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Switching Sides: Inside The Enemy Camp

It's not often you get a chance to talk to someone who was a key player inside a terrorist organization for twenty years, but 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon did just that when he interviewed Nasir Abas, one of the most valuable members of a terrorist group ever to change sides and work for the authorities. Abas is from Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. And he was a top commander in Jemaah Islamiyah, al Qaeda's franchise operation in Southeast Asia.

When Abas was inside the organization, he trained hundreds of young militants to become terrorists and became one of the most wanted men in the region. For 20 years, he worked to achieve an Islamic state throughout Southeast Asia. He embraced the idea of a holy war and spoke the language of jihad.

"I hate the infidels," Abas admits he once believed.

"When you say you hate the infidels … infidel is a word that means something, in your language, in Jemaah Islamiyah or al Qaeda. … But explain to me, what is an infidel?" Simon asks.

"Infidel is a non-Muslim people," Abas replies.

"And you hated non-Muslim people," Simon remarks. "At that time you would have hated me."

"Of course. But now not," Abas says.

Back then, in his days as a terrorist, Abas' view of the world was simple: black and white. But that ended in October 2002, when the island of Bali, known in the west as a paradise and a playground, was shattered by explosions.

Two massive bombs blew that paradise apart, killing 202 people. The victims were mostly young people from Australia, the U.S. and the U.K.

Nasir Abas had nothing to do with the attack itself, but he knew what was behind it because he knew the bombers. He had trained them.

"How do you feel about so many of your friends causing the death of so many innocent people?" Simon asks.

"I feel unhappy, I feel sinful," Abas replies.

He says he feels sinful because he taught the bombers much of what they knew.

Within days of the bombings, police zeroed in on Jemaah Islamiyah. Three of its members, the key planners, were brothers; the mastermind was Abas' brother-in-law. It was really a family affair, and it didn't take long for police to track down Abas himself. When they knocked on his door, he says he attacked the police with the hope that they would kill him.

"It is better to die than to be arrested," Abas explains.

Asked if he wanted to die as a martyr, Abas says, "Correct."

"You must have been very disappointed," Simon remarks.

"Of course, at that time," Abas acknowledges.

The arrests of Abas and his comrades did not stop the attacks. The following year, the Marriott Hotel was hit, then the Australian embassy in Jakarta. Twenty-two people were killed and hundreds were injured. And there was more to come.

Their message had a familiar ring: "Bush and Blair, you liars. You are behind the infidel rulers who hunt down the Mujahideen fighters. You are the enemy we target in our attacks," Noordin Mohammad Top, a key figure in Jemaah Islamiyah, said in a video found in a terrorist safe house.

And the next attack? The bombers weren't finished with Bali. A remarkable document was drawn up, providing the most detailed instructions for a new operation. It was called "the Bali project."

Why Bali? Because a bombing in Bali would have worldwide impact. Bali, the document says, is better known than Indonesia, a target where a lot of western tourists gather. The document says that the bombers should wear below-the-knee shorts and plain T-shirts and sandals. They should pick a target where their back packs will not draw attention. The final moments of the bombers are choreographed to the second. The document concludes that there is no escape plan—the bombers will become martyrs. They will go to their targets and they will not return.

The three bombers made their last will and testaments, saying their final farewells. They primed their suicide belts and were ready to go.

According to Abas, the bombers had their watches synchronized. And just as instructed, the first two bombers searched out their targets, places the bombers knew were crowded with people.

Abas says around 7 p.m., the bombers set off their charges. At precisely the same moment, on the other side of town, the third bomber walked into a restaurant with a knapsack. It too was filled with explosives.

All three bombs killed 23 people and injured over 100 that night in October 2005.

Like so many terrorists around the world, the bombers learned their trade in Afghanistan. Hundreds of militants from Southeast Asia traveled there in the 1980's to defend Islam against the Soviet occupiers. They trained as Mujahideen in a rugged camp, which Abas calls a military academy.

Abas graduated with honors in artillery and ended up giving weapons training to scores of young men from Southeast Asia.

Asked if he loved being a Mujahideen, Abas says, "Yes. I loved to be Mujahideen."

And, he says, he loved jihad.

By then, Nasir Abas had become a very serious player in the movement. He established a military camp for Jemaah Islamiyah, where he trained hundreds of young believers to become fighters. He was promoted to be one of the four regional commanders.

But then in 2000, well before his arrest, something happened which would make Abas question everything he believed in: a fatwa, a religious edict, was issued by Osama bin Laden.

