Jakarta bombings: Why Indonesia's Islamist radicals attack

Charity worker Noor Huda Ismail went to the same Islamic boarding school as some of Indonesia’s top terrorists. Now he explains their ideology.

Mark Baker/AP
A mother and her child laid flowers Sunday outside the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Jakarta, Sunday. The hotel was bombed on Friday.

Indonesian authorities said Sunday that there is an increasing evidence that the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Islamist group responsible for more than 300 murders in attacks dating back to 2000, was responsible for Friday's deadly attacks on the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta.

Ansyaad Mbai, a senior Indonesian counter-terrorist official, said that an unexploded bomb found in a laptop in an 18th floor room at the Marriott indicates that the attackers – two of them suicide bombers – used the room as a sort of command center for the attack.

In particular, he said, the blasts were most likely linked to Malaysian fugitive Noordin Mohammad Top, one of Southeast Asia's most wanted men and who is believed to be leading a JI splinter group.

If it is JI, it's quite likely that some of the operatives would have been drawn from the Al Mukmin Islamic boarding school, which Sidney Jones, a leading researcher on the group, has described as part of a militant "ivy league."

Noor Huda Ismail is a 1991 graduate of the school who roomed with boys who later joined JI – one became a suicide bomber – and is 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 and his descriptions of the school's training gives outsiders a valuable window on the ideology behind JI's attacks.

"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."

An 'ivy league' school for militants

Huda says the atmosphere at the school, located in Ngruki, Central Java, 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 naïve 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 2003 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 death of key leaders in a seven-year US-supported counter-terrorist campaign, JI's violent wing was weakened. But they warned the release of recent members from prison, and generational turnover, could re-energize 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 Mr. Huda's roommate Fadlullah Hasan, who took part in the October 2002 bombing in Bali that left 202 dead, mostly foreign tourists.

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.

Hard-core teachings

"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."

Al Mukmin's founder Abdullah Sungkar helped found JI in Malaysia in 1993, along with the group's spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir. Police investigators say Al Mukmin, along with several other pesantrens, were major recruiting grounds for JI.

They're not psychopaths

Another of Huda's roommate, Asmar Latin Sani, was a suicide bomber in the first JI bomb attack on the Jakarta JW Marriott hotel in August 2003. Huda cautions against seeing such men as "psychopaths," however. "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 guerillas 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 it's 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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