From the nearby mosque, the amplified call to afternoon prayer wafts over the Cham village of Prey Thnang in Kampot province.
One of the five daily summons to the faithful, the sonorous recital slips unnoticed over one Cham family—and a gaggle of inquisitive relatives—in this small, quiet roadside village a modest drive from Kampot town.
Pointing and comparing, nudging and whispering, it is mostly the women who have formed the tight, elbow-locked circle as the photograph is passed several times in a clockwise direction.
Their scarved heads are bent forward and inward to get a better look at the clipped newspaper mugshot of the bespectacled Indonesian Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, the alleged operations chief of the regional militant group Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaida’s top emissary in Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia’s most wanted man until his capture last month in Thailand, Hambali hid out and lived in Cambodia in late 2002 and early 2003, according to intelligence reports.
Some say Hambali may have taken a Cambodian Cham to be one of his wives. But in unspoken consensus, the Cham women of this village raised their heads from the photo, having settled on the answer: No.
The “foreign” Muslim man who married here late last year was not Hambali.
But heads nod and nervous smiles crack in recognition of the true husband of the young Cham woman who sits shyly under a tree near the circle of women.
Her husband, they confirm, is the man known as Ibrahim, who intelligence reports allege was a Jemaah Islamiyah operative who accompanied Hambali during at least part of his reported sojourn in Cambodia between September 2002 and March.
The Cham bride in her early 20s, Sman Khat Ti Yah, is bewildered by the attention her betrothal has brought and the marriage ties that may have inadvertently bound her to the secretive world of Jemaah Islamiyah and its jihad, or Islamic holy war, in Southeast Asia.
“I don’t know anything about him. Maybe I don’t want him anymore,” said Sman Khat Ti Yah, with a coy smile as she speaks of the Malaysian husband she swears she hasn’t seen since last year.
Sman Khat Ti Yah says her brother, Sman Ismael, introduced her to Ibrahim on one of Sman Ismael’s trips home from an Islamic school in southern Thailand, where he studied for three years.
News of the marriage emerged when Sman Ismael was arrested in Phnom Penh in April on charges of membership in Jemaah Islamiyah. He was the first Cambodian to be accused of having links to Islamic militants.
Since her brother’s arrest, Sman Khat Ti Yah has been questioned by police about her marriage. She can’t tell much, she says, other than that Ibrahim went away late last year and hasn’t come back.
Hin Phat Mah, 39, Sman Khat Ti Yah’s aunt, says the wedding was arranged in haste and nobody really knew anything about the groom.
“People are just happy they can marry someone with money,” says Hin Phat Mah, who like others in the family is worried they might be implicated in wrongdoing.
Jemaah Islamiyah’s structure has grown in Southeast Asia, and so too has its need for secrecy and trust among members.
Schools and strategic marriages have become some of the most important instruments for strengthening Jemaah Islamiyah’s membership ties and passing on the ideology of jihad, the International Crisis Group states in its report, titled “Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia: Damaged But Still Dangerous.”
“The JI network is held together not just by ideology and training but also by an intricate network of marriages that at times makes it seems like a giant extended family,” the report states.
“In many cases, senior JI leaders arranged the marriages of their subordinates to their own sisters or sister-in-law to keep the network secure,” adds the report, which was released last month just after the Aug 11 arrest of Hambali in Thailand.
The family bonds have paid off among JI branches in Indonesia and Malaysia, which have become particularly strong as a result of strategic marriages, according to the report.
Ibrahim and a third Jemaah Islamiyah suspect called Zaid, alias Zubair, were, according to intelligence reports, close to Hambali during his reported stay in Cambodia.
All three are alleged to have attempted—possibly successfully—to obtain Cambodian passports to facilitate their entry and exit from countries where a Cambodian passport would raise less suspicion in the post-Sept 11, 2001, world than documents from a predominantly Muslim country.
Were Sman Khat Ti Yah and her family cogs in the JI machine?
“The family is ignorant, they did not know much about the personal background of the groom. The poor family was hooked by the small amount of money,” said Phnom Penh Deputy Municipal Police Chief Hy Prou, who questioned the family in Kampot.
“The marriage to the girl was a trick to stay in Cambodia in order to obtain a forged passport for easier travel to other countries,” Hy Prou said.
Sman Ismael met Ibrahim, alias Awang or Awe, while studying at an Islamic school in Thailand. According to Hy Prou, the teaching was particularly fervent, and Sman Ismael became involved with Dakwah—a fundamentalist evangelical movement from Malaysia that teaches asceticism. Adherents emulate the life of the prophet Mohammed.
Hy Prou said he believes Sman Ismael’s visit to Cambodia with Ibrahim was “not a common visit, but for carrying out their activity.”
“There was a clear assignment of [Sman Ismael’s] position. He was part of the network,” Hy Prou said.
A second police official involved in the case said the length of Hambali’s stay in Cambodia would have been sufficient to put a network in place. Police are investigating the physical as well as the financial networks possibly linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The two men believed to have been with Hambali when he was reportedly in Cambodia—Ibrahim and Zaid—were involved in fomenting radicalism, the police official added.
Jemaah Islamiyah suspect Wan Min bin Wan Mat, who was arrested in Malaysia in 2002, stated in a March 2003 confession cited in the Crisis Group report that JI is focused on establishing an Islamic state in Indonesia and then a caliphate throughout Southeast Asia.
Unlike Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, Cambodia was not mentioned as part of the envisioned caliphate by Wan Min bin Wan Mat.
