As with millions of people in Indonesia and around the world, the first Bali bombing in 2002, which killed 202 foreigners and Indonesians, was seared into the psyche of veteran Indonesian journalist Solahudin.
“I was in Bali to train local journalists with the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. I happened to hear the two bombs go off and rushed to the scene,” he recalls at the Singapore Writers Festival.
“Experiencing the blasts firsthand prompted me to understand the perpetrators’ actions, and eventually find the roots of Islamic terrorism in Indonesia.”
The carnage set off the math graduate from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) on a decade-long quest to find the roots of terrorism and radicalism in Indonesia, an endeavor he chronicled in his 2011 book “Akar Terorisme: Sejarah, Ideologi dan Jaringan.” Its English language edition, “The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia: From Darul Islam to Jemaah Islamiyah,” was released two years later.
Translated with the help of Dave McRae, a researcher at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, the book was one of the highlights of “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” a fringe event at the Singapore festival that highlights the memoirs of individuals recounting their experiences in conflict areas.
Solahudin was well equipped in his search for answers due to his work as a journalist in the twilight of the Suharto era, when he cut his teeth writing about Islamic issues for the Majalah Umat (Magazine for the Faithful) in 1995.
Chronicling post-Suharto tensions
Solahudin’s work for Majalah Umat as well as Panji Masyarakat (The Public Banner), another Islamic magazine, particularly on political issues, saw him take a stand for press freedoms against the iron-fisted rule of the Suharto regime.
He affirmed this stance by joining the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) in 1997, rising to become its secretary general in 2002. Solahudin’s brief stint at the AJI was eventful, as it included negotiations to free journalists in conflict areas.
These included the freeing of two Belgian filmmakers held hostage by the Free Papua Organization (OPM) in 2001, as well as negotiating with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) for the release of RCTI cameraman Fery Santoro in May 2004, after the insurgents had held him hostage for six months.
The job also got Solahudin a firsthand look at the evolution of a free Indonesian press, a development that he helped made possible.
“Our bid to establish a free press was a tall order back then, because Suharto’s rule all but stamped out our tradition of press freedoms,” he said.
“Much of our progress, such as the formation of the AJI or investigative journalists, were inspired by strides made in those fields in the Philippines after they ousted Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
“However, the free press in Indonesia as we know it today was forged through the experiences covering conflicts following the fall of Suharto, such as the sectarian conflicts in Ambon and Poso. There were no ground rules on how to cover them, so much of the coverage took the Christian or Muslim points of view, reflecting public divisions.
“This tendency to divide the public, which was last seen in the presidential election between [President] Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, is still an issue that we have to deal with,” Solahudin went on.
“But AJI dealt with it during the sectarian conflict in Ambon between 1999 and 2002 by creating clearing houses for information from the Christian and Muslim press to make coverage of the conflict more objective.”
An estimated 5,000 people were killed and 700,000 displaced in that violence between Muslim and Christian communities.
“Aside from objectivity, we also aimed to stir up public revulsion of the conflict and make people see how pointless it was,” Solahudin said.
His efforts at objective coverage paid off with the signing of the 2002 Malino Accord II to broker peace between the warring parties, as well as a similar sectarian conflict in Poso, Central Sulawesi.
Standing against terrorism, intolerance
Solahudin’s firsthand experiences with the Bali bombings and Ambon conflict affirmed his opposition to terrorism and radicalism.
“Terrorism is a crime, regardless of its reasons and causes. Its use of religion to kill other people should be questioned, as it goes against all religious tenets to respect life,” he said.
“It prompted me to study and understand the field and its violence, to know why it makes basically good people do evil things. But I had my work cut out for me at first, because there were no terrorist experts who understood the phenomenon.”
Solahudin’s quest to find the origins of Indonesian terrorism took him back in the country’s history.
“Indonesian terrorism has its roots in Darul Islam, an Islamic insurgency that cast its shadow across Indonesia from the 1940s to the 1960s. The group committed a number of terrorist acts in the 1970s and 1980s, including an attack on Borobudur in 1985, but the assaults were contained,” Solahudin said.
“Darul Islam reinvented itself as Jemaah Islamiyah under the militant Abdullah Sungkar, soon after which it was involved in sectarian conflicts following Suharto’s downfall, like Ambon and Poso. The leadership of JI passed on to figures who earned notoriety during the ‘war on terror,’ such as the cleric Abu Bakar Bashir and Hambali following Sungkar’s death in 1999.”
During this period, Solahudin established his network of jihadi contacts, as he gained the confidence of key Darul Islam/Jemaah Islamiyah members.
Solahudin identified a hand-in-glove relationship between radicalism and terrorism.
“Radical groups continue to thrive today just as much as they did following the fall of Suharto. Many of them, like Hizbat, Forum Ukhuwah Islamiyah and Gappas in Solo and Cirebon, are similar to the FPI [Islamic Defenders Front] in their religious intolerance and obsession with stamping out vice, but ended up becoming terrorist organizations,” he said.
“Radical policies by provincial administrations, like the implementation of shariah law in Aceh and calls to implement it elsewhere in Indonesia, as well as constraints in the building of churches throughout Java have brought a tit-for-tat reaction elsewhere in Indonesia. These include constraints on the building of mosques in Papua, where there are even calls to implement Biblical law.”
Solahudin said former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was partly to blame for not cracking down strongly enough on radicalism.
“Yudhoyono’s administration might have made strides in counterterrorism. But much of it was measured in statistics of terrorists captured or killed, thus failing to address the root causes,” he said.
“His administration was also tolerant of intolerance. When the government chose to take action against radicalism, which they did by arresting FPI head Rizieq Shihab in 2008, they cut his group’s actions by about half. Unfortunately, they often failed to use their prerogative.”
Solahudin urged the new administration of President Joko Widodo to adopt a zero-tolerance stance on radicalism.
Dealing with terrorist challenges
“Vigilance is still required in dealing with terrorism, as it continues to reach out to prospective recruits through the Web,” Solahudin said.
“The prospect of Indonesian radicals returning to the country after fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is also something to watch out for. The haste in drawing up Indonesia’s anti-terror laws has hampered its effectiveness, as has the lack of amendments.
“Among those who learned the hard way was former Global TV cameraman Iman Firdaus, who shot video of an attempted church bombing in Serpong in 2009 and was then arrested by the authorities for not tipping them off.”
But not all is doom and gloom, the journalist says.
“The terrorists alienated themselves from the mainstream, and even from Islamic parties in parliament, because of their belief that democracy is unholy,” Solahudin said.
“They’re not like the IRA, which has a political wing in Sinn Fein and a militant wing like the Provisional IRA. Public awareness of the terrorist threat is also high, after vigilantes in Bekasi and Sidoarjo occupied mosques suspected of disseminating Islamic State propaganda.”
For Solahudin, the future is far from clear, but the chronicling will continue.