JAKARTA (Reuters) - Unbeknown to 12-year-old Andika Bayu Pamungkas and his friends, the seemingly innocuous martial arts sessions in their Indonesian village were actually the first steps toward being turned into suicide bombers and militants.
Recruitment efforts of young, malleable boys such as Andika at schools and sports clubs is a routine method used by militants in Southeast Asia to cultivate the next generation of suicide bombers and separatist rebels.
Andika and his friends discovered the real purpose of their martial arts classes when their instructor, Susilo alias Adib, was unmasked as an associate of Noordin Mohammad Top, the mastermind behind a string of suicide bombings. Malaysian-born Noordin was being harbored in Susilo’s house.
“Susilo told my friends and I to stay back at the house after all the other students had gone home and the four of us would learn martial arts. He was afraid of other people finding out,” Andika told Reuters. “He told us, ‘This is our secret. Don’t tell your friends or your parents, OK?.'”
Kevin Yovi Pratama, 9, was another of Susilo’s secret students. “We always practiced in a room with the door shut, so my mother and my friends wouldn’t know about it,” he told Reuters.
Susilo also lectured at a nearby Islamic boarding school where he told students that suicide bombers were “martyrs,” rewarded in heaven for their acts.
Recruitment drives such as these, as well as other activities such as nature trips, after-school activities and blogging, can be stepping stones to more hardcore recruitment processes such as oath-taking or weapons training.
But these activities do not break the law, posing a conundrum for lawmakers who risk driving the groups underground and offending voters by cracking down on legal religious activities.
While the vast majority of Indonesia’s Islamic boarding schools are moderate, a handful have played a vital role in producing the region’s top militants.
“The problem is not so much the curriculum as it is the small after class religious study sessions, where individual teachers can assess the potential of students and draw them into more extremist activity,” analyst Sidney Jones wrote in a report for the International Crisis Group in August.
“Given the extent that radical preachers have relied on ‘nature training’ and other excuses to take youth groups out to nearby hills for physical fitness training, there should probably be increased alertness on the part of parents to such programs.”
Several of the Indonesian schools are linked to the regional militant network Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which has as its spiritual head Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.
Bashir’s al-Mukmin boarding school at Ngruki, Solo, produced several graduates who went on to plan and execute a string of deadly attacks in Indonesia.
But JI does not appear to have been involved in militant attacks in recent years and Jones believes the current centres of radicalism are more likely to be other boarding schools in Java, such as Al-Muttaqien, Darusy-Syahada, Mahad Aly and Darul Manar.
Hand-picked potential militants are often shown videos depicting the violent oppression of Muslims in places such as the Middle East, or Ambon and Poso in eastern Indonesia.
“When you read about how <Noordin Top associate> Syaifudin Jaelani recruited people in the mosque, it was by using videos of Ambon and Poso and engaging younger people in discussions,” said Jones, adding that it was Jaelani who recruited the suicide bombers for attacks on two luxury hotels in Jakarta in July.
Oath-swearing and eventual introduction to more senior members of cells would follow for suitable recruits.
Similar tactics are used in southern Thailand, where ethno-nationalist Malay Muslims are fighting to secede from Buddhist Thailand, which they say treats them as second-class citizens.
Thai insurgents rely on teachers to find promising students, who swear an oath of commitment and secrecy before joining a clandestine, multi-cell network whose senior leaders they are never told about.
An ICG report in June suggested Islamic schools in Thailand
invited devout Malay Muslim youths to join “extracurricular indoctrination programmes” before becoming rebel foot soldiers. The classroom was the first point of contact.
“Recruiters invite those who seem promising devout Muslims of good character who are moved by a history of oppression, mistreatment and the idea of armed jihad to join extracurricular indoctrination programmes in mosques or disguised as football training,” the report said.
Most of the young recruits are invited to join small cells and are given basic weapons training. They are believed to be the perpetrators of the daily drive-by assassinations carried out mostly by pairs of young gunmen riding together on a motorcycle.
The authorities view these schools as breeding grounds for militants but of late have eased off after years of raids and crackdowns and scores of arrests of teachers.
Bloody crackdowns, extra-judicial killings and tough Thai security policies have angered young, disaffected Muslims and aided recruitment, analysts say.
Many of the teachers, or ‘ustaz’ studied in the Middle East and in Pakistans. Thailand has named several as suspected leaders of the insurgency, though without firm evidence, prompting some to flee abroad fearing for their lives.
Some Thai Muslims -- as well as Indonesians, Malaysian and Filipino Muslims -- trained and fought with the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, but analysts see little evidence they are involved in the Thai insurgency.
Yet bomb-making and guerrilla warfare skills suggest some of the rebels are well-trained. How and by whom, is unclear.
Indonesia’s Islamists appear to have Middle East links, possibly to al Qaeda. Noordin Top’s trusted lieutenant, Mohamad Jibril, who police arrested for obtaining overseas funding for the July 17 hotel bombings, studied in Pakistan and is suspected of making contact with radicals there.
An ICG report in August said Syaifudin Jaelani, who recruited the July 17 suicide bombers and is still at large, studied in Yemen and “almost certainly had contact with al-Qaeda.”
During the period 1985-1994, a couple of dozen Indonesian Islamists trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Jones, but that was less common now.
In Indonesia, books, magazines and videos produced by Jemaah Islamiyah or Noordin Top’s splinter group are freely available at bookshops in Indonesia.
Reuters found books by JI-linked publishing house Kafayeh Cipta Media at a Jakarta book store, while “Jihadmagz” a magazine devoted to Muslim holy war, was sold at Jakarta’s international airport. Blogs, Facebook pages and online book order sites can be found promoting JI and their publications.
“The publications are important. They are a way for them to continue the spirit of the ideology,” said Noor Huda Ismail, who shared a room with one of the Bali bombers when he was a teenage student at Bashir’s Ngruki boarding school.
He said militants use the publications to bolster their beliefs and justify disobedience of national law, which is described by many of these books as un-Islamic and illegitimate.
“I call it shopping for fatwas,” he said.
More important than the actual reading material, however, are the networks created by the jihadi publishing industry.
“Part of the reason Noordin eluded police for so long is because there were so many people in that circle of publishers who are willing to help him,” he said.
South Thailand’s insurgents are unusually secretive and have no known websites or publications.
Banning publications that promote jihad would only draw attention to material available on the Internet anyway, said Jones, who is also opposed to a crackdown on radical schools.
“A more sophisticated strategy would be to enforce tax laws,” she said. “If it were found, as I am sure it would be, that these publishing houses had not fulfilled all their legal requirements or that some of the individuals had not paid their taxes, then that would allow for sanctions that didn’t relate to curbs on freedom of expression.”
She also suggests undercover monitoring of Friday prayers at mosques where recruitment is known to have taken place and training local community leaders to be on the look out for recruitment activities in their neighbourhoods.
Additional reporting by Martin Petty in Bangkok, Andry Prasetyo in Solo; Editing by Sara Webb, Bill Tarant and Megan Goldin