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Indonesia hotel bomber: a graduate of jihad 'ivy league'

Investigation turns to an Islamist school that one of the suspected suicide bombers attended in 1995.

By Tom McCawleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 2009

An Indonesian forensic team investigates damage to Ritz Carlton hotel in Jakarta on Monday.



Jakarta, Indonesia

Update: Latest developments reflect focus of investigation now turning to Islamic boarding school

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On Monday, Indonesia's developing investigation into the terrorist attack on the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta that killed nine people last week led them to the tiny Javanese town of Ngruki, where a small Islamic boarding school has been teaching jihad going on 20 years.

Tempo, an online Indonesian news source, said a "number" of police intelligence officers visited the Al Mukmin boarding school and The Jakarta Post reported that Indonesian investigators believe that Nur Sahid, a 1995 graduate of the school, was one of the suicide bombers who attacked businessmen enjoying their breakfasts at the hotel last week.

As the investigation has moved forward, evidence has mounted against Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Islamist group responsible for more than 300 murders dating back to 2000. The JI has long used the boarding school at Ngruki – which is run by its spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir – as a recruiting hub, making it part of a militant "ivy league," according to Sidney Jones, the leading investigator of the group,

Window on a school

Noor Huda Ismail is a 1991 graduate of the school who roomed with a number of boys who went on to join JI. He says that it's important to understand what's taught there if one wants to grasp, and ultimately undermine, the ideology behind these kinds of murders.

He's now a researcher and head of the Institute for International Peacebuilding, an Indonesian foundation that seeks to reintegrate Islamist fighters into mainstream society. He stays in touch with a number of JI's jailed activists.

"They sincerely believe what they did was right to defend other Muslims," Mr. Huda says, explaining the thinking of some of the young men indoctrinated at Al Mukmin. "That's what worries me."

The 1995 class was a particularly fertile one for terrorists. Asmar Latin Sani, a suicide bomber and one-time roommate of Huda's who helped murder 12 people at the Marriott in 2003, graduated that year. So did Muhammed Rais, who assisted in that first Marriott attack and whose sister married Noordin Top, the JI leader who Indonesian police say now leads a splinter group that arranged the latest attack and is their most wanted man.

Foreign plots and obedience

Huda says the atmosphere at the school is one of unquestioning obedience and constant warnings of foreign and Christian plots to harm Islam.

Some of the students became true believers and signed up for jihad (holy war). Others were simply naive or didn't question their superiors when asked to do favors that later incriminated them in wider terror plots. (He recalls one acquaintance who simply gave his bank account to a man who later used it to organize a 2002 bomb plot on Bali that killed 202 people.) "They were trained to be robotic and not to question," Huda says.

Still, Huda says that most of the students at Ngruki never participated in any militant activity, and that the vast majority's views grow more moderate, as his did, when they make contact with the wider world. But as long as militancy and hate are preached, some portion of students will act on that, says Huda.