Indonesian school takes pride in its terrorist pupils

Muslim students read the Koran at Al Mukmin Islamic boarding school in Solo.
By Elske Schouten in Jakarta

Indonesia has cracked down on terrorist groups, but turned a blind eye to radical Islamic schools. Students at one such school in Central Java say they are proud it has turned out so many terrorists.

Three 12-year-old boys were glued to a television set in the Al-Arafah bookstore. "Boom, boom boom!" they shouted under their breaths. The sales staff was playing a video showing Chechen rebels blowing up Russian tanks. The Arabic religious soundtrack was subtitled in Indonesian: "Blow them up, blow them up, don't surrender to the enemies of God. Long live Islam!"

Why were these little Indonesian boys watching a jihadist video about Chechnya? They weren't telling, without an answer they ran out of the store.

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Pesantren

The Al-Arafah bookstore is located in an infamous neighbourhood: Ngruki, a radical Muslim enclave in an otherwise moderate Muslim country. This suburb of Solo, a city on Central Java, is home to the Islamic boarding school Al Mukmin, founded by the radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir. A dozen condemned terrorists, suicide bombers and their accomplices have passed through this so-called 'pesantren'.

Until Wednesday, police thought another Al Mukmin graduate, Nur Hasbi, was among the two suicide bombers who blew themselves up at Jakarta's Marriott hotel last Friday. But police determined through DNA evidence that he was not the suicide bomber. Hasbi is still a person of interest to investigators; he is believed to be close to Noordin Top, the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombings.

Friday's twin bombings at Jakarta's Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels, which killed seven people including a Dutch couple, have sparked renewed interest in Ngruki. The Indonesian police have arrested many terrorists in the past few years, thereby debilitating the South-East Asian terrorist organisation Jema’ah Islamiyah. But more and more experts are asking if the time has come to go after the radical Islamic schools, clerics and publishing houses as well?

The Indonesia government has so far turned a blind eye to schools like Al Mukmin. As a result, said its director Wayhuddin, the pesantren has grown to about 1,500 pupils. Wayhuddin, white-bearded and wearing glasses and a Muslim skullcap, said he was "disappointed" by Friday's attack but he also found it "logical" that the bombings took place. Didn't US president Obama say only recently that he was going after Al Qaeda? "These attacks are a result of that statement," said Wayhuddin. The involvement of former Al Mukmin pupils in terror attacks is "not our responsibility", he said.

Islamic boy scouts

Teenagers walked between the school buildings and dormitories wearing traditional Indonesian sarongs, skullcaps and Islamic robes. They were doing their best to grow beards but most didn't get beyond a few hairs. One group of pupils walked past in an orderly fashion. Encouraged by shouts from their instructors, they climbed over the gate of the pesantren. They were wearing the uniform of the Sapala Kamufisa - boy scouts, according to the school. But why then is their logo two crossed machine guns? The boys couldn't be bothered to give a serious answer. "They're for shooting birds," one of them giggled.

Two pupils, Farouk and Mohamad Rifai, showed no shame over their school's reputation for producing terrorists. "This is the only school in Indonesia where people have sacrificed their lives for Allah. It's something to be proud of," said 18-year-old Rifai.

His friend Farouk said Friday's attacks in Jakarta were "neither good nor bad". He and his friends often watch videos showing the crimes perpetrated by the West against their 'Muslim brothers' in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. "I feel bad about the victims of attacks like these. But I feel less bad if they're kafirs, non-Muslims. We don't need to help them; they can help themselves."

Boys like Farouk are regulars at the Al-Arafah bookstore. Every day when school is out the store fills up with 'santri', as the pesantren pupils are called. It's a pretty and well-lit store. You can even get refreshments.

Good business

But next to the children's books was a stack of DVDs - "Buy four for the price of three!"- with titles like The Holy Sniper, Mujahedeen Frontline or Iraq Under Attack 3, which featured a picture of a girl with a bomb strapped to her waist. Most of the books were translated and cost a few euros. In a section labeled "The Movement" were titles like Al Qaeda's Message of Love and books written by the Bali bombers, who killed more than 200 people in an attack on a holiday resort in 2002. There were t-shirts featuring masked mujahedeen fighters brandishing with machine guns.

According to Mohammad Sutyaji, Al-Arafah's owner, jihadist book and dvd sales have remained about the same since Friday's attacks. Sutyaji didn't see a problem with selling terrorist propaganda. "They are not criminals in my mind," he said. Like school director Wayhuddin he felt the Jakarta attacks were "logical". "There is a lot of drinking and prostitution in those big hotels, and the government doesn't do anything about it."

Most of the publishing houses who produce the jihadist literature are linked to Jema’ah Islamiyah, according to a report published last year by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank. They supplement their jihadist portfolio with the lighter Islamic books that are all the rage in Indonesia these days, like the popular Obama, the first American president who is 100 percent Jewish. And business is good: at the Aqwam publishing house, boxes full of books were waiting to be shipped out.

Now that Indonesia is a democracy it is a lot harder for the government to ban books, and cracking down on Islamic schools is extremely touchy. Still, it is exactly what the Indonesian government should be doing, experts are saying.

"The Indonesian counter-terrorist effort has never focused on recruitment," said Rohan Gunaratna of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. "If you allow people to go on preaching hatred, there is a very big threat."

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