The Associated Press
The real-life adventures of former al-Qaida-linked militant Nasir Abas have become the subject of a comic book in Indonesia, chronicling his transformation from foe to invaluable ally in the fight against terrorism.
The story of the soft-spoken, seemingly mild-mannered 42-year-old, who is recognized by strangers on the streets and even asked for the occasional autograph, is well-known in the world’s most populous Muslim country.
He went from helping to train Muslim extremists who carried out some of Southeast Asia’s deadliest attacks, including the 2002 Bali bombings, to informing police about the inner workings of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network. He has also joined a government program to convince convicted terrorists that killing unarmed civilians in the name of their faith is wrong.
“I want children to learn from my experience,” Abas said of the colorful 137-page comic, “I Found the Meaning of Jihad,” which began appearing in bookstores in September 2011 and was handed out at some schools and libraries. “I don’t want them to make the same mistakes.”
Indonesia, hit by a string of suicide bombings that has killed more than 260 people since September 11, 2001, has been widely praised for its anti-terror fight. The government, partly through the use of paid informants and former militants working to persuade hard-liners to change sides, has rounded up 680 suspects, trying and convicting many of them in open courts.
Abas, a Malaysian national who now lives in Jakarta, Indonesia, with his family, has been one of its biggest success stories.
Kids at an elementary school squealed when shown a copy of the book by nonprofit publisher Lazuardi Birru and called out to their friends, who eagerly huddled around and flipped through the lively, glossy pages. More than 10,000 copies have been printed so far.
“Ohhhh. That’s gotta be Osama bin Laden,” said 10-year-old Anif Ahmad Aulia, pointing at a picture of a white-bearded cleric.
“Ya, he’s evil,” chimed in Qinthara Taqiyyah, a fifth-grade girl. “But I like this comic ... very colorful and fun!”
“Is that the hero?” another said, pointing at Abas.
The comic traces Abas’ early days at an Islamic boarding school to his recruitment as a fighter in Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
With a knack for weaponry, he rose quickly through the ranks of JI, which was trying to carve out an Islamic state.
The dark shift came in 1998, when bin Laden issued a fatwa urging revenge against the Americans “on both military and nonmilitary” targets. Some JI members agreed, saying that included all Christians and Jews. But others, Abas included, believed Islam only condoned the killing of “enemies” when there was a clearly defined battleground and a direct threat.
A series of deadly attacks followed in late 2000.
“I knew JI members were involved,” Abas said in an interview. “But I was against it. It was very clear to me that there was no benefit for Islam or our struggle.”
On October 12, 2002, some of the men Abas helped train blew up two Bali nightclubs, killing 202 people, many of them foreign tourists. Abas felt guilty and considered this a “disaster” for JI.
He was captured in April 2003 in the massive security crackdown that followed. Convinced he was going to be tortured and possibly killed, he was surprised to see how gently he was treated by his interrogators. They had apparently learned from other arrested militants that he did not support the attacks.
Abas said a prayer and soon started feeding police details about JI, leaving it severely weakened.
From that point on, Abas tried to convince his former comrades that their interpretation of the Quran was wrong.
“This is my jihad now,” he said, adding that he knows he has made many dangerous enemies and has to be careful.
Security experts say it’s good to find creative ways to battle hateful ideologies spread by al-Qaida and other extremist groups, as long as it’s part of a comprehensive counter-radicalization strategy.
“We know young people are often targeted for recruitment by jihadist groups,” said Kumar Ramakrishna, a terrorism expert in Singapore. “So reaching out in innovative ways, such as through pop music and comics ... is certainly a very good idea in my view.”