Islam within Indonesia

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Noor Huda Ismail: Is Ngruki a terrorism school?

The Jakarta Post on Feb. 28, 2005 released a report on a Ngruki alumni involved in terrorism activity. As a graduate of that school, I understand how such people think. In this brief report, I (Noor Huda Ismail, the writer) would like to share my experiences studying there and investigate why a fringe of Ngruki alumni are involved in terrorism activities but the majority are not. What does he say about Ngruki?

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Ngruki: It is a terrorism school?

By Noor Huda Ismail


The Jakarta Post on Feb. 28, 2005 released a report on a Ngruki alumni involved in terrorism activity. As a graduate of that school, I understand how such people think. In this brief report, I would like to share my experiences studying there and investigate why a fringe of Ngruki alumni are involved in terrorism activities but the majority are not.

From age 12 to 17 I attended the now-famous Islamic boarding school. A simple plastic mattress served as my bed in a dingy student dormitory together with about 20 other students and a volunteer resident assistant named Fadlullah Hasan, who was three years older than me. Hasan had a perpetual blue bruise on his forehead from bowing his head to the floor as the result of his five prayers per day.

Despite his zealous attitude and my more moderate beliefs, Hasan and I developed a tight bond, mostly rooted in the fact that we both hailed from the outskirts of Yogyakarta, a two-hour bus ride from Ngruki.

At 4.am. Hasan habitually rose without an alarm clock and promptly woke us up by gently tapping our backs. After morning prayers in the adjacent mosque, we read the Koran and consumed Hasan's encouraging words that reminded us to study and to proselytize Islam.

After two months at Ngruki I realized Hasan used an alias. Like many Ngruki students, Hasan rejected his given name, Utomo Pamungkas, because it sounded too Javanese, and not Islamic enough. Hasan, as I always called him, vanished from Ngruki the following year, and I wouldn't learn his whereabouts until we had a rather ironic encounter 15 years later.

Ngruki wasn't always famous. It is merely one of thousands of Islamic boarding schools across Indonesia. But it has emerged as the most notorious of such schools because dozens of convicted Bali bombers are Ngruki alumni and its co-founder is Abu Bakar Ba'asyir. Security analysts and police investigators insist Ngruki's activities are linked with the three major bombings in Indonesia and at least two dozen smaller explosions, mostly targeting churches.

Sidney Jones, the director of the Indonesian branch of the International Crisis Group, has dubbed Ngruki the "Ivy League" of JI members who are recruited clandestinely.

Jones has a point. Days before my graduation, Ngruki's faith teacher, Abdurrohim alias Abu Husna, called me and five other students -- all of whom had high academic achievements or zealous attitudes -- into his poorly-lit home. He said, "A Muslim should join the Islamic group called Jamaah Islamiyah," he said. He explained how this movement aimed to establish an Islamic state.

I was a 17-year-old, and wise enough to refuse his proposal. In fact, my days at Ngruki were a misfit from the beginning. My secular father worked as a parole officer who was mainly responsible for handling Islamic militants that opposed former president and dictator Soeharto. As a means for him to find out more about the group, he enrolled me in Ngruki.

"You make it easy for me to enter and observe the school," my father told me.

One of his targets of observation was Ngruki's co-founder, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, an alleged terrorist leader who I interviewed for my current job as a reporter for The Washington Post, just a few days before an Indonesian prosecutor reopened the case against him. In a 65-page indictment, the prosecutor charged him for being the amir, or leader, of Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) and declared him responsible for the Marriott Hotel and Bali bombings.

Abu Bakar Basyir, 65, approached me in the crowded and poorly maintained jail hall wearing a white shirt, a white, boxed Islamic cap, and faded white-framed eyeglasses. The stocky prisoner by his side was convicted of blowing up the residence of the Philippines ambassador in 2000. His unofficial job was to coordinate six prisoners who provide Baasyir daily assistance with food and laundry.

Baasyir, a self-proclaimed admirer of Osama bin Laden, spewed out his usual rhetoric, portraying himself as a victim of the infidel Bush's America. Then he quoted the Koran "The infidels will never stop fighting us until we follow their way."

I know this verse all too well because various teachers drilled it into my brain by day and night some 14 years ago, when I studied in the sweltering classrooms that taught nothing but Islam. The only music blasting from Ngruki's speakers was Nasyid, an Arabic song about Jihad. Painted Arabic calligraphy covered the dormitory walls. One of them read "Die as a noble man or die as a martyr."

