Many people have expressed amazement that Abu Dujana, one of Jemaah Islamiyah’s recently captured top-ranking operatives smiled a lot when interviewed on television. "How could someone so full of hatred, come across so relaxed?" they asked.
How indeed! Revisiting our subliminally-formed mental picture of those in Jemaah Islamiyah can be helpful. Who are these people? Are they really so full of hatred? Who do they hate? And why? Finally, how did Jemaah Islamiyah come into being?
Jemaah Islamiyah, which literally means “community of Muslims”, is believed to be a kind of reincarnation of Darul Islam, a Muslim group which formed a separatist state in West Java in 1948. This occurred during a turbulent time for Indonesia, as the Dutch tried to reclaim their East Indies colonies. Even after the secular Republik Indonesia was founded, Darul Islam managed to hold part of West Java until 1961. While later disbanded, the ambition to form an Islamic state based on Sharia law did not die altogether.
It is now believed JI was started in the late 1970s by Abdullah Sungkar who, with his close colleague Abu Bakar Bashir, had fled to Malaysia when General Soeharto and his New Order regime targeted hard line Muslims. In Malaysia they eked out a living by teaching religion, spreading their brand of Islam. Radical Islamists like Hambali, Mukhlas and Amrozi (the 2002 Bali bombing perpetrators) were pupils at this time.
After Soeharto’s fall from power, Sungkar and Bashir returned to Indonesia, and resumed teaching in Ngruki boarding school in Central Java, a school they had founded before leaving for Malaysia. Not long after, Sungkar died of natural causes, but Bashir continued teaching.The network developed in this time through family, education and business connections.
Of the more than 3,000 pesantren, (Islamic boarding schools) across the country, about 20 to 30 are believed to subscribe to Bashir’s teachings, Ngruki being foremost among them. In Indonesia, especially among Muslim communities, these pesantren are known as JI schools.
Like most pesantren, the JI schools begin taking students as young as eight-years-old, and these children are immediately exposed to a strict interpretation of Islam. According to Sidney Jones, the International Crisis Group’s Program Director for Asia, the schools’ physical education program includes weapons recognition and some military training.
Not all of these children have hard-line Muslim parents. Some send their children to the pesantren because they are the best available schools in the area. The children who have strict parents as role-models are of course the most receptive pupils. It is important to understand, however, that foremost in the minds of many of these students, and parents, is defending Islam, not killing non-Muslims: something which, for some, becomes necessary in their “endeavours”.
This may explain why some Islamists come across as contented and relaxed. In their minds, they are defending their religion and helping fellow Muslims who are oppressed and victimised - something to be proud of.
Before extremists commit an act of violence, it is not easy to distinguish them from other Muslims. In a community of Muslims numbering almost 200 million, there is a broad continuum from extremism to liberalism. It is not unusual to find that your friend has more extreme views about your shared religion, but that is as far as it goes.
Journalists have found that among the friends and neighbours of the more than 220 suspected terrorists arrested in Indonesia, commonly many are in disbelief. The suspects are often described as "polite, eager to help, caring," albeit "not interested in frequent socialising".
Recruiting often happens through private and family connections. It is not unusual to find that members of a particular cell are, for example, sons-in-law or brothers-in-law. Abu Jibril, a JI operative, supervised the creation of a JI cell in Karachi, Pakistan that consisted of his own son, Mohammed, and the siblings of several fellow JI members.