Saturday, February 28, 2009

Accidental ‘Jihadist’ tells his story


INSIDE a prison in Thailand’s restive south is a Malaysian accidental jihadist. Muhammad Fadly Zainal Abidin, a 23-year-old Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) student, is waiting to face trial for illegal entry and disturbing public order.

Minor transgressions. But what shocked the Thai authorities was Muhammad Fadly – after he was arrested for allegedly attempting to steal a motorcycle in Sungai Golok – confessed to slipping into southern Thailand to wage jihad against the Thai military.

And Thai military intelligence was also shocked to discover that Muhammad Fadly was from Malacca.

Typically, the Malaysians linked with Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand are Kelantanese who hold dual citizenship – Malaysian and Thai.

They are ethnically and culturally similar to Muslims from Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, the three Thai Muslim-dominated provinces synonymous with shootings, bombings and beheadings.

Curious to see the face of a Malaysian jihadist, I flew 90 minutes from Bangkok to Narathiwat town, the capital of Narathiwat province.

Before my journey, I was told by contacts familiar with the Deep South that it was unlikely that I could interview Muhammad Fadly, who is locked up in a maximum prison because he is a terrorist.

The visitor hall at the Narathiwat prison was filled with two dozen tudung-clad makcik (aunties) waiting for their names to be called so that they could meet with their imprisoned loved ones.

The boy in charge of visitor registration wore a blue prison garb, and outside the prison wall about six inmates (also dressed in blue) performed manual labour without any supervision.

Surprised, I asked around and was told that it was a minimum security prison.

I wrote down my name, Muhammad Fadly’s name and my passport number on a registration form, and the inmate rewrote it in Thai.

I asked him in Malay what were my chances of meeting up with Muhammad Fadly. The boy said: “Memang boleh (definitely you can).”

An hour later I was searching for a Malaysian face among the 10 prisoners standing behind reinforced glass and iron bars. The inmates in brown uniforms looked the same, as Thai Muslims shared the same DNA with Kelantanese Malays.

The only prisoner wearing glasses smiled at me. The face of a Malaysian jihadist is that of a bespectacled baby-faced student.

In my interviews (three 12-minute prison visits) with Muhammad Fadly, he related that Ustaz Muhammad, a secretive religious teacher in his early 30s, had convinced him to slip into southern Thailand to help Thai Muslims oppressed by the government.

The final year mechanical industry student believed the ustaz after watching video footage of the massacre in Tak Bai, a Thai border town on Malaysia-Thailand border, where 78 Thai Muslim protesters – who were packed like sardines – died of suffocation and injuries while being transported in military trucks on Oct 25, 2004.

Upon arrival in Sungai Golok, a Thai border town about 63km from Narathiwat town and separated from Kelantan by the Golok River, Ustaz Muhammad ordered Muhammad Fadly and a 17-year-old Malaysian high school dropout, to buy knives and parangs, steal a motorcycle, and kill Thai soldiers and take their weapons.

“I was shocked, as these were not appropriate tasks for me to perform. And they were beyond my capabilities,” recalled Muhammad Fadly.

Nevertheless, he could not defy the orders as Ustaz Muhammad told him it was a sin to disobey.

On June 28, 2008, Muhammad Fadly and the 17-year-old tried to steal a motorcycle at a village near Sungai Golok town. Suspicious villagers alerted the police who arrested them at around 3pm.

Asked why he confessed to wanting to wage holy war against the Thai military, Muhammad Fadly said: “Inside my bag were knives and parangs so it was difficult for me to sell another story.”

The fact that Muhammad Fadly is a student at UTM alarmed the Thai military intelligence as it is the alma mater of prominent Jemaah Islamiyah members Noordin M. Top and the late Dr Azhari Husein.

“Yes, I have heard of them. But I’m not influenced by them as I’ve never met them,” he said.

Asked if Ustaz Muhammad had ever visited him in prison, Muhammad Fadly, whose court hearing begins in August, said the ustaz had since disappeared.

“I regret believing him,” the accidental jihadist sighed.

(Published in The Star on Feb 28, 2009)