East Java, Indonesia – Umar Patek was released from prison last December after serving just over half of a 20-year jail sentence for the Bali holiday island bombings in 2002, which killed 202 people. He was also convicted for a series of bomb attacks on Christian churches on Christmas Eve, 2000, that left 18 dead.
On the run for almost a decade, 57-year-old Patek from Central Java was arrested in 2011 in Abbottabad in Pakistan and extradited to Indonesia where he was found guilty of bomb making and murder the following year. The US State Department had offered a reward of $1m for any information leading to his capture.
Patek’s early prison release for good behaviour in 2022 was sharply criticised by Australian officials and the relatives of the hundreds of victims of the Bali bombing.
Al Jazeera recently interviewed Patek at his home in East Java where he spoke about his role in Bali and revealed that the horrific bomb attack two decades ago was an act of revenge for the violence inflicted on Palestinian people by Israeli forces.
He also talked about repentance and of being unsure whether God would forgive him for killing so many civilians.
Al Jazeera: How did you become involved with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the armed group behind the Bali Bombings?
Umar Patek: In 1991, I was working in Malaysia and met Mukhlas [a senior JI figure who was sentenced to death and executed in 2008 for masterminding the Bali bombings] in Johor Bahru at the Lukman Hakim Islamic Boarding School.
I worked on a plantation in Malaysia, and would go to religious classes in the evening at the school. Then Mukhlas asked me to work at the school, so I moved in. After three months at the school, he offered me the chance to go to Pakistan. I wanted to study and he said I could study religion there.
I first went to Peshawar and then to Sadda, a tribal area in Pakistan which is close to the border with Afghanistan, where there was a military academy that trained people to be mujahideen [Islamic fighters]. From there I moved to a military academy in Torkham in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, I was in the same class as [Bali bomber] Ali Imron. In total, I was away for five years from 1991 to 1995.
We learned everything at the military academy to train us to be mujahideen, such as how to use weapons, map reading and bomb making. We practised blowing up bombs in areas where there were no people, like in caves or on hillsides, so that there would not be any fatalities.
We also wanted to make sure that no goats were accidentally killed because lots of people tend goats in Afghanistan.
When I finished my military training in 1995, I went to the Philippines to join the Moro Islamic Liberation Front because I supported their cause as a Muslim.
From 1995 to 2000, I lived at Camp Abubakar in the Bangsamoro region in the Philippines, but the camp was captured by the Philippine Army in July 2000 and I was told to leave because I looked like I came from the Middle East.
My family is originally from Yemen, although I am the fourth generation of my family to be born in Indonesia. My face didn’t look like the people in Moro.
In December 2000, I went back to Indonesia and stayed with Dulmatin [a JI member and one of the most wanted men in Southeast Asia who was nicknamed “the Genius” because of his expertise in electronics for bombs]. Dulmatin asked me to go to Jakarta for work. He had a job selling cars and he said I could also look for work there, which is how I became involved in the Christmas Eve church bombings.
AJ: You admitted to mixing the chemicals for the bombs used in the Bali bombing in 2002 and the Christmas Eve church bombings in 2000. But you also said you didn’t know what the bombs would be used for. Where did you think the bombs would be planted?
Patek: I did not mix the bombs for the church bombings, I only knew about the bombs at the time of delivery. It was Eid al-Fitr [the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan] and Dulmatin said, “Let’s go home to Pemalang for the holiday and drop off some things along the way.”
We kept stopping at churches, although I did not get out of the car. Every time we stopped at a church, I grew more suspicious that we were dropping off bombs because the packages were packed in laptop bags.
I was sentenced for the bombings even though I did not make the bombs or get out of the car because I was there and I didn’t do anything to stop it. Dulmatin then asked me to go on a trip to Bali in October 2002. We went into a house which was already full of bomb making equipment.
I met with [JI members] Imam Samudra, Mukhlas, Idris and Dr Azahari. Imam Samudra said that they wanted revenge for the occupation of Palestine and the attack on Jenin [by Israeli forces in 2002 which killed more than 50 Palestinians as well as 23 Israeli soldiers], so they wanted to bomb Westerners in nightclubs in Bali. He ushered me into one of the rooms in the house where all the ingredients to make the bombs had been prepared.
I told them, if we wanted to get revenge for the atrocities committed against Muslims in Palestine, we should go to Palestine and not kill Westerners in Indonesia. I asked them, “What is the relationship between these people who will be victims and your motive of revenge for Muslims in Palestine?”
I told them that if they wanted to kill Westerners in large numbers using a one-tonne bomb, it would not just kill the people in front of it. It would explode everywhere. I told them that it would kill lots of other people who were not their target.
I said that a bomb would also likely cause Muslim casualties. I asked them, “Who will take responsibility in the next world [paradise] if there are Muslim victims because of this bomb?”
Imam Samudra said that, on the day of judgement, everyone would be judged individually for their actions based on their intentions.
I felt that there was no way I could refuse. Imam Samudra had locked the front door of the house so that no one could leave.
So I did it, and made the last 50kg [110lbs] of the bomb.
AJ: More than 200 people died in Bali as a result of the bomb you helped to make. How do you feel about killing so many people?