"It should be understood that killing Americans and Jews anywhere found are the highest act of worship and the highest form of good deeds in the eyes of Allah," Simon quotes bin Laden.

Abas and his fellow commanders were ordered to read the fatwa to their men and make sure they carried it out. The others obeyed, but Abas refused. It was his moment of truth. He firmly believed that jihad was to be fought only on the battlefield in defense of Islam; he had always been taught that the killing of civilians had nothing to do with holy war and that it was forbidden.

The fatwa justified killing non-Muslim civilians everywhere.

"So if that hadn't happened. If there hadn't been a fatwa from al Qaeda, you'd probably still be a member of Jemaah Islamiyah," Simon remarks. "Training soldiers to go to kill the infidels somewhere in the world."

"I think so, yeah," Abas acknowledges.

Abas stopped participating in the violent activities of Jemaah Islamiyah and started withdrawing from the organization that had been his life. Since he was released from jail, he has provided a wealth of information, helping the Indonesian authorities unravel the inner workings Jemaah Islamiyah.

On his computer, Abas showed Simon the organization's membership structure and key operational details.

According to Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, who has been tracking Jemaah Islamiyah for the last ten years, Nasir Abas has been a huge resource.

Asked how valuable Abas has been to police, Jones tells Simon, "I think he's been invaluable. I think he understands the network of jihadists in Indonesia in a way that nobody who's outside that network could possibly ever hope to understand."

"Do you think he's contributed to many arrests?" Simon asks.

"I think he's probably responsible for about half the arrests that have taken place since the first Bali bomb," Jones says. "I think he also understands details that nobody else is privy to. For example, he can look at the wiring of a bomb and know whether it was made in the Philippines or not. Or know whether the person who made it was trained in the Philippines. "

Abas has been involved in the hunt for some of the biggest fish in his old organization.

In November 2005, a month after the second Bali bombings, the authorities caught up with the man responsible for building all the bombs. He was called the "demolition man." Police surrounded his house in central Java and opened fire. It was a fight to the death. There was an explosion and then the guns fell silent. The bomb maker died of a bullet wound to the heart, leaving behind his legacy—a video manual on how to build bombs and 35 primed explosives waiting to be dispatched. It isn't clear what Abas' precise role was in tracking him down, but he was on hand to identify the body.

Asked how he felt seeing his former colleague dead, Abas says, "I'm not happy, yeah. I feel sad, but I knew that this is the consequence."

"It's a consequence of what he did?" Simon asks.

"Yes," Abas replies.

But Abas' contribution is not limited to undercover work. He is at the heart of the government's de-radicalization program, which is all about persuasion, talking to university students, combating the dogma taught in religious schools, and most important, trying to turn terrorists in the prisons.

"So now that's why you're trying to convert them, to use a word, you're trying to covert them back to what you see as the truth path of Islam?" Simon asks.

"Yes," Abas says.

"Because you feel guilty for what you taught them in the past?" Simon asks.

"Yes," Abas admits.

"In the past, you taught them how to use weapons, and now you're teaching them the true path of Islam?" Simon asks.

"Yes, correct. Because I realize that what I did before is wrong," Abas says.

Abas tried to right that wrong when he took on his former teacher and the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Bakar Bashir, who was on trial for having approved of the Bali bombings. When Abas began testifying, he was shouted down and a mob forced him from the courtroom.

Abas was chased out of the court and called a traitor. Asked how that felt, he tells Simon, "I'm not afraid."

Hunted by radical Muslims in Indonesia, Abas knows he's a marked man and in a very dangerous situation.

"This is my life," he tells Simon.

In the five years since the first bombings, the authorities have made 300 arrests, and have held dozens of open trials. More than 100 hundred men have been convicted; three are on death row. Jemaah Islamiyah seems to be on the run, as the authorities have decimated its leadership and disrupted its organization. The secret, they will tell you, is a law and order approach to terrorism, talking to the terrorists and, above all, public trials.

"Unlike the United States, which lets these people linger forever in Guantanamo or elsewhere, the Indonesian government has tried every single terrorist suspect in open and public trials in a way that serves as an incredible public information tool," Sydney Jones explains.

The man who lived his life in the shadows, as an insider in a secret organization, will now tell you that what's most important is to bring things into the light of day, and that the most important weapon is education.

"Yes. We need to educate people. We need to give more explanation. Yeah, about what was is right, what is wrong," Abas says.

"And this is what you're trying to do?" Simon asks.

Says Abas, "Yeah. This is what I'm saying, that this is my new jihad."
Produced By Michael Gavshon

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