Inside Ngruki's brick walls, anti-Semitism was rampant. On Thursday night public speaking classes, the most popular topic was the threats facing Islam. Global Jewish power and Indonesia's Christian-controlled economy fueled our fears. We, the students, delivered impassioned speeches quoting the verse of the Koran that reads "the infidels and Jews will never stop fighting us until we follow their religion." I was no different, and my words received warm praise and injected me with pride and genuine satisfaction.

There is no doubt that all the teachers were fiercely for an Islamic state and the implementation of sharia law. They regarded the existing secular national law as illegitimate. They refused the fly Indonesia's red and white flag, and shunned Pancasila -- Indonesia's national philosophy. Their motivation was once again a Koranic verse that reads, "Whoever doesn't follow God's law is an infidel."

This anti-nationalism led Ngruki's co-founders, Ba'asyir and Abdullah Sungkar, to flee into exile in neighboring Malaysia, where they avoided imprisonment for subversion by Soeharto.

My father did, in fact, find out a lot about life in Ngruki. He learned that Ngruki, despite its radical slant, produced a handful of moderate Indonesian Muslims like me. I pray five times a day, study the Koran and wish to visit Mecca. I work for the American media, host Jewish-American friends in my home, and spend Friday nights at a local bar. Most of my fellow graduates may not be open-minded by Western standards, but they don't support violence in the name of Islam either. And despite their occasional narrow vision, many are likely to have succeeded in the secular, business world.

Why did only some Ngruki alumni take the road to terrorism?

Ngruki teachings proved unrealistic in the real world, especially the emphasis on the strict interpretation of Islam that was at complete odds with the environment where we ended up working. After graduation, I had to obtain a personal ID card from the government, the same government I was taught to disregard. I choose to further my study at two government-run universities, where I had to sing the national anthem and respect the national flag. All of this was necessary to start a successful career.

According to my interviews in Arabic and Indonesian with convinced terrorists from Ngruki, most received military academy training in the Dar Al Ittihad Al Islamy camp in Afghanistan or in Camp Hudaibiyah in Moro, the Philippines. They went in the name of JI and candidly discussed how they killed in the name of God. They justified their jihad as a revenge for the butchering of Muslims by infidels such as the U.S. and its allies.

Hasan was among them. When I met with him again last year, the setting was not a run-down dormitory, but instead an equally dilapidated Jakarta jail. Hasan's jaw nearly dropped to the floor when he first saw me. It looked like he wanted to hug me, but he hesitated and awkwardly opted for a handshake. Other prisoners must have informed him that his long-lost roommate was now a special correspondent for the Washington Post journalist, a position he would deem an extension of the infidels. Hasan is now a convict, jailed for his involvement in the Bali blast.

We engaged in small talk in Arabic until his comfort level increased. However, took many meetings spanning two months for us to return to our previous rapport.

Hasan is the fifth of seven children from a simple peasant family in a remote Java village. His father sent him to Ngruki from 1986 to 1989 expecting him to become his village's religious teacher.

"I have disappointed my father," he said in a solemn voice. "Instead of being a religious teacher, I'm a terrorist. Now, I am locked here."

In 1990, under the influence of the emir of JI, Abdullah Sungkar, he went to Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines to study a radical strain of Islam and to wage Jihad as a missionary in Malaysia and Indonesia. Hasan met Sungkar at Ngruki before Sungkar fled to Malaysia. "He was like a father to me," said Hasan, who later became a senior JI member.

He was instructed to establish the Hudaibiyah Camp and train Moro Independent Liberation Front members and JI members.

Sitting cross-legged on his black mattress, Hasan talked sadly about his wife and his two children who live in an Islamic boarding school in East Java.

"Each time I think of them, I feel so sad," he said. Hasan also lived in this school in 2000, and it was there that he met the Bali bombers, most of whom were Ngruki graduates from different years. But Hasan sensed the police on his tail, and he fled on a two-day boat ride to faraway Kalimantan.

Hasan wasn't in jail alone -- he was with other former Ngruki students; Muhammad Saefudin and Muhammad Rais. Along with Saefudin and Rais, he met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001.

Rais relayed Osama bin Laden's message to Ba'asyir and was arrested for storing explosive materials used for the Marriott Hotel bombing, while Saefudin was groomed by JI as its future leader.

I wondered. If it weren't for my secular roots, would I too have been with my former classmates behind bars?

*The writer is a journalist, Jakarta

Source: The Jakarta Post, March 14-15, 2005.



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