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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    An Indonesian forensic team investigates damage to Ritz Carlton hotel in Jakarta on Monday.
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Update: Latest developments reflect focus of investigation now turning to Islamic boarding school

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.

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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.

Choosing a different path

"I used to think like them," says Mr. Huda of his teen years studying hard-line jihadism. "So I know that if I can change, why can't they?"

Huda went on to study communications at a leading university, work as a reporter for The Washington Post, and win a scholarship to Scotland's St. Andrews University.

Huda and Dr. Carl Ungerer, an Australian security analyst, had warned in a report issued less than 24 hours before the July 17 bombing, that JI might be planning new attacks.

The report said that after the arrest of over 400 JI members, including the death of key leaders in a seven-year US-supported counterterrorist campaign, JI's violent wing was weakened. But they warned the release of recent members from prison and a generational turnover, could reenergize JI.

My former roommate, the terrorist

Terrorism was a long way from Huda's mind when his father, a prison parole officer, enrolled him in the Al Mukmin boarding school in 1985. He was 12 years old then. Indonesia's thousands of Islamic boarding schools, or pesantrens, promise to teach moral values and religion, often to the children of poor families.

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, elected in a landslide victory of more 60 percent of the popular vote on July 8, is a pesantren graduate. So was another of Mr. Huda's roommates, Fadlullah Hasan, who took part in the 2002 bombing in Bali.

Many of Indonesia's pesantren espouse a tolerant, pluralist version of Islam, often integrated with pre-Islamic beliefs. Some 88 percent of Indonesia's 237 million people declare Islam as their faith. A small fringe of pesantrens preach a dogmatic version of Islam, teaching students it is their religious duty to wage war on the West.

"We were taught Islam is white or black, that it [hard-line jihadism] is the only salvation there is," Huda says. "The only music we heard was ... Arabic religious songs, from cracking loudspeakers," Huda writes in an essay. In speech class, he says, he was taught that "the infidels and Jews would never stop fighting us till we followed their religion. When I was 15, it was my favorite topic, too."

They're not psychopaths

Huda, who essentially grew up with two men who became suicide bombers, cautions against seeing such men as "psychopaths." "They have their own logic and make a rational calculation about what they're doing."

At university, Huda's outlook shifted after his release from his sequestered life. University encouraged him to indulge a questioning nature that had sometimes riled fellow pesantren members. A side job as a tour guide exposed him to foreigners. "I learned they [Westerners] were nice, normal human beings," he says.

Only a minority of Ngruki graduates, Mr. Huda says, become violent jihadists or worked for JI. "Most make their way in a pluralist world," he says claiming other graduates became entrepreneurs or office workers, with one entering parliament.

Huda, now a father of one, says he keeps in touch with former JI members and prisoners, helping them find work. One project is teaching returning guerrillas from the Philippines to fatten cows for a traditional Islamic sacrifice. He also helps take care of the children of prisoners.

Huda, who says he was "mad" when moderate Muslims in Indonesia did not speak out against terrorism, says his approach is to remain deeply engaged with the fringes of Indonesian Islam that have bred its terrorism problem. "I still have the blue blood of the ground zero of radicalism," he says.

• Material from the wire services was used in this report

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