The JI’s island of terror
PULAU Sebatik, a tear-shaped island in East Kalimantan, has lush rainforests and mangrove swamps packed with gibbons and crab-eating macaques.
It would be an idyllic tropical island getaway, except for one thing: the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist group has moved in.
Indonesian intelligence officials describe the island as a ‘free zone for terrorist activities’, one of several transit points for JI militants, arms and explosives.
The terrorists admit this, too.
Ibnu Ahmad alias Farihin, one of the commanders of JI’s suicide bombing unit Laskar Kos, now serving 2 1/2 years in jail in Palu, Central Sulawesi, said his men turned to remote islands like Pulau Sebatik when police started closing in on their conventional hideouts in Java.
In an interview in prison with The Sunday Times recently, he said:
‘In Pulau Sebatik, the JI has hidden thousands of weapons, mostly AK-47s, and TNT and materials used to make bombs.
‘Only the top JI leadership knows the location of these things.’
The island has a population of only 27,000, mostly fishermen, and lies at the crossroads of Indonesian and Malaysian shark-filled waters.
Located off the coast of Borneo island, between Tawau in Sabah and the East Kalimantan town of Nunukan, it is divided between the two countries.
The JI network is seeking such safer havens, with most of its cells in its ideological heartland of Java smashed.
In addition to Kalimantan, it has set up outposts in Sulawesi, Sumatra and West Nusa Tenggara.
During the conflicts in Poso and Ambon, JI members from Malaysia and the Philippines used Pulau Sebatik as a hide-out en route from Sabah and Tawau to East Kalimantan and Sulawesi, and continue to do so, according to a senior Indonesian intelligence officer.
Last month, Indonesian police intercepted a speedboat along the Tawau-Sebatik-Nunukan route. In it, they found 2.5 tonnes of ammonia-nitrate.
The men arrested in connection with the shipment said they were taking it to Makassar in South Sulawesi for fishermen.
But intelligence officials believe the explosives could have been headed for JI or its associate radical groups.
Except for some of the village elders, the islanders seem oblivious to the fact that their paradise could be caught in the crossfire of the war on terror.
One elder, Mr Umar Daeng Mapuji, said: ‘The borders are very porous. Anyone can come into Sebatik, including terrorists, who can operate here without our knowledge.’
He said he believed the route often used by the JI is through the western tip of the island in an area called Aji Kuning.
‘We know that Islamic militants practising a brand of Islam that people here do not support have been coming in frequently,’ he said.
‘They are using Aji Kuning as a meeting point.’
There is a new mosque and a religious school on a hilltop.
One resident, who declined to be named, said: ‘Strange men from Malaysia, the Philippines and Java come in on speedboats and make their way up the hill for prayers and discussions.
‘They never mix with any of us and are very secretive.’
About 5 km from the mosque is the Hidayatullah boarding school, a source of concern for Indonesian intelligence officials.
In 1999, they say, the JI decided to use the Hidayatullah chain of religious schools in East Kalimantan as a cover to recruit a new generation of terrorists.
So far, the authorities have yet to locate the JI arms cache.
It would be a difficult task, in any case, given dense tropical foliage and rough terrain.
East Kalimantan is emerging on the radar screen of intelligence officials as a favourite retreat for terrorists.
But with so many islands like Pulau Sebatik at JI’s disposal, the trail seems never ending.