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Jakarta Post

Solahudin: The making of a terror hunter

  • Mark Wilson

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, January 27, 2014   /  11:33 am
Solahudin:  The making of a terror hunter

Solahudin--JP/Mark WilsonIt was a scene from hell.

It was Oct. 12, 2002, and terrorists linked to the Southeast Asian Islamic militant group known as Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) had just pulled off the most devastating terror attack Indonesia had ever seen.

Amid the death, journalist Solahudin arrived on the scene. He was also trying to make sense of it all.

'€œThere were so many innocent victims,'€ said Solahudin. '€œI was saddened to see how human beings could be so cruel and inhuman.'€

He'€™d been in Bali with the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, training local journalists. But as details of the attacks emerged, he soon found questions of his own.

'€œWhat I saw disturbed me,'€ he said. '€œWhat kind of Islam justified the killing of civilians? And how had Indonesians subscribed to this idea, when the majority of Muslims in this country were moderate?'€

Solahudin'€™s search for answers saw him delve into the clandestine world of Indonesia'€™s jihadists and eventually write NII Sampai JI: Salafy Jihadisme di Indonesia (Negara Islam Indonesia until Jamaah Islamiyah: Salafi Jihadism in Indonesia).

But Solahudin'€™s elevation to a best-selling author has been a journey of twists and turns '€” some fraught with danger.

It started at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) in 1995, where he studied mathematics and quickly realized that his real talent lay in the written word.

He joined a national scholarly magazine, Majalah Umat, and wrote in-depth articles on Islamic issues. '€œI found I liked research and writing, so I turned to journalism. Working on the magazine showed me the importance of building one'€™s thinking on an issue, so I could look at a problem more deeply than other journalists, who would usually only see the surface.'€

A friend soon invited him to work full-time on Majalah Umat, where he stayed for several years before moving to Panji Masyarakat, another Islamic magazine, writing on political issues.

'€œWriting about politics was a risky business in those days. Tempo and Detik had of course both been banned by the government,'€ he said.

Not to be cowed, Solahudin became a champion of press freedom, placing him in opposition to the Soeharto regime.

He joined the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) in 1997 and rose to the higher echelons of the organization, becoming a member of the board and eventually secretary-general, specializing in helping journalists in danger.

It wasn'€™t long before his mediation skills were put to the test.

In 2001, AJI received a call from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Two Belgian journalists/filmmakers had been abducted by the Free Papua Movement (OPM), an armed group fighting for independence from Indonesian rule and wanting to draw international attention to its cause.

The AJI turned to Solahudin for help.

It was a delicate situation. The OPM '€” a secretive, decentralized organization of several factions '€” would be naturally suspicious of any outsiders. Solahudin knew that to be taken seriously, he needed a credible introduction.

'€œI began to investigate the OPM network and soon found it had links to a Papuan student group in Jakarta,'€ he said. '€œThat was my way in.'€

The students, it turned out, had a direct link to the faction in Papua, and, after discussions with Solahudin, agreed to accept him a mediator if he brought the international press and local press to cover the negotiations.

Solahudin complied and was soon on a plane. He knew it wasn'€™t going to be easy.

'€œThe OPM faction was lead by Titus Murib, and from my research I knew that this guy had a history of hostage-taking, having abducted some foreign scientists in Timika [Papua] in 1996,'€ he said.

Sure enough, Murib and his men were waiting. Negotiations lasted for days and eventually Solahudin faced the captors down.

'€œI told them the international community of journalists had already decided that if any group took journalists hostage, they would conduct a global media boycott of the story, because they weren'€™t happy with groups targeting journalists,'€ Solahudin said.

If the OPM wanted support from the international community, Solahudin told Murib'€™s men, then its message should be constructive.

'€œIt was impossible for them to deliver such a message by kidnapping Western journalists,'€ Solahudin explained. '€œSo they thought about it, discussed it and then decided to release the two Belgians, unharmed, in a ceremony.'€

A crisis was averted, but sterner tests awaited.

In June 2003, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was fighting for a state of its own.

RCTI cameraman Fery Santoro and journalist Ersa Siregar were taken hostage by the GAM in Langsa during a security sweep. The rebels suspected them of having links to the Indonesian Military (TNI).

Ersa reportedly died in a firefight between GAM and TNI forces in December, but by May 2004, cameraman Fery remained in rebel custody.

The AJI once again asked Solahudin for help and he jetted off to Aceh as part of a mediation team.

Things went smoothly at first, with Solahudin'€™s team reaching agreement with the GAM on the second day of negotiations to release Fery.

The GAM agreed to temporarily release Fery as a sign of good will to the Indonesian government, requesting he be brought back to Aceh for release.

There was a snag: GAM wanted a guarantee that the government would send Fery back for the ceremony.

'€œThe question was who would become the guarantee?'€ said Solahudin. '€œWe decided that we '€” the mediation team '€” could be the guarantor.'€

The deal went ahead, but was soon jeopardized when TNI officials refused to hand Fery over. Within hours, Solahudin and his team of five went from mediators to hostages.

They frantically reached out to those they thought could pressure the TNI to reverse its decision, urging international journalists to pressure GAM leaders in Europe.

All was for naught.

'€œIt was one of the most stressful periods of my life,'€ said Solahudin. '€œWe knew Fery had been held for almost a year and we also knew that the local GAM commander, Ishak Daud, was notoriously stubborn and persistent, so it was possible we were in this for the long haul.'€

Solahudin'€™s thoughts turned to his wife and children. He had told them he was simply reporting in Aceh, not mediating a hostage crisis.

The deadlock remained. Fearing a TNI ambush in the early hours of the morning, the local GAM unit scattered into the hills, taking the journalists along. But when all seemed lost, Solahudin'€™s ordeal ended.

'€œWe found out that 40 of our fellow journalists had visited the TNI commander and told him if the TNI didn'€™t return to the negotiating table, then they would offer themselves to the GAM,'€ he said.

The brinkmanship worked. Fearing a much larger hostage crisis on his hands, the TNI commander relented.

Fery was eventually allowed back to Aceh for the ceremony and Solahudin and his team were released.

From there, he returned home and turned his attention to other matters. The Bali terror attacks were by now two years old, but they '€” and the unanswered questions they posed '€” were still in the front of Solahudin'€™s mind.

He set about expanding his network of jihadi contacts. He began to gain the confidence of key Darul Islam and Jemaah Islamiyah members. He started to place his thoughts down on paper.

And slowly but surely, he edged closer to the answers he'€™d sought amid the flames on that harrowing October night in Kuta.

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