Tucked away in a back street of Semarang, a city in Indonesia’s Central Java province, is a tiny, four-table restaurant. In the cramped kitchen, Mahmudi Haryono whips up a plate of ribs — lunch for two customers.
He brings it out and serves it to two Indonesian soldiers in olive drab uniforms.
Haryono is smiling and cool as a cucumber. But he acknowledges that after getting out of jail a few years ago, serving men in uniform set butterflies aflutter in his stomach.
“Sometimes, I felt insecure,” he says, sitting down at a table to talk as the soldiers eat. “I thought that perhaps somebody wanted me to be rearrested. Or maybe somebody was setting me up.”
Haryono, a former terrorist, has traded his rifle for a chef’s spatula. His broken dreams of global jihad help to explain a little bit of why Indonesia — home to the world’s largest Muslim population — has not become the hotbed of terrorism that many have feared.
After all, between 2002 and 2009, homegrown Indonesian terrorist groups staged deadly attacks almost every year, making them some of al-Qaida’s most effective affiliates. The most prominent of these is the militant group Jemaah Islamiyah.
The Birth Of A Jihadist
After graduating from high school in 1995, Haryono visited an Islamic boarding school founded by Jemaah Islamiyah’s spiritual mentor Abu Bakar Bashir, and run by younger radicals. The turbaned men there were among the very few Indonesians with personal ties to Osama bin Laden. Some of them would go on to stage the notorious Bali bombing in 2002, which killed 202 people, including seven Americans. He also read the work of famous Islamists, such as Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and ’60s.
They inspired him to wage jihad in Bosnia and Afghanistan. But Haryono had no money, and no way to get there.
“Yes, they implanted in me the values and the spirit of jihad,” he says, “but if you look at the actual capability to wage jihad, we just didn’t have it.”
He felt that compared to their foreign counterparts, Indonesian jihadis were too wimpy. A proper jihadi, Haryono believed, should be tall and fierce-looking with a long beard. But he is, in fact, a short, skinny fellow with a smooth, boyish face, much younger looking than his 37 years.
He tried to get to Indonesia’s Maluku Islands, to join Muslims who were fighting Christians, beginning in 1999. But his lack of military training kept him from joining.
Being shunted around by recruiters between Indonesia and Malaysia made him feel a bit like a victim of human trafficking, Haryono admits. He made it as far as the island of Mindanao in the Philippines in 2000. There, he learned guerrilla warfare and jungle survival skills. He eventually saw combat with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Muslim separatists fighting the Philippine government.
But two years later, the group made peace with Manila. So Haryono returned to Java, and at first opened a shoe store.
Developing Alternatives To Violence
He was back in Indonesia, but he hadn’t entirely put his past behind him. In 2003, Haryono was sentenced to 10 years in prison for terrorism. He says he did not know that friends had stored explosives in his store. Those explosives killed 12 people and injured 150 in an attack on the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta.
In jail, Haryono decided to mend his ways. he felt the need to take responsibility for his family, and he yearned for the recognition of fellow Muslims and mainstream society. He was paroled five years later. That’s when he met fellow reformed radical Noor Huda Ismail.
Huda is a social entrepreneur and former journalist. His stint studying in the United Kingdom gave him a look at how Northern Ireland dealt with former Catholic and Protestant combatants.
After returning to Indonesia, Ismail tried opening several businesses to help former jihadis. First, he tried a T-shirt shop, then a shrimp farm. Neither was successful, and some of his ex-terrorist “clients” ended up in trouble again.
Now, Huda runs three modest restaurants that employ about a dozen former terrorists and school dropouts, including Haryono. He says helping to rehabilitate ex-terrorists works better than just punishing them.
“In the last 11 years, what we have been witnessing is a black and white approach,” he says. “My kind of initiative can provide alternative approaches to violent jihadi networks, using social enterprise, using a civil society approach.”
Changing Nature Of Indonesian Terrorism
Sidney Jones, a counterterrorism expert with the International Crisis Group in Jakarta, says that since 2010, Indonesian authorities have killed 50 suspected terrorists, and arrested hundreds more.
“What we call terrorism in Indonesia now has degenerated into a kind of low-intensity conflict between police and terrorist suspects,” Jones says.
Terrorists are so bent on revenge against the police that they have largely given up attacking foreign interests in Indonesia.
Human rights groups are concerned that Indonesian authorities, including U.S.-and Australian-trained police special forces, are uninterested in capturing terrorist suspects alive, and are shooting to kill.
Of course, Indonesia’s jails and mosques are minting new extremists. But Jones says that the country has generally avoided becoming fertile ground for terrorist organizations.
“If you look at where terrorism takes place around the world,” she says, “it’s usually where you’ve got a repressive government — not true in Indonesia; occupation — not true in Indonesia; a war going on where local Muslims are dying,” which is also not true in Indonesia.
Indonesia’s success in combating terrorism bolsters its narrative of a thriving democracy in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. But as the story of Haryono and Huda suggests, credit may go not just to law enforcement, but to civil society.
A Chance To Rejoin Society
Back in his restaurant, Haryono chops vegetables for his next customer. He appears to be brimming with confidence, and grateful for the chance to rejoin society.
“Now I enjoy life. I’m happy with a wife and children, family and friends,” he says with a smile. “Back then, life was full of fear. I only hung out with other jihadis.”
Haryono has mixed feelings about his experience. He says he feels no remorse about fighting in defense of his faith. It gave him a sense of accomplishment. But he says he does feel guilty about the double life he once led.
“What I regret is that in the past, I lied to my parents,” he says. “I ran away without saying goodbye to them. I made up stories to tell them, which they believed, but which I knew were a lie.”