Patek: I felt guilty when I mixed the materials for the bomb and I felt I was sinning. I felt I was breaking Indonesian law but, more than that, I felt it was a sin against God.
AJ: Do you consider yourself to be a mass murderer?
Patek: Yes. I feel that I am a murderer and a sinner.
I have apologised to the victims of the Bali bombing several times and met with the families of the victims of the bombing, too. I told them I was sorry. Everyone who has met with me in person has forgiven me. When I meet victims, I say, “I am Umar Patek and I was involved in the Bali bombing,” then I explain why I was there, and apologise.
Some people don’t want to meet me and don’t want to forgive me, like people from Australia. That is their right, but my responsibility as a Muslim, and someone who has done wrong, is to apologise. I don’t know if I will be forgiven, only God knows that.
I did not say sorry to get out of prison early, but everything is always wrong in other people’s eyes. If I say sorry, people say I am pretending and it is a strategic choice. If I didn’t apologise, people would say I was arrogant.
AJ: Did you agree with the 20-year prison sentence that you were given?
Patek: I accepted it at the time. There is nothing fair in this life on Earth, justice will only come in the hereafter.
AJ: Your release from prison was highly controversial, particularly in Australia, as you only served 11 years of your 20-year sentence. Should you have been freed?
Patek: I fulfilled all the criteria according to Indonesian law to qualify for release in 2022. I had also been very opposed to the idea of the Bali bombing from the beginning. The witnesses at my trial all said the same, which is why I was sentenced to 20 years in prison [only]. The central people in the Bali bombing were sentenced to death or died in other ways like Dulmatin, who was shot by the police.
I last saw him in June 2009, when I came home from the Philippines to Jakarta. He asked me to go to a JI military academy in Aceh, but I said I didn’t want to. I had had enough. I told him I was just transiting in Indonesia to get my passport and visa to go to Afghanistan. I wanted to live there for the rest of my life and I asked him to come with me, but he refused.
He [Dulmatin] was shot in Pemulang in Tangerang [a city on the outskirts of Jakarta]. I wondered if he had repented for his sins before he died. I never heard him say he felt remorse or sadness about the victims of the Bali bombing and about people who were not the target of the bombing. He never said anything about that and never asked for forgiveness.
So I was sad for him.
AJ: Is the killing of civilians ever justified?
Patek: When I was in the Philippines with the [Moro front], I lived with [the chairman] Salamat Hashim and he would often preach to us. He strongly forbade mujahideen from attacking civilians, not just Muslims but also Christians. He said that that was not allowed, and that only members of the army, or civilians who were fighting with the army, and who were also carrying weapons, were allowed to be attacked.
He once said to me, “Why do you want to wage jihad in Indonesia, who do you want to fight there? The president is Muslim, the government is Muslim, the People’s Representative Council is mainly Muslim, lots of police are Muslim, the army is full of Muslims. It is haram [forbidden] to attack them because attacking Muslims is not allowed.”
He felt that it was not right to attack people in Indonesia, and I said that at the time of the Bali bombing, but no one wanted to listen to me.
AJ: What are your thoughts on the Israel-Gaza war?
Patek: In the opening section of the 1945 Indonesian Constitution, it says that “all colonialism must be abolished in this world”.
Occupation anywhere, not just in Palestine, is not allowed.
It is Hamas’s right to take back their land. The news that they are killing babies and children is a hoax perpetrated by the Western media. Indonesia used to be occupied by the Dutch colonialists. Would you call Indonesian heroes, who fought for their independence, terrorists? The Dutch would call them terrorists, but they were just taking back their land.
AJ: Are you deradicalised now?
Patek: What is radicalised? If a Christian wants to follow their religion according to the teachings of the Bible, would we call them radicalised?
I feel that the media has a false image of me as someone who is frightening and cruel. They always paint me as someone who is dangerous.
People often ask me why I don’t want to be a terrorist any more and why I am so cooperative. I also say that it is from my family. They are the ones who melted my heart and set me back to the right path.
I am the oldest of three brothers. All my family members are moderate Muslims, none of them have ever followed the same ideology I used to follow, and they have often confronted me about it over the years.
If my family had said they did not want to have anything more to do with me because of my old ideology, perhaps I would still be radical in my thinking, but fortunately they embraced me and that allowed me to change.
AJ: How do you feel about non-Muslims?
Patek: When I was a child growing up, all my neighbours were Chinese Christians. I always used to play with them. Since I was young, I have always been around non-Muslims.
I don’t hate Christians. My wife’s extended family are Christians and, when we got married, we had no problems and took photos together on our wedding day.
When I married my wife, I invited all of her family to the wedding at Camp Abubakar. In the beginning, they didn’t want to come because they were worried we would cut their heads off. I told them that the mujahideen did not harm civilians, and that we only attacked the police and the army. I said that I guaranteed their safety.
In the Moro tradition, when someone got married, mujahideen would shoot their weapons in the air to celebrate. But because my wife’s Christian family was there, I told my fellow mujahideen, “Don’t do the traditional celebration because we have Christians coming and it will scare them.
“They will think we are trying to kill them.”