Schooled For Jihad
It is visiting hour at Jakarta's Cipinang Prison and its most famous inmate, the Muslim preacher Abubakar Baasyir, sits on a wooden bench surrounded by a dozen acolytes, assistants and lawyers. Several prisoners attend to him, including a confessed terrorist who has become the cleric's servant and coordinates a team of six to wash his clothes and cook his meals without pay. Prison officials allow Baasyir to teach a class on Islam to fellow inmates four times a week; about 100 prisoners attend each session.
Hasyim Abdullah, Baasyir's right-hand man, is posted outside the prison to run errands for the cleric, buy his food and help the friends, family members and supporters who visit nearly every day. They give messages to the cleric and take directions from him to his followers on the outside.
Baasyir is holding court in prison instead of his home or office because Indonesian prosecutors have accused him of being the emir of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. In a 65-page indictment, they alleged that he was involved in "planning and/or encouraging other people to commit terrorism" including the 2003 bombing of the J. W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, where 12 people were killed, and the 2002 bombing of a resort in Bali, where 202 people were killed. A court cleared Baasyir in the Marriott attack and found him guilty of approving of (but not of ordering) the Bali bombings.
For the international community, the case is a litmus test of the Indonesian government's resolve in the war on terrorism. Despite the severity of the charges against him, Baasyir received only a 30-month sentence. His lawyers say the sentence ran out on June 4 and they are suing the government for his release.
But for me, Baasyir's case poses a different question. That's because he was a co-founder of the Islamic boarding school, Al Mukmin Ngruki, where I spent six years studying in sweltering classrooms. While I chose a career in journalism, many of my fellow students made a different choice. Dozens of Ngruki's alumni have been accused of taking part in a wave of terrorist attacks against Westerners in Indonesia. Security analysts and police investigators believe that the link is no coincidence. Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group has called my alma mater an "Ivy League" for Jemaah Islamiyah recruits.
All of which makes me wonder: Why did so many of my fellow students end up choosing terrorism while I ended up writing about them?
To begin to answer that question, I decided to meet Abubakar Baasyir in jail. I contacted Hasyim, his soft-spoken liaison man, whose cell phone is constantly on. "Please come in," he said when I arrived. Using the word for teacher, he added, "Ustadz is ready."
After 10 minutes, the white bearded cleric entered. In his mid-sixties, he appeared in a white shirt and worn eyeglasses; a white box cap was perched on his head. Abdul Jabar, a JI member who admitted to blowing up an explosives-laden van at the house of the Philippine ambassador in 2000, accompanied him.
Baasyir, who proclaims himself an admirer of Osama bin Laden but still denies that he is a terrorist leader, said that he is just a victim of "the infidel Bush's America." Then he quoted a verse from the Koran: "The infidels will never stop fighting us until we follow their way." I know that verse by heart. We learned it in school.
I was never the typical Ngruki student, so in some ways it's no surprise that I didn't follow a path toward Islamic extremism. My father, who is a parole officer, sent me there in 1985 when I was 12. Only later did he tell me that he did so in order to get an inside look at the place because so many of his cases were Islamic militants who had studied there before landing in prison. "It made it easy for me to come and observe the school," my father later explained.
Moreover, I came from a secular family with a diverse background. My father is a Muslim who was just 9 when his father died. Afterward my father's eldest brother, who married into a Catholic family in central Java, looked after him and sent my father to school. My mother came from a strong Javanese family. Her grandfather was a dalang -- a puppet master.