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.
Yet it was still hard to avoid being swept up in the spirit of Ngruki. The only music we heard was nasyid, Arabic religious songs, from loudspeakers in the corners of the school buildings. On the dormitory wall hung Arabic calligraphies. One said: "Die as a noble man or die as a martyr."
The school's facilities were spartan. I slept on the floor with a simple plastic mattress and pillow in a dingy dormitory with 20 other students. The dorm's head boy was only three years older than I. He introduced himself as Fadlullah Hasan. He had straight black hair, brown skin and a blue bruise on his forehead from bowing to pray five times a day. Like me, he came from the city of Yogyakarta and because of this bond, we grew quite close.
Even at age 15, he was zealous. He always got up earlier than the rest of us and would carry out his duty of waking up all the students in our dorm. After prayers in the mosque, he would lead us in reading the Koran and then encourage us further back in our rooms. In his speeches, he said that we were there to study Islam and that when we graduated we would have to do dakwah -- proselytize -- to bring other people to "true" Islam. Hasan was gregarious and smart. His classmates would come to ask him questions. Among them were Fathur Rohman Al Ghozie, a JI member who later died in the Philippines, and Aris Munandar, who was later alleged to be a JI fundraiser and who is still at large.
After two months in the school, I realized that Hasan hadn't introduced himself with his real name. He had used an alias. His real name is Utomo Pamungkas. It is a tradition in the school to change the names of students if their names are not considered Islamic. It is up to the student to choose, usually the name of one of the prophet's friends or one of God's 99 names.
In many ways, Ngruki, founded in 1972, is not unusual. For years there have been thousands of Islamic boarding schools around the country. But only in the past two years, since the bombs exploded on Indonesia's resort island of Bali have these schools come under close scrutiny.
Ngruki encouraged anti-Semitism. On Thursday nights when I was there, students practiced public speaking. Their favorite topic would be "Islam under threat." Their speeches typically quoted the verse of the Koran that says that the infidels and Jews will never stop fighting us until we follow their religion. When I was 15, it was my favorite topic too.
The teachers were campaigners for an Islamic state and the implementation of Islamic law. "Indonesia is still under secular law," they would say. "Therefore there is no obligation for us to obey Indonesian law." To back up their arguments, they quoted the Koran: "Whoever does not follow God's law is an infidel."
They lacked national spirit. They refused to fly the national flag or to accept Pancasila, the Indonesian national philosophy. Shortly before I enrolled, two of the school's founders, Baasyir and Abdullah Sungkar, had gone into exile to avoid being imprisoned for subversion under the Suharto regime. They didn't return until the late 1990s.
During my final year at the school, one of the teachers, an expert in Chinese martial arts named Abdurrohim (alias Abu Husna), explained to a group of graduating students, including me, about the importance of togetherness among Muslims. "A Muslim must be in an Islamic group called Darul Islam," he said. He stressed to all of us that this organization was a clandestine movement devoted to establishing an Islamic state. Later, sitting on a green carpet in his poorly lit house, he recited an oath, which I repeated. I was only 18. After graduation, some Darul members asked me to donate 2.5 percent of my earnings and to attend meetings to deepen my knowledge of Islam, but I drifted away.
Given this background, it's a wonder that more of us didn't turn to extremism. Despite my mixed family background, I remain a Muslim who prays five times a day, reads the Koran and hopes to visit Mecca. But at the same time, I have worked for the American media, hosted Jewish American friends in my home and spent Friday nights in bars having drinks. Recently I won a fellowship to study in the United Kingdom.
The majority of my fellow alumni are more or less like me. They are successful in the secular world. They must realize that some of the school's teachings are unrealistic. To survive in the real world, we have to work and interact with people who don't share our ideas. We have to acknowledge a pluralism in our daily lives that is not consistent with a strict interpretation of Islam. Of the 88 percent of Indonesians who are Muslim, most lead secular lives.
In my case, I had to get a personal ID card from the same government with which we were taught not to cooperate. I continued my studies at two government colleges where I had to sing the national anthem and fly the national flag, which I never did during my years at Ngruki.
But some of my fellow alumni, according to recent interviews I conducted with those detained by the Jakarta police, had a different sort of post-graduate education. They went to military training camps, either Dar Al Ittihad Al Islamy in Afghanistan or Camp Hudaibiyah in the Moro region of the Philippines, as part of a Jemaah Islamiyah program to prepare as many young people as possible for jihadi operations. In their daily lives, they didn't mingle with people who didn't share their ideas and they believed that they were on "the proper path." To earn a living, most worked for themselves as entrepreneurs selling sandals or clothes, or running small cafeterias.
Fifteen years after I graduated from Ngruki, I met again with my dorm mate Hasan -- this time in the Jakarta police jail in 2004. I was working for the media that he considers an extension of the infidels, while he was, and remains, behind bars because of his alleged involvement in the Bali blast. According to police, Hasan was the moneyman for the Bali bombers. Gold stolen from a bank was converted to cash that was deposited in Hasan's bank account before being used by terrorists.
At first, Hasan was surprised to see me and didn't know how to react. I could tell that he wanted to embrace me, but he hesitated after learning that I was working for The Washington Post. I spoke to him in Arabic, asking how he was. He was still uncomfortable. Only after a number of meetings could we communicate normally.
Hasan is the fifth of seven children from a simple peasant family in a remote village in the Yogyakarta area. His father sent him to Ngruki expecting him to become a religious teacher in the village. "I have disappointed him," Hasan said during one of my visits. "Instead of being a religious teacher, I'm being a terrorist. Now I'm locked in here."
After graduating from Ngruki, he taught for a year. But soon he fell under the spell of the Jemaah Islamiyah emir, Sungkar, whom he had met at Ngruki. "He was like father to me," he said of Sungkar. Starting in 1990, Hasan traveled to Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines to study, wage jihad and do missionary work. Hasan quickly became a senior member of Jemaah Islamiyah.
In 2000, Hasan moved to an Islamic boarding school in East Java, where, he told me, he had met all the perpetrators of the Bali bombings. Later he went into hiding in Kalimantan, where the police caught up with him. Sitting cross-legged on his reasonably clean black plastic mattress, Hasan talked about his wife and two children who still live at the school. "Each time I remember them, I feel so sad," he said.
Hasan isn't alone in police detention. He is with other Ngruki alumni, including Muhammad Saefudin and Muhammad Rais. Saefudin and Rais met bin Laden in Afghanistan several times in 2001. Rais, who allegedly conveyed a bin Laden message to Baasyir, was arrested for storing explosive materials for the Marriott hotel bombing; Saefudin was allegedly being groomed as the future JI leader.
For them, the world is divided clearly between good and evil, victim and oppressor. They believe God is on their side. "We saw many of my brothers in Islam killed brutally in Afghanistan and Moro, so it is our calling to destroy the enemy of Islam, all the infidels," Hasan said.
It was a calling some of us never heard.
Noor Huda Ismail was a research assistant for The Post's Jakarta bureau from 2003 to 2004. He is a research analyst at the Institute of Defence and Security Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.