The school in this city’s notorious Ngruki district seems normal enough at first glance. There is a computer lab near the entrance. Beyond it, some teenage boys play basketball. In another wing, a group of girls wave hello and giggle shyly.
On closer inspection, though, there are some unsettling differences at Pondok Pesantren Islam Al Mukmin. There are no portraits of the President and Vice-President, usually found in schools. Also absent are the national flag and Garuda Pancasila, which represents Indonesia’s state ideology.
The missing elements are a throwback to the Islamic boarding school’s past. It was founded by imprisoned terrorist leader Abu Bakar Bashir, whose portrait still hangs on the wall of the teachers’ room today, and radical cleric Abdullah Sungkar, who died in 1999.
These firebrand clerics believed that Indonesia’s national symbols and ideology had no place in their dream of turning the country into an Islamic state.
Some 40 years after its founding, the spotlight remains on this school for its connection to terrorist activities. In late August, police killed two former students when they tried to escape arrest for their role in terrorist cells. A few days before that, it emerged that three French nationals involved in the March bombing of the Indonesian embassy in Paris had planned to use the school as a hideout.
Analysts and the authorities have said the school is the focal point of a radical “Ngruki network”, a term International Crisis Group coined in 2002 to describe Central Java members with ties to Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah (JI). Amrozi and Mukhlas, two of the three men executed in 2008 for planning the 2002 Bali bombings, were once students here.
“We are immune to being accused, so we now open our school to anyone that wants to check,” said senior teacher Ustaz Hamim Sofyan. “We have worked hard to correct misperceptions of being a terrorist hotbed.”
On the surface, that may seem true. When The Straits Times first visited the school in 2002, students wore T-shirts bearing the face of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. They carved United States or Israel on their slippers to show their revulsion for those thought to be enemies of Islam.
Ten years on, such signs of extremism are gone. Lessons are taught in Indonesian, Arabic and English and subjects are heavy on Islamic scripture. But maths and science are taught too. Motivational phrases, not terror slogans, hang on walls. Some were handwritten by pupils. One reads: “Words cut more than swords.”
The school, funded by donors from as far away as the Middle East, has a bigger compound than most. Indeed, it is one of the area’s richest. Of its 1,400 students, girls outnumber boys slightly. Two of its four buildings house separate dormitories for boys and girls.
“If there are radical elements that choose to be here or our students are involved, we are sorry,” said Hamim. “But we don’t teach fanatical ideologies here.”
National Counter-Terrorism Agency chief Ansyaad Mbai, however, told The Straits Times recently that he believes the school has a “secret curriculum” and says it is being monitored.
In a recent commentary, Islamic scholar Azyumardi Azra said that the curriculum used is approved by the Education and Religious Ministