Facing an enemy swelling in number, unflinching in their ideological cause and unperturbed by even the direst of terrorist acts, nations have reacted forcefully to threats at home and abroad. However, confronted with a vanishing battlefield, where opponents have instead become surreptitious targets, there is little to suggest that victory is at hand, despite intermittent successes. As Sally Neighbour laments in In the Shadow of Swords, ‘And none of these separate defeats will quench the deadly conviction of those who wage terror in the name of Islam, or extinguish the dark and powerful ideas that nourish that conviction.’

Neighbour, a veteran reporter and foreign correspondent with the ABC, frequently returns to this affirmation—‘in the name of Islam’—in tracking the fanatical rise of the Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) movement throughout the Indonesian archipelago and beyond. For many of JI’s acolytes, it is religious teaching through madrasses and halaqahs, which dictate belief systems and the notion of a pure Islamic state. For others, particularly the more senior religious zealots, it is the corruption of Islamic culture by Western imperialists which fortifies their radical convictions. Though their anger is tapped from a range of sources, their brand of jihad is declared and delivered through the trinity of ‘faith, brotherhood and military strength’.

Through scrupulous research and use of intelligence sources, Neighbour presents a detailed criminal map, beginning and ending with the invidious cleric Abu Bakar Bashir. Descended from a large merchant family, Bashir grew up during the Sukarno era, a period marked by strong nationalistic fervour following the fall of Dutch sovereignty. Latching on to a new doctrine seeking to modernise the Islamic faith and strengthen the fundamental truths of the Koran against dangerous Western ideals, Bashir soon became a prominent figure in the Islamic youth movement. Newly acquainted with Abdullah Sungkar, a like-minded revivalist, the pair began to spread this new teaching through the establishment of ‘Jemmah Islamiyah’, or ‘Islamic Communities’. Under the Suharto regime, which had already brutally suppressed the Communist Party, Bashir and Sungkar were imprisoned on a charge of subversion, following their repeated denunciations of the ruling power and apparent plans to wage war against the government and remaining ‘unbelievers’. After serving a three-year prison term, during which time Amnesty International labelled them ‘prisoners of conscience’, the now celebrated leaders fled to the relative safety of Malaysia to avoid rearrest. From here, Bashir and Sungkar would engineer the JI operation, slowly abandoning the more proselytising influence of their Darul Islam movement and instilling a discipline and resolve within JI members that would later manifest itself in bloody action.

From their home in exile, Bashir and Sungkar carefully nurtured the JI network, luring new recruits through Islamic boarding schools and study groups. Through this process, JI identified a devoted and skilful cadre of leaders who would serve as recruiters, trainers and technical experts in JI’s forthcoming reign of terror.

Neighbour’s exhaustive investigations reveal the warming relations between JI and the Afghan mujahadeen and, later, the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorist network, which sought sanctuary within the sympathetic fundamentalist regime. Initially, the rise of jihad against the occupying Soviet army provided an ideal opportunity for JI to dispatch eager young recruits for military training inside Afghanistan to complement their religious scholarship. It was during this time that a young and idealistic Osama Bin Laden made his first appearance in the Pakistan frontier town of Peshawar offering finance, expertise and solidarity. With his reverent presence and credibility as a mujahadeen fighter, Osama earned enormous respect within JI and helped fuel anti-Western sentiment among Muslim populations around the world.

Though the story frequently shifts between the Indonesian archipelago, the front lines of Afghanistan and later to the heartland of suburban Australia, there is little discord in the narrative. Neighbour explores the motivations and machinations of the terrorist organisations with great depth and clarity, most notably through her profile of the JI leadership: Bashir, the callous signatory to JI’s crimes; Muklas, the pious ideologue; and Amrozi, the childhood degenerate whose plastered smile would crystallise much of the hatred felt by victims of the Bali bombing. Like Amrozi, many of JI’s followers were enticed into the movement from a position of hopelessness or distraction: Arnasan, the devout but naive trigger man for the Bali operation; Jack Roche, the burly Yorkshireman who turned to JI for companionship and solace; and Dr Azhari, a well-educated and prosperous academic who would be trained as an expert JI bomb maker. The chapters on JI’s activities in Australia are particularly illuminating given the original scope for terrorist activities inside Australia and the apparent failings of Australian intelligence networks.

Though both ingenious and audacious in its planning, JI was reliant on a steady stream of finance from al Qaeda, expert training in the guerrilla camps of Afghanistan and the Philippines and a steady stream of foot soldiers willing to undertake the Bai’at rite confirming their path of allegiance. However, as JI began to step up its militancy, anti-terrorist forces responded in kind, making a number of high-level arrests and preventing a number of potentially devastating attacks.

Of the Bali bombing itself, Neighbour gives a clinical description of the meticulous planning undertaken by the suicide operative. Rather than sensationalising the horrific aftermath, she skilfully allows the reader to find the right emotional response in the cold indifference of the perpetrators.

The author briefly imposes her voice in the final chapter, The Fortress of Faith, attempting to situate the global ‘test’ now facing the Muslim and Western worlds. While these polemics are far too broad for Neighbour to address here, it is clear her inkling is far from optimistic.

Fundamentally, In the Shadow of Swords is a confronting exposé of the JI movement and a valuable reminder of Australia’s implication and necessary involvement in the anti-terrorist cause. But its afterthoughts are compelling. As Neighbour contemplates, in the shadow of Bali: ‘Amid the shock and outrage and urge for revenge, there was a desperate need to understand—what was this “ravine of hate”? And how on earth had we found ourselves on the other side?’

In the Shadow of Swords: On the trail of terrorism from Afghanistan to Australia, Sally Neighbour.
HarperCollins, 2004. isbn 0 732 28010 9, $29.95

Ben Fraser works with Australian Volunteers International.



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