The Tenth Parallel: Eliza Griswold Takes a Trip with a Terrorist

Ibnu Ahmad was a killer, and member of the militant group notorious for the Bali bombings that left 202 people dead. Eliza Griswold gets a personal tour of his old battlegrounds—and eccentric personality.

Al Qaeda militant (Feisal Omar / Reuters)

A Muzak rendition of Beethoven's “Ode to Joy” echoed through the Jakarta airport's domestic terminal shortly after dawn. A 40-year-old man wearing knockoff Ray-Ban Wayfarers and an Al Jazeera baseball cap shuffled along with a large cardboard box poked with holes tucked under his arm. A minor celebrity within the world of international jihad, Farihin Ibnu Ahmad, aka “Yasir,” was barely known outside of it. He was renowned for his violent pedigree, although few people other than militants would have recognized his broad, hangdog face. He sidled up to a plainclothes security officer and thrust the box toward him.

On the ride to Sulawesi, Ibnu Ahmad listened to John Lennon’s “Imagine” over and over through a pair of flimsy earphones. “Al Jazeera,” he would joke from time to time, pointing to his cap.

“Will the X-ray machine kill them?” he asked. The officer pulled back one of the box's dog-eared corners to reveal a pair of rabbits, mottled black and white, noses twitching wildly at the unfamiliar smells of stale coffee and perfume. Ibnu Ahmad (ibnu in Indonesian, like bin in Arabic, means “son of”) wanted to know if he should check the rabbits or if he could carry them on the plane. The officer glanced up from the rabbits to Ibnu Ahmad's face, half hidden beneath the baseball cap. Though I was there to meet Ibnu Ahmad, I scooted furtively to the other side of the corridor, certain he was about to be arrested.

The rabbits should have been the least of the security officer's concerns: Ibnu Ahmad was a killer, and member of Jemaah Islamiyah, a lethal group of Southeast Asian militants notorious for the 2002 Bali bombings, which left 202 people dead. The militants' ties to al Qaeda were precisely through men like Ibnu Ahmad.

For generations, Ibnu Ahmad's family has been part of an Islamist movement first opposing Western colonialism and later fighting for Indonesia to become an Islamic state. When he was 16, Ahmad's family offered him a choice: Did he want to be an Islamic teacher or a fighter? He chose to be a fighter, and in 1987 he shipped out to al Qaeda's Al-Sadda camp in the saw-toothed, snowy mountains on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to fight in the jihad against the Soviets. He learned to build explosives and heard a couple of sermons given by Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian preacher who served as Osama bin Laden's spiritual mentor. Azzam believed that every Muslim was duty bound to fight or pay for global jihad until the holy lands of Islam were restored to their former glory. He preached that Islam's future lay in reviving its ideal, seventh-century past by whatever means necessary.

When Ibnu Ahmad returned to Indonesia in the '90s, he brought with him a bloody, millennarian worldview intended to overthrow the secular government, and a network of contacts. In Jakarta, the nation's buzzing capital, he became one of Jemaah Islamiyah's most ardent deputies. In 1996, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks, visited Jakarta, Ibnu Ahmad served as his tour guide. He did the personal bidding of Hambali (aka Riduan bin Isomuddin, known as al Qaeda's kingpin in Southeast Asia), and he helped plan an attack on the American embassy in Jakarta.

“The instruction was to drive a suicide truck into the U.S. embassy, or get a helicopter to bomb them from above,” Ibnu Ahmad said. The plan, apparently, did not work out. His surveillance photographs of the embassy building proved too blurry to show to al Qaeda higher-ups in Afghanistan.

In August 2000, the group ended up bombing the Philippine ambassador's residence instead, killing two Indonesians and injuring the ambassador. Most recently, Ibnu Ahmad was imprisoned twice for waging jihad against Christians on the island of Sulawesi, one of the largest of the 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia's vast archipelago.

