Sat, 12 Mar 2005

Ngruki: A school of terrorism?

Part 1 of 2

Noor Huda Ismail Jakarta

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 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.

The writer is a journalsit and can be reached at