Sitting on a bed in a hospital where he was recovering from bullet wounds, 31-year-old Islamic teacher Abdullah Akoh spoke passionately about the need to right wrongs. Facing a possible life sentence for killing an on-duty soldier, Abdullah spoke vividly about the hatred he felt for the state under which he was born.
He said that government officials were responsible for rapes, abductions, assassinations and brutality. He added that in this atmosphere his resentment had grown continuously over the years.
Beyond these wrongs, Abdullah cited several others that he wanted to make right.
But for now – despite his grievances – Abdullah is travelling around the country at the request of the Army to address fellow Islamic teachers, or ustads, and government officials about the need for the people of the Muslim-majority South and the state to reconcile. His message is that violence should not be the means to achieve this end.
The Army is banking on the notion that men like Abdullah can help with the reconciliation process and heal the historical wounds that so trouble the people of the South.
Sitting on his hospital bed, to which he is normally handcuffed, Abdullah talked about the resentment he felt towards the state, saying that his ill feelings had got the better of him.
About five years ago, an ustad by the name of Ismail Rayalong asked him to join a movement whose mission it was to one day liberate the Malay-Muslim region from the “infidels”.
Abdullah said that Ismail, also known as Ustad Soh, was charismatic and persuasive.
“We played football together and shared desserts and became friends very quickly,” Abdullah said.
“Three weeks later he asked me to join his organisation. I agreed,” Abdullah said.
According to Abdullah, Ustad Soh claimed to have supernatural powers. He told Abdullah that after a man had reached a certain state of reverence, he could make himself disappear at will or become impervious to bullets and knives. Abdullah decided to give his new friend the benefit of the doubt and to pursue the courses he was advocating. For more than four years, Ustad Soh moved from village to village, singling out young men of good standing in their communities and, after planting the seeds of trust, recruiting them into an outfit that Abdullah called Talekat Hikmahtullah Abandan (Direction from God Towards Invincibility).
Abdullah said that there were four other men in his cell, all from the same village. The team kept to themselves and were not permitted to know who was in the other cells. During military training, which included low crawls and simulated assaults using branches in place of guns and knives, Ustad Soh would make sure that each participating cell came from villages that were as far apart as possible in order to avoid further contact.
April 28, 2004, was just around the corner. The date was to mark Hikmahtullah’s first strike against the state that its members so despised. But for Abdullah, the price of this assault was too high. He said he was not willing to walk into certain death no matter how committed he was to the group’s cause.
“I asked Ustad Soh for guns, but he said we would only use knives,” Abdullah said.
“He said that what he had been teaching us would be enough to keep us out of harm’s way and that we would be able to take a knife wound or a gunshot [without being hurt],” he added.
By the end of the day, 106 Muslim insurgents lay dead. Most, if not all, had been armed with nothing more than a knife when they attacked 11 police outposts across the region.
But if the aim of the raid was to instil a sense of fear within the country’s security apparatus and political leaders, the group went beyond its expectations.
Abdullah said he was shocked and saddened by the deaths of his comrades and blamed Ustad Soh for their deaths.
In spite of his falling out with his mentor, Abdullah said he was still committed to the idea of seeing Pattani liberated.
Three weeks after the bloody incident, Ustad Soh came around again, claiming to have a new set of instructions from his higher ups. This time guns and bombs could be used, Abdullah said. In July, Ustad Soh showed up with a 9mm handgun.
“Something has to be done in this area. There has to be an incident, make some noise,” Abdullah quoted Ustad Soh as saying.
The nature of the attack would be similar to many previous hits – a security officer was to be shot with a handgun at close range by a gunman riding on the back of a motorbike. Abdullah said he spent a week monitoring a solider at a nearby outpost, observing how the soldiers moved to and from the nearby markets.
On July 22, Abdullah was prepared to take a life. The target would be a young Thai soldier. To him it was just a target he had been observing for the past week or so. The act was for a noble cause, the liberation of Pattani from the infidels, Abdullah told himself. Abdullah said he drove up to the young soldier that he had been monitoring and pumped three or four shots into him – he doesn’t remember the exact number – at point blank range. But he wasn’t about to get away with this attack so easily. A soldier in the vicinity grabbed his rifle and shot Abdullah as he was speeding away on the back of his motorbike.
“I don’t know how many rounds hit me but I was in tremendous pain,” Abdullah said.
The two sides entered into a fierce gunfight that lasted several minutes. Abdullah was able to catch a quick breath of air when the soldier had emptied his magazine. It was also at this moment that his driver decided to flee, leaving him lying on the roadside in a pool of blood, where he was taken into the custody of security forces.
Five weeks later the shooting, Abdullah broke his silence and began to speak to a military counsellor.
“There are many people out there who continue to think and feel the way I used to. There are people who would be willing to take up arms against the state if they were approached,” said Abdullah.
“Today we see a bomb go off here, a police officer get shot there. It’s not going to end any time soon. There are many insurgents still out there,” he added.
It’s not known what kind of leniency the court will show for his assistance to the Army. Whatever the outcome, a young wife and a new-born child await him at home.