With 240 million people, eight of 10 of whom are Muslims, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world. (Protestants make up about 6 percent of the rest of population; Catholics, 3 percent; Hindus, less than 5 percent.) Indonesia is also a vibrant young democracy, which held its first presidential elections only in 2004. In 1998, after 32 years in power, the strong centralized government of President Suharto collapsed and political power spread to the outlying islands. On Sulawesi, power became something worth fighting for, and Christians and Muslims began to battle over local elections. As in Nigeria (where military dictatorship ended in 1999), in Indonesia's wobbly new democracy, political and religious affiliations soon reinforced one another.

Once the religious violence began, Ibnu Ahmad traveled by boat to Sulawesi to train his Muslim brothers in how to fight a guerrilla war against infidels. His training in Afghanistan hadn't been about killing Christians, however, but about overthrowing the secular government. Back at home in Indonesia, there were arguments among the militants as to whether these skirmishes were the right ones to fight. Ibnu Ahmad went to Sulawesi anyway, where he was caught carrying 31,000 rounds of ammunition, tried, convicted, and imprisoned. He wasn't interested in talking about the electroshock or waterboarding he was subjected to in prison. “My brain doesn't work right, it's like a broken computer,” was all he would say. But evidence of his treatment seemed all too visible in his absent stares and broken teeth.

Apparently the security officer at the Jakarta airport didn't recognize Ibnu Ahmad: After allowing the rabbits to be checked, he let him go without incident. Ibnu Ahmad strolled back across the gleaming terminal to where I stood with Zamira Loebis, a journalism professor and Time reporter in her forties, who was traveling along with us to interpret. From beneath her blunt bob, Loebis' eyes found mine in disbelief that Ibnu Ahmad had been allowed to check the rabbits as luggage. An animal lover, she had a household full of cats and dogs; she'd even rescued two parrots from different religious battlegrounds.

These rabbits were a gift for Ibnu Ahmad's newborn son and his second wife, Farhia, 28, whom he had met while still in prison on Sulawesi, where the three of us were headed this morning. “Fathers used to come to the prison to marry their daughters off to us,” he said wistfully.

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Otherwise, Ibnu Ahmad was broke. This is where I came in. For the price of his plane ticket home, and the chance to see his wife and child, he was going to show me how he had grafted a war of worlds onto this local conflict. He missed the days when he was a folk hero, when the difference between good and evil was glaringly clear, when identity and ideology were as simple as fear, a face mask, and the scrawl of a cross or a crescent on a wall. For the past two years, lack of funding and divisions over the meaning of jihad had been tearing Jemaah Islamiyah militants apart, and their beliefs and tactics seemed to have lost favor among local people and prospective recruits. Several months before our trip, three Christian teenage girls had been beheaded on Sulawesi while walking to school; one's head, wrapped in a black plastic bag, was dropped on the front step of a local church. A fourth teenager, Noviana Malewa, had also been attacked, but survived. No one had been arrested yet for these crimes, but most thought the attackers must have come from among the hard-core fighters such as Ibnu Ahmad. Now the former heroes were pariahs.

On the ride to Sulawesi, Ibnu Ahmad listened to John Lennon's “Imagine” over and over through a pair of flimsy earphones. “Al Jazeera,” he would joke from time to time, pointing to his cap. He liked to tease me about the differences between our two worlds, which he viewed as being in opposition: America and I and all Christians on one side, he and Al Jazeera and the world's Muslims on the other. The conflict in Indonesia, however, was much more complicated. Every government arm that received counterterrorism funding from the international community, namely the U.S. and Australia, had a stake in the conflict. It was clear that the conflict had little to do with religion per se and everything to do with competition over who controlled the local government and, by extension, the economy. These realities hadn't occurred to Ibnu Ahmad, who clung to his worldview and the peace of mind it seemed to provide him, oblivious to the fact that the rest of his country had moved beyond the jihad he thought he was fighting.

Ibnu Ahmad's rabbits were shivering but alive when they came out of baggage claim, their brown fur spiked like hedgehog quills. We were in Palu, central Sulawesi's main city; the dingy airport was full of scowling men in sunglasses and short-sleeve button-down shirts, the universal uniform of intelligence. Along with jungle rot and sea brine, menace hung in the moist air. Palu felt like a place of exile and disappearances.

Excerpted from The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold. Published in August 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2010 by Eliza Griswold. All rights reserved.

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Eliza Griswold is a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Islam and Christianity comes out this month from FSG.