2 Nov 2010

Radical Islamic boarding schools across Indonesia breeding grounds for suicide bombers

The Australian July 21, 2009

Jihad in the classroom

by Sally Neighbour | Opinion

INDONESIA will continue to live with the threat of terror attacks unless its government cracks down on the militant Islamic schools and religious zealots who espouse worldwide jihad.

Last Friday's hotel bombings in Jakarta have focused attention yet again on a network of radical Islamic boarding schools across Indonesia that continues to espouse the cause of violent jihad and churn out eager young zealots willing to die in its name.

Four days after the bombings, investigators have linked them to two Islamic schools that are well known to the Indonesian authorities but have neither been shut down nor had their activities or teachings curtailed.

The first of these is the now notorious Al Mukmin pesantren (boarding house) at Ngruki in Solo, Central Java, where the Marriott suicide bomber is reported to have been schooled.

The second is a smaller school at Cilacap in Central Java, where a bomb identical to the hotel bombs used in Jakarta was found in July, and which is believed to have provided shelter to suspected mastermind Noordin Top.

A Muslim leader in Jakarta yesterday identified the man who detonated a backpack and case full of explosives inside the Marriott restaurant as Nur Hasbi, who is believed to have graduated from the Ngruki school in 1995. Thus the school continues to live up to its reputation as "a crucible for the formation of cadres of mujahidin", and its mission, "to nurture zeal for jihad so that love for jihad and martyrdom grow in the soul of the mujahidin", in the words of its co-founder, Jemaah Islamiah leader, Abu Bakar Bashir.

Nur Hasbi was no doubt inspired by his reported classmate, Asmar Latin Sani, who carried out the previous attack on the Marriott in 2003, after which his severed head was found on the fifth floor of the smashed hotel.

The connection is no coincidence.

The Ngruki school and others linked to JI -- chiefly the Darul Syahadah ("house of martyrs") and Al Muttaqin schools, both in Central Java -- have produced no less than dozens of young recruits linked to a string of terrorist attacks, starting with the first Bali bombings in 2002. "The most common link between participants in the terrorist movement in Indonesia in the past 10 years has been attendance at those schools," says Ken Ward, a former senior analyst with the Office of National Assessments, who has worked on in a project tracing terrorist networks in Southeast Asia, in conjunction with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Ward says the Indonesian government has been slow to take on the militant schools because it doesn't actually know what they teach, fears a political backlash, and seems unable to decide what constitutes radical Islam.

"I think it's a big problem with confronting the JI ideology. A lot of Indonesians can't agree on what's undesirable about it, except that they reject bombing."

As a result, despite a vigorous program to "de-radicalise" JI detainees, the origins of radicalisation -- within the school system -- are seemingly ignored.

"It's almost as though the Indonesians are willing to allow people to acquire radical Islamic beliefs and then later try to de-radicalise them, rather than try to de-radicalise the education system."

I visited the Ngruki school in 2002 after the Bali bombings and again last year. In 2002 the principal had a portrait of Osama bin Laden on his door, and an ABC TV crew filmed a classroom in which childish drawings of bombs and sticks of dynamite were scrawled on a blackboard. At a mosque nearby we witnessed the now famous sermon by Abu Bakar Bashir: "Between you and us there will forever be a ravine of hate and we will be enemies until you follow Allah's law."

By 2008 little had changed, except that the school has expanded over the years.

Bashir now lives in a newly built cement-block home with marbled floor tiling and a garden, which his wife Mba Ecun was watering with a hose as we arrived. Bashir was not at home at the time, but I briefly met his son Abdul Rohim, a tall handsome young man in his 30s who had only a cursory nod and a gaze of undisguised hostility for the foreign reporter who had arrived unannounced.

Abdul Rohim is now a leading figure at the school, and all the evidence suggests he shares his father's world view. Abdul Rohim was formerly based in Pakistan as "a go-between between JI and al-Qa'ida", according to testimony from former JI member Jack Roche, who was convicted of plotting to bomb the Israeli embassy in Canberra.

Abdul Rohim's mentors in Pakistan were JI's former operations chief Hambali, architect of the 2002 Bali bombings, and the al-Qa'ida mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who devised the September 2001 attacks on the US.

Despite the clear links of a few of them with terrorist activities, intervening in Islamic schools carries substantial political risks.

Indonesia has 17,000 state and privately run Islamic schools, the vast majority of which are deemed to be moderate in their teachings. For many Indonesians, particularly in poor rural provinces, they are the only schools available. And in the world's most populous Muslim nation, any act that can be portrayed as "anti-Muslim" must be carefully avoided.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono knows this all too well. After his 2004 election, his wife Khristiani stopped using her given name and adopted instead a shortened version, "Ibu (mother) Ani", lest her former moniker implied she was a Christian.

While the Indonesian police and intelligence have made great strides in combating the JI network, arresting more than 400 and dismantling its infrastructure and training programs, the same cannot be said for the government's progress in tackling the Islamists' violent philosophy head-on.

The authorities have tolerated extremist schools, permitted an industry in violent jihadist literature to flourish, and allowed imprisoned terrorists to use their jail cells to proselytise and write memoirs, such as the tract by the recently executed Bali bomber Samudra which at last count had sold 10,000 copies.

SBY's groundless comments after last week's bombings, suggesting they may have been the work of political rivals disgruntled over his recent re-election, will have done nothing to reassure critics on this score.

There is no doubt the Indonesian government could do more. It could seriously police the militant schools, shut down the publishing companies and crack down on Islamist activity in jails. Friends and donors such as Australia have a right to pressure Jakarta to take these steps.

Australia is at present spending $355million on a program to build 2000 new schools across Indonesia to promote progressive education. It is a laudable project in itself, but it will have little impact on Islamic militancy as long as a handful of radical schools are allowed to continue providing shelter, support and willing new recruits to the terrorists.

Sally Neighbour is a senior reporter with The Australian and the ABC's Four Corners.

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