TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - With his flaming red hair and grinning face, Umar Patek greeted Tempo at Surabaya's maximum correctional facility in Porong, Sidoardjo, East Java, three weeks ago. He was allowed out of his cell in Block F to meet us at the visitors' room.
Convicted for crimes of terrorism, Umar, 49, who has many aliases, was prominently mentioned last May as having played a role in the release of 10 Indonesians held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf armed separatist group in the Philippines. Umar claimed to have offered his services in negotiating for the release of the hostages, crew members of the Brahma 12 tug boat. "I wanted to help because they were my fellow compatriots. Everything I did was above board, I asked no pre-conditions," said Umar Patek, whose real name is Hisyam bin Ali Zein.
Umar himself was once a fugitive, hunted by the governments of the United States and the Philippines. The US even offered a prize of US$1 million for his capture. He was eventually caught by the Pakistani authorities at Abbottabad on January 25, 2011 and extradited to Indonesia on August 11 of that year.
Umar was tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison after being found guilty of taking part in the first Bali bombing. He was the one who assembled the bomb used by Imam Samudra and his cohorts to destroy Paddy's Pub and the Sari Club at Kuta, on October 12, 2002.
He has served five years of his sentence, and claims not to have changed his views. He still believes that what he had done was the right thing, except for the first Bali bombing. "I became what I am through a long process, from lots of reading and taking part in jihads (struggle) overseas," said Umar.
During the interview with Tempo reporters Tika Primandari and Nur Hadi, he was accompanied by Prasetyo, the correctional facility's chief warden and some of his staff. He explained his involvement in the release of the hostages, why he embarked on the jihad road and shared his views on the ideology of the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Were you asked to mediate with the Abu Sayyaf group for the release of Indonesians they held hostage?
No, I was not asked. I offered my services because I know and understand them. I wanted to mediate with them. I felt confident I could do it. I made the offer, and it was up to them (authorities) whether to accept or reject it.
Is it true that in exchange, you asked for a 10-year reduction on your sentence?
Totally untrue, that's slander. I wanted to help because I was concerned about my fellow Indonesian citizens. Everything was above board, without any pre-conditions. The person who made those charges must not have come here with a number of the government's representatives, who came to to ask what I knew about the Abu Sayyaf group. But I understand how that slanderous came about (although he asked that his explanation not be published).
How close were you to the Abu Sayyaf group?
I joined them when Al-Habsi Misaya (Abu Sayyaf leader) was still part of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). One year later, he joined the Abu Sayyaf and he was actually my subordinate. There was also a prominent figure known as Jim Dragon, whom I got to know quite well. He is the most senior and was made the leader because most of his followers were young people. The other day, when the government representatives came here, I told them about how to get to them.
What do you mean?
Al-Habsi Misaya originally comes from Parang, the same village as the third wife of Nur Misuari (MNLF leader), so they're quite close. I advised the government people to use this channel, to approach Nur Misuari's third wife.
Was your advice taken?
When I read the chronology of the release, it seems that my advice was taken, because the location of their release was in Parang.
What is the Abu Sayyaf group like?
Their objective is to kidnap and demand ransom money. So they are unlikely to harm the hostages, except if any (hostage) tried to escape. Anyway, the hostages were afraid to flee because the area (where they were kept) is quite difficult. When I took my military training in the Philippines, I saw how members of the group treated hostages. They are not cruel people. In fact, they shared whatever they ate with the hostages. I have to admit that this group is really good at taking people hostage from the middle of the sea. I once saw them kidnap an American from Simpadan Island in Malaysia, and brought him back to Sulu, their base camp. The area over there is good for military training.
Why did you decide to train in the Philippines?
I wanted to help them in their struggle to regain their homeland, taken over by the Philippines. The historical background of (southern) Philippines is similar to that of Palestine. I've always wanted to fight in Palestine. I started in the Philippines in 1992, a year after I was in Afghanistan, where I met and fought with Abu Sayyaf mujahidin. Besides wanting to help my brothers, I also wanted to carry out the mandate of our 1945 Constitution. Its preamble clearly states that all forms of occupation on the face of the earth must be eliminated. That's the basic reason why I carry out my jihad.
After five years of rehabilitation in prison, have you changed your mind about jihad
If it's the way I think about my beliefs, there's no change. I became what I am through a long process, of having read a lot and fought overseas, and I still believe that what I did was the right thing to do, except for the Bali bombing. I regret having been involved in that incident because so many of the victims were Hindus, Buddhists and even Muslims. When something like that happens, who should be accountable for in the hereafter? These days, I think a lot about how I will explain it later on.
You say you disapproved of the Bali bombing, yet you took part any way.
When I joined, 90 percent of the plan was already being completed. So, whether I was in or not, the plan would have gone ahead. I shared my concern with my associates, because I believe that suicide bombing is a cowardly act. The reason for the bombing was to avenge the killing of Muslims in Palestine. I told them that if they wanted revenge, they should go to Palestine and carry out the bombing there.
But your concerns were not heeded?
Yes. They went ahead with the plan, so like it or not, I went along because at that time, I respected Mukhlas and Dulmatin (the other Bali bombers). They were my seniors who had helped me a lot. I thought that it would be better to shoot directly at the targets, and in that way, prevented the spread of the loss of lives. That was my suggestion from the technical aspect, apart of whether I approved or not the plan. (*)
Read the full interview in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine