A new post for Free Rad!cals, this time using the case of Umar Patek, the Bali bomber just going on trial in Indonesia, to explore some bigger themes about terrorist networks that I wrote about in an earlier journal article. I should add that it was also sparked off by the fact that I happened to catch late last week the National Geographic show Seconds from Disaster: Bali Bombing that highlighted a detail I had not really noticed before about the plot, and that was that a device also blew up in front of the US Consulate in Bali at the same time as the bombings. The show seemed to conclude that there was a connection. As usual reactions or thoughts welcome.
The purpose of this post, however, is not to focus on Patek’s group (for that I would recommend the work of Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, Zachary Abuza of Simmons College and Ken Conboy’s book The Second Front), but rather to focus on the individual as a figure within a terrorist network and use him as a case study for examination of different roles such individuals can play. My thinking was set off by a line in this excellent AP report that claims to draw on police interrogation and other documents that detail the “peripatetic life Patek led.” A truly global jihadi, Patek seems to have been fluent in English, computer savvy, recruited early into JI, and travelled extensively amongst radical groups across Asia setting up cells and support networks wherever he went. His role in the Bali bombing seems to have been as the explosives expert who arrived in Denpasar weeks prior to the attack to assemble the device, before leaving two days prior to the actual bombing.
But the question is whether we should view Patek as a lone wanderer who simply travelled through the parallel world of global jihadism, or whether we should see him as a key fixer whose movements reflected a calculated set of opportunities that all furthered his organisation’s goals. Or in other words, should we see him as a “middle manager” (as Peter, Ryan and myself laid out in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism) or is he in fact more of a Ramzi Yousef figure (the man responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who seems to have wandered the world seeing himself as something of an international playboy terrorist figure). The distinction is interesting as it serves to highlight the importance of the different figures within terrorist networks – the middle manager versus the itinerant fighter.
It is not immediately clear which group Patek falls into. Apparently recruited by fellow Bali plotter Dulmatin in the early 1990s/late 1980s, Patek claims to have been trained at a militant camp in Sadda province, Pakistan and then in Turkhom, Afghanistan from 1991-1994. He describes his courses as being “from basic to very difficult.” Following this, he returned to Indonesia from where he was dispatched to neighboring Philippines where he helped run a joint training camp JI established with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao. According to regional expert Zachary Abuza, he helped build the camp into a major centre, and in 1999-2000, following the fall of President Suharto, he seems to have been part of a group of exiled JI leaders who came home to Indonesia from where he is believed to have helped in a number of bombings. In 2002, Imam Samudra, the man described as the “commander” of the Bali operation, asked him to help the group build a bomb. He moved to Bali and spent around a month there mixing explosives while fellow radical Dulmatin built the timers. He then left the island prior to the attacks and ended up in the Philippines with his wife and fellow plotter Dulmatin and his family.
According to one report quoting Dulmatin’s wife, they stayed with MILF helping train the group and providing a support network for operatives back in Indonesia until 2004 when peace talks between the MILF and government meant they could no longer host them. The men transferred themselves to the protection of the Abu Sayyaf group, another Philippine Islamist terrorist network. From here they continued to plot and help train networks until 2009 when they separately snuck back into Indonesia. Dulmatin appears to have decided that Aceh was an area ripe for establishing a training camp and set off to develop al-Qaeda in Aceh while Patek instead told investigators that he wanted to fight on a bigger battlefield and instead headed towards Afghanistan-Pakistan. A temporarily smart choice as Indonesian forces reacted rapidly and heavily to the news of al-Qaeda affiliate in Aceh, killing Dulmatin in a shoot-out in March 2010.
Using false identities, Patek and his wife snuck to Lahore sometime in 2010, though the details of his journey there are not entirely clear. One report pointed to him attending a mysterious meeting of Southeast Asian jihadists in Mecca in between. However, by early 2011 he was in Abbotabad where he was in contact with a known al-Qaeda operative whom Pakistani authorities had become aware of (or their American friends were watching and telling them about). Trailing this connector, Tahir Shehzad, the Pakistanis were first able to grab a pair of French jihadis who were heading to the lawless Northwest Frontier Province and then eventually catch Patek.
So we can see how Patek was a key plotter, bomb-maker, trainer, terrorist with connections to JI’s networks as well as al-Qaeda networks in Pakistan. But does this make him a “middle manager” or something else? In our previous article, Peter, Ryan and myself define the “middle management” in al-Qaeda as:
The middle management combines several of the characteristics of the top leadership and the grass-roots. Like the top leadership, middle managers are experienced and skilled, and maintain contact with members of the leadership. They may have met bin Laden, but do not necessarily have a close, personal relationship. Importantly, they are not permanently based in the tribal areas but have returned to their home countries or other non-battlefront states, sometimes travelling back and forth, building support networks and raising money for the global jihad. Like the grass-roots, then, their outlook and ideology is global but most of their activities are focused locally.
In many ways Patek would fit this profile: he was clearly in contact with top leaders (it would be surprising if his presence in Abbotabad, where bin Laden was killed was merely a coincidence, and the fact he was able to hide for so long in Indonesia with such a substantial bounty on his head must have meant he was well connected there), he was widely travelled and helped establish support networks for his organization, and was certainly a skilled and experienced warrior.
But the distinction of him from the “middle management” community comes into play when we focus on him as a figure who travelled around a lot aligning himself with whatever local terrorist network he was able to connect with. Clearly, his first allegiance lay with his home group, JI, but he seems to have been at ease building up MILF and Abu Sayyaf – though in both cases he appears to have also been supporting JI networks from a distance. However, when his old comrade Dulmatin asked him to join him in Aceh, he declined, instead wanting to join the jihad in Afghanistan. Something suggestive of a personality more inclined to jihadist activity in support of a global movement than the maybe more parochial Indonesian focus suggested by establishing operations in Aceh. Seen in this light, we can view Patek as part of the community of itinerant jihadists to have emerged from the mess of Afghanistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s focused on bringing murder and mayhem wherever they could in advance of their vision of violent Islamism. Travelling around Southeast Asia, Patek provided support and his bomb construction skills wherever he could; aiding whichever group he was with at the time.
The importance of this distinction is not simply academic. The “middle manager” figure can be hard to identify, but is crucial in providing connective tissue between a radical group’s leadership and the warriors in the field carrying out operations, while the freewheeling itinerant jihadist is a dangerous figure who simply has to be tracked down and captured. The latter figure can sometimes act as a “middle manager” but is a far more operational individual who is dangerous as a highly trained terrorist with a global grudge. The middle manager probably lacks this operational edge, but this will make them a harder figure to identify.
Of course, the specifics of Umar Patek’s case may come out further in the course of his trial. His long career and close affiliation with various terrorist networks point to an individual that is best kept off the streets – whether he was a “middle manager” or something else.
There are two unrelated loose ends to Patek’s tale I will end on. Specifically, his capture in the same town as bin Laden is a curiosity and makes one wonder whether he was on his way to meet the leader or whether al-Qaeda simply use the city as a way point with the junior leadership having no idea that they are in the same city as their leader (something that would be a particularly audacious approach to protecting bin Laden). I wonder if more on this will ever come out. And secondly, whatever happened to the two Frenchmen who were supposedly captured prior to Patek’s capture by following the same courier that led to Patek? The story of his capture is still a bit murky, but from what I can tell, those two individuals (described as “of Pakistani origin [and] the other described as a white Muslim convert”) are still out there somewhere, presumably in custody. If anyone has come across any stories about them, please feel free to send them my way.