However, the arrest of suspected Jemaah Islamiyah members in Cambodia, the country’s geographic location and an indigenous Muslim population could bring Cambodia into the group’s area of operations.
Documents obtained by The Cambodia Daily regarding Jemaah Islamiyah activities include a map of Southeast Asia circled by what appears to be the organization’s envisaged Islamic state.
The territory circled on the map encompasses Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, southern Vietnam, the Philippines and East Timor.
Descendants of the Kingdom of Champa, which was located on the central coast of present-day Vietnam, Cambodia’s Chams migrated west after the fall of their homeland to the Vietnamese in 1471. However, it wasn’t until the 17th century that the Chams converted to Islam, historians claim.
Although they have deep historical roots, the Chams have been a people apart in Cambodia. As fishermen and merchants, with a special diet, dress codes and rituals, the Chams suffered particularly horrendous persecution under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Cham religious leaders were targeted, mosques closed and copies of the Koran destroyed. Chams were forced to eat pork, and the men were forced to shave their beards, while the women were forced to cut their hair in the Chinese-communist bob style favored by the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries.
Faced with cultural annihilation, Cham villages rose up against their Khmer Rouge overseers. Reprisal attacks were swift and extreme, leading to wholesale massacres of Cham villages.
Nowadays, Cambodia’s Cham community enjoys a harmonious relationship with the majority Buddhist Khmers, and Cham religious leaders and officials claim there is no militancy among their people.
However, a key member of the Cham community noted that the hundreds of Cambodian students who are sponsored to study each year in madrassas, or Islamic schools, in southern Thailand are learning more orthodox versions of Islam.
While orthodoxy does not mean militancy, there is a new generation of Chams, educated overseas, whose views will likely differ from those of past generations, the Cham official said.
Last year, a US State Department report on religion in Cambodia noted that 6 percent of the country’s estimated 700,000 Chams were following the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi branch of Islam. Some 90 percent of Cambodian Muslims still belong to the Shafi’i sect, but Dakwah missionaries from Malaysia have made inroads, the State Department noted.
According to a senior Cambodian police official familiar with the Jemaah Islamiyah case, the Cambodian Muslims of Trea Pram village, Kompong Cham province, practice a Sunni sect that was introduced to the country after the fall of Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Some believe the number of Cambodian Muslims who are now fundamentalists is much higher.
Funding from the Middle East, Indonesia and Malaysia has prompted a surge in the construction of mosques, madrassas and Islamic orphanages in Cambodia in the past decade. As a result, some see traditional but heterodox Cham practices—ancestor worship, matriarchal family structures, soothsaying and magic—being edged out by orthodoxy.
Jutting out above the treetop canopy and stilted wooden houses on the banks of the Mekong River in Trea Pram village is the golden crescent and green dome of the Almunawar Darassaid mosque in the Kroch Chhmar district of Kompong Cham province.
It’s Friday, and the weekly devotional prayers and Koranic lessons have ended. Young men in skullcaps and colorful sarongs look busy; they walk with a purpose.
Older men in Arab-style turbans are dressed in white, flowing gowns that defy the muddy paths linking this chain of predominantly Cham riverside villages.
But it is the black, shadowlike figures that flit between houses and paths that are most striking. Clad completely in black, only the eyes of the Cham girls and women show through the slits in their head-to-toe hijabis.
While these Cham women’s dress is radical compared to that of other Cham communities, the local religious leader at the nearby mosque, Muhamad Abd Majid, 74, said the women’s thinking is still traditionally Cham.
“It depends on their belief. Wearing [the hijab] is like the difference between wearing a skirt or pants. The practice is stricter, but they are not forced to put it on. It is not extremism,” Muhamad Abd Majid said.
Mostly, the women practice hijab—the covering of the head and the body—when they attend their Koran classes, Muhamad Abd Majid said, adding that if there were a female teacher, there would be less necessity for the women to cover up.
While there are different variants and levels of religious adherence among Cambodian Muslims, there is no extremism, not even among the students who go abroad to study and return, Muhamad Abd Majid said.
“Nothing has changed for us, and we have no ambition to make any changes. Even strict or not so strict, we still pray five times a day…. If we have money, we will go to Mecca. If not, we will stay here. The important thing is to respect and help each other and keep ourselves good,” he said.
The most pressing issue for Chams is ensuring education for their youth, he added.
In Kampot province, friends and relatives of Sman Ismael said they did not believe that the young man who studied so hard could have been involved in anything bad.
“[For] more than 10 years, I did everything for his studies. He is not a bad boy. He is very polite,” said Khieu Lah, Sman Ismael’s 70-year-old grandmother.
A diligent student, Sman Ismael completed ninth grade at his local school. He then moved to Islamic schools in Kompong Cham and Phnom Penh before being awarded a scholarship to study at a madrassa in southern Thailand, where he lived for three years prior to his arrest.
“My mother sent him there and each year sold a cow to send him money. Neighbors helped him too. We wanted him to do well in his studies,” said his sister, Sman Khat Ti Yah.
“My mother still owes some debt for sending him to study. The debt has not been paid back, and my mother and grandmother cry every day,” she said.
“I can say his arrest is completely wrong. It is not right…. We don’t believe he is like what they say. The allegation is unbelievable,” she added.
The police have made extravagant claims, but they have shown no proof that Sman Ismael broke any law, Sman Ismael’s aunt Hin Phat Mah said.
“He denies doing anything wrong,” she said.
“We are concerned that if more young people go to study overseas, they will also be targeted when they get back,” an elderly neighbor said. She said she would never believe that the young Sman Ismael had anything but good in mind.