- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

SOLO, Indonesia - The knit black ski mask hanging over a post in the sweltering heat is a sign that more than the Koran is being studied at the Darusy Syahadah, one of Indonesia’s most radical and secretive Muslim schools.

The motto for the 300-plus young men studying at the school in a distant corner of the majority-Muslim nation hangs on the wall of the visitors’ building: “With you, Allah, I live, and with you, I die. I obey you.”

The establishment’s leaders make no secret of their disdain for the United States.

They warn that Muslims around the world are ready to “hit back” at what they say are the injustices committed by the United States, Britain and their allies against Muslims.

“They should understand that if a body is hit, and we get hurt, we will move against them and we will hit them back,” said school director Ichsan, who like many Indonesians. uses just one name.

Darusy Syahadah is one of the 14,000 religious boarding schools, or pesantrens, in Indonesia.

Only a small number are considered radical and militant, but their graduates are a growing concern to the authorities and foreign intelligence services seeking to avert a repeat of last year’s terrorist attack on the tropical Bali beach resort that left more than 200 dead.

Many arrested members of Indonesia’s al Qaeda-linked terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) are graduates of pesantrens led by militant teachers who believe Islam is under attack by the United States and pro-U.S. governments.

Responsible for the Bali attack, as well as a series of bombings in the region, including the blast that killed 12 persons in Jakarta’s upscale Marriott Hotel in August, JI is a lethal group that is determined to set up an Islamic state comprising Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of the Philippines and Thailand.

“We are up against determined enemies who attack us again and again,” Indonesian Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said recently at an international conference in Bali.

“It is likely that the terrorists groups are regrouping, reconnecting, recruiting and retraining,” he warned.

Members of the largest Muslim organizations in Indonesia are worried that they, too, could become targeted by extremists, who view their moderate version of Islam as impure.

The Darusy Syahadah school, located in a rolling green countryside dotted mostly with squat, red-roofed houses and sugar cane fields, is exclusive. Few students get in, and visitors are not allowed to mingle with them. Mr. Ichsan is young and intelligent.

But his calm demeanor cracked occasionally to reveal a zealous commitment to defend Islam. Lashing out at President Bush’s actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, he stated: “The obligation of Muslims is to protect and defend other Muslims. The minimum, with prayer. The maximum, depends on our capability.”

The brief interview is interrupted three times as a member of the school blocked the doorway to snap pictures, unasked, adding to the eeriness of the visit.

“It’s for our files,” explained Mr. Ichsan, who closed the conversation with an unusual barrage of questions of how we had arrived at the school, where we were staying, how long and where we were going to next.

On the way to the school’s mosque, past a large climbing net typically used for military training, students earlier had said Mr. Ichsan’s real name was Zabir.

Sidney Jones, a recognized JI specialist with the International Crisis Group think tank, said that a core group of teachers and Islamic school graduates combined their religious practices with lethal military training in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and more recently in the Philippines.

Now they are sending their children to elite schools such as Darusy Syahadah.

“We’ve got a big organization here. JI is a large organization and it’s still recruiting,” Miss Jones said.

Although she pointed out that moderate Muslims would not cross the line into violence, those on the more radical fringes might.

“The war on Iraq is going to provide an incentive for more recruiting,” she said. “The United States has an extremely serious problem on its hands in the Muslim world.”

Global terror network

Miss Jones said JI was developing alliances not only with fellow militants in Indonesia, Chechnya, Pakistan, Thailand, Bangladesh and the Philippines, but also with well-meaning, but not very clued-in local groups, who believe they are defending the faith by raising funds and providing shelter.

Washington believes that one of the keys to breaking down JI’s underground network of terrorists is Indonesia’s Muslim educational system.

“The school system is the solution to where all of these problems are coming from,” said one senior U.S. official in Jakarta.

Irsyad Fikri, spokesman for the Islam al Mukmin pesantren in Solo, which was founded by JI leaders Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir, denied that his school condones violence.

“In pesantrens, the teacher is a figure, the idol of the student. Teachers are a good symbol. So in this pesantren, teachers try to handle the students here, not to express their protests the wrong way, with violence.”

