Indonesia's youth groups try to counter militant recruitment

As reports of militant recruitment among young people rise, small groups are popping up across Indonesia in an effort to help keep youths safe.

A concerted effort to get Indonesian Muslim conservatives to eschew violence through education, and a sweeping police dragnet that killed or captured many of Indonesia’s leading militants, has weakened large terrorist organizations, such as the once powerful Jemaah Islamiyah.

But now, militant organizations are turning to Indonesian youth to fill their depleted ranks and carry out missions.

In January, counterterrorrism police arrested members of a high school militant cell in Klaten, Central Java, planning to attack several local shrines and churches. Months later police foiled a plan to blow up a church outside Jakarta on Good Friday. That bust open a window on a new terror cell led by a graduate of the liberal State Islamic University (UIN), who learned his bombmaking skills through the Internet. At least six UIN students and alumni have been arrested on terrorism charges since 2010.

In the meantime, Muslim youth organizations are responding to the perceived uptick in militancy recruitment among youths in Indonesia. A dark red banner outside the Jakarta branch of the Islamic Students Association (HMI), an umbrella student group with ties to influential politicians reads, “Crisis Center.”

Part of the HMI association’s mission is to protect students from radicalization. “If the activities of HMI don’t fill their needs, they’ll look for something else that fulfills their curiosity,” says Ratna Sari, a member. At least 20 have contacted the center to get help after leaving militant groups since the center started almost three months ago.

Around 23 percent of Indonesian youths are unemployed, according to the International Labor Organization. That’s far above the national average of 7 percent, and is striking since the country’s growing economy is creating high-value jobs.

That unemployment rate leads to social and economic frustrations that influence the way the young generation perceives religion, says Syafii Anwar, director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism, which is currently researching new trends in religious conservativism among university students.

Playing on perceived injustices

Many militant groups use the idea of establishing an Islamic state to appeal to increasingly conservative or disenfranchised youths who believe Indonesia’s secular government has failed them.

Analysts say personal connections formed through schools and pengajians (informal prayer sessions) create ties that help recruitment. Hard-line groups then use that closeness to exploit youths’ distaste for state corruption.

“They start by approaching people looking for a dormitory or help with their studies,” said Ton Abdillah Has, the head of Muhammadiyah’s youth arm, Ikatan Mahasiswa Muhammadiyah (IMM). “Then they raise the interaction and start talking about ideologies.”

Sidney Jones, a senior analyst at the Jakarta-based nonprofit, International Crisis Group, says, “There’s been a recognition by these groups that if they want to rebuild their organization and if they want to recruit new members, the only way they can do this is by attaching themselves to issues that resonate with local communities.”

Youths’ tendency to join radical movements is nothing new, says Noor Huda Ismail, a former student of Pondok Ngruki, the Islamic boarding school cofounded by the cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who is currently serving 15 years in jail for supporting terrorism. What is new, he says, is the trend toward extremism among even secular students.

“Look at the example of Klaten,” the high school where a militant cell was uncovered, he says. “Those people were influenced by nonreligious scholars and others who had no foundation or training to promote jihad.”

These militant groups are certainly part of the fringe, but they’re selective in their recruitment, preferring educated students who can help expand their ideology, said Yos Machmudi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Indonesia.

But increasing connectivity has made radicalization easier by providing youths with access to translations of jihadist teachings from the Middle East or video tutorials that once were passed by hand.


To counter those messages, Anwar’s center works with youth leaders, Islamic boarding schools, and the departments of Religious Affairs and Education to promote democracy and pluralism.

A host of universities say, they, too, are using a combination of talks, films, and social gatherings to counteract the activities of groups such as the Indonesian Islamic State (NII), an outlawed movement with links to radical organizations.

On June 22, UIN drew around 100 students to a talk called, “Demolish the Terrorist Network on Campus.” Men and young women in head scarves grabbed the microphone to spout their concern or dispute stereotypes.

“Around the Muslim world we can see so many poor people, so many uneducated, so many without access to health care,” says Tri Shinta, a member of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), which advocates for a Pan-Islamic caliphate. “As a person of society created by God, I joined HTI so I could find a solution. We’re looking for an Islamic world. We’re not messengers of violence.”

Political science professor Zaki Mubarak said it is true HTI does not advocate violence, but its hard-line views, and those of other above-ground extreme-thinking groups expose UIN to infiltration by more radical Islamists.

The threat should not be overblown, he says, predicting that “only” around 10 percent of the university’s 2,500 students may be associated with radical groups.

But many academics say that is 10 percent too much. Noor Huda says the problem is not with university curriculum but the lack of critical thinking among students. Mr. Abdillah agrees.

“We need to improve the intellectual capacity of our campuses and have a better public model,” he says, adding that colleges need to empower youths and improve their outlook for the future. Too many groups choose to use violence, he says. "We chose to make things better through science, technology, and also by advancing Islam."

In addition, the role of Indonesia’s largest moderate Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, must be strengthened to counteract new challenges, say academics.

In June, leading religious figures called for an investigation into Al-Zaytun, Indonesia's largest Islamic boarding school, which reportedly has ties to the NII.

The school’s founder, Panji Gumilang, denies the connection, as well as reports that the banned organization still exists. Others say the NII is more focused on raising money than radical activities. But former member Sofyan Ardyanto has set up a support group similar to HMI’s crisis center aimed at counseling those who have left the movement.

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