Nov 18, 2017 Last Updated 3:54 AM, Nov 13, 2017

Book Review: Inventing Imam Samudra

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Published: Jul 24, 2016

Quinton Temby

Quite possibly Imam Samudra, the field coordinator of the 2002 Bali bombings, was a narcissist. If so, he might have welcomed this review, not to mention the mirror that is Angus McIntyre’s study of his life as the man who introduced suicide bombings to Indonesia. Along with his two co-conspirators Amrozi and Mukhlas, Samudra was executed in 2008 for his role in the bombings. The person McIntyre reveals in his psycho-political analysis of Samudra’s life is nothing if not self-regarding – an avid reader and diarist who indulged an ‘invented self’. Even the name Imam Samudra (Ocean Leader) was not just an alias but a grandiose act of self-invention. His real name was Abdul Aziz.

Invented Samudra was a fearless mujahid (holy warrior) who fought against the Soviet empire in Afghanistan alongside Osama bin Ladin. Abdul Aziz never went beyond training in Pakistan, cried when a side trip to Afghanistan was cancelled, and was sent back early to Indonesia. Invented Samudra claimed that he would have gladly served as a martyr in the Bali bombings. Abdul Aziz manipulated a troubled young man from his hometown into sacrificing himself instead. Invented Samudra claimed that as a brave mujahid he welcomed his death sentence for the Bali attacks as ‘the supreme triumph’. Abdul Aziz appealed his sentence all the way to the Constitutional Court on the grounds that execution by firing squad would be inhumane and a violation of his human rights, and, as death drew near, made panicked threats against government officials he held responsible for his fate. 

Above all in this book, McIntyre seeks to explain Samudra’s fervour for political violence. Indeed, it appears true that even in the world of militant Islam, Samudra was more militant than most. What made him different? McIntyre argues that he was strongly driven by feelings of humiliation at the treatment of Muslims by the West and a desire to avenge Muslim victims with the murder of civilians from the US and its allies. Samudra’s narcissism, he argues, made him especially susceptible to feeling humiliated and wanting revenge.

As McIntyre shows, vengeance was a common theme for Samudra, who quoted verses of the Qur’an out of context in order to justify third-party terrorism against civilians, when Islamic law on the matter, the doctrine of Qisas, allows only first-party retaliation. Samudra also saw revenge as a unifying theme. In his autobiography, Aku Melawan Teroris (I Oppose Terrorists), he appealed to readers: ‘Palestine’s wounds have not yet healed, the cries of the mustadh’afin (weak ones) of Afghanistan have not yet ceased … Who is willing to take up arms, and avenge one soul with another?’

But was Samudra really more vengeful that his fellow global jihadists who had, like him, adopted an ideology that glorifies revenge? McIntyre concedes that individual psychology was only one factor that operated in interaction with global jihadist ideology to lead Samudra to terrorism. Still, it seems unclear, in this case, if psychology preceded ideology or vice versa. If anything, from the biographical detail presented, it appears that Samudra’s thirst for revenge followed his introduction to a global ‘politics of revenge’. Tellingly, Samudra’s vengeance appears to have been focused on the crimes of the West against Islam writ large, not on the crimes against Muslims that were occurring in neighbouring Maluku at the time. Such conclusions, however, are hard to be sure about given a dearth of data on Samudra’s early life and the way he dealt with, say, conflict in the home. Yet the available evidence suggests that for Samudra revenge was a byproduct of an extremist ideology that cultivates and channels that emotion, among others, and was not in itself a causal factor.

The role of emotion has not been entirely ignored in the recent literature on militant Islamism. In Leaderless Jihad, Marc Sageman argued that the process of radicalisation often begins with a sense of moral outrage. Typically, in Sageman’s reckoning, some kind of personal humiliation or personal outrage (discrimination, for example) occurs in someone’s life before it is subsequently merged with a global outrage and reinterpreted within an ideological framework. But Samudra does not appear to have experienced any personal outrage, living, as he was, ‘under the blue sky of democratic Indonesia,’ as McIntyre puts it. Furthermore, when militants speak of humiliation and moral outrage after committing a terrorist attack, as Samudra did, some caution is required given that such justification can be made up after the event or part of a recruitment strategy.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for readers of this book, and one of its greatest contributions, is in brief sections that contrast Samudra’s politics of revenge with that of the African American political activist Malcolm X. McIntyre is drawn to the way that Malcolm X, after a troubled early life marked by racism, the murder of his father and the descent of his mother into insanity, transformed a desire for revenge against whites into the ‘reparative and constructive politics of his last years’. He broke away from the cultish and sectarian Nation of Islam, converted to orthodox Sunni Islam, and embraced tolerance and pluralism.

In today’s terms, Malcolm X’s transformation might be described as a model of successful ‘deradicalisation’, except that the ‘constructive politics’ to which McIntyre refers includes notions of Third World revolution and revolutionary internationalism. Malcolm’s journey from an extremist sect to mainstream Islam – via his travels in post-colonial Africa and meetings with Che Guevara – led him away from violence and separatism and towards peace and universalism. But he remained thoroughly ‘radical’.

Although Imam Samudra’s Revenge might have made more of such implications, in paying attention to emotional, psychological and social factors it makes a rare and important contribution to the literature on militant Islamism in Southeast Asia. Indeed, in the literature on terrorism and political violence more generally, there is scope for more research of this kind that takes into account such factors. Terrorists are a psychologically diverse cohort, but certain roles within militant organisations do seem to be associated with certain personality traits. Further case studies like McIntyre’s would enrich our understanding of such psychological complexity, while avoiding the dead end of the generic ‘terrorist profile’.

Angus McIntyre, Imam Samudra’s Revenge, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2016.

Quinton Temby (quinton.temby@anu.edu.au) is associate lecturer in Asian Studies at Murdoch University.

Inside Indonesia 125: Jul-Sep 2016

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