Speaking as an Indonesian intelligence officer kept watch from across an alley, he added: “While they study here, they are under our control, they obey what we say, but some graduates get involved in violence because after they graduate they interact with other people.”

Key JI figure Ali Gufren, alias Muklas, was, according to Mr. Fikri, a perfect student when he attended this pesantren, tucked amid a tangle of the narrow, winding streets of Ngruki village, an hour’s flight from the capital, Jakarta.

Muklas, an admirer of Osama bin Laden, has been sentenced to death by an Indonesian court for his role in the Bali beach bombing that killed 202 persons, a large number of them Australian tourists.

Although a number of top JI leaders have been captured, the underground organization is active, dangerous and able to regenerate, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

Moderate Muslims in the region outwardly condemn the use of violence, but lay the blame for bloody terrorist attacks around the world directly on U.S. foreign policy.


Blaming America

“If the problems of Palestine and Iraq can be overcome, half the violence in the world can be overcome,” said Hassim Muzadi, chairman of the 40 million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization.

“And the second half can be overcome by the relations between the United States and moderate Muslims in the world, because the second half is only the misunderstanding of religion,” said Mr. Muzadi, who met with Mr. Bush during the president’s visit here in October.

According to Miss Jones, many NU members are extremely worried that JI — which began by fighting for an Islamic state in Indonesia, but has branched out to attack Western targets in the region — will turn its violence on them, because their form of Islam may be seen as too accommodating.

Muslims dominate the population throughout Indonesia, north through Malaysia and southern beach-lined border provinces of Thailand.

“Looking at Asia as a cultural map, you will have southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, southern Philippines as a cultural entity, where the commonalities of culture are more pronounced than the differences,” explained professor Chaiwat Satha-Anand, of Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

Notoriously porous borders between these countries, combined with the Muslim religious conviction of the need to support travelers and those who teach religion, means that JI members and sympathizers can travel easily and widely.

Although Thailand is a secular state and a U.S. ally in the war against terrorism and in Iraq, its minority-Muslim population has more in common with its southern neighbors.

Erafarn Sulong, manager of the Satree Islam High School in southern Thailand, insists that Islam is against violence, but says he understands the frustration of Muslim extremists.

“The extremists’ belief is good, what is bad are their activities. [The Koran] does not say to kill people, but they cannot control their anger.”

Monitoring the militants

After the explosions in Bali last year and in Jakarta’s Marriott Hotel in August, the Thai government has kept a close watch on the Muslim community.

Thailand depends heavily on the West for its huge revenue-making tourist industry that touts everything from its famous beaches to its infamous Bangkok red-light district.

Across the region, Islamic law is seen by militant Muslims as a panacea for corrupt cultures and corrupt governments.

They also see U.S. actions in the Middle East and Iraq as rooted in a deep fear of Islam, and they repeatedly excuse Muslim violence.

“We in the past thought that different cultures, Christian and Muslim, West and East, could live together.

“But the actions of [President Bush] make us think the West does not want us to live as real Muslims,” said Wisoot Binlateh, of the Academic and Foreign Affairs department of the Islamic Committee of Songkhla, a busy trading town in southern Thailand.

“Many, many Muslims look at the West today as the enemy of Islam,” added Mr. Binlateh, who studied in Egypt and Malaysia and traveled to Afghanistan to give humanitarian support to Muslims there.

Personally rejecting violence as a means of protesting the policies of Washington and its allies, Mr. Binlateh — dressed in the traditional Muslim tunic and white crocheted skullcap — instead leads a boycott against U.S. and British goods through his committee, which oversees some 360 mosques in the area.

But he predicted that Muslims who feel their backs are against the wall, as in Iraq, and those who sympathize with them would resort to more violence. And he acknowledged there were mosque members willing to help Iraqis fight the Americans.

“If [U.S.] policy remains, the problem will be bigger. The thing that they call terrorism will be bigger, and anti-American sentiment will be stronger.

“You call them terrorists, but Muslims understand it is a reaction to the policy of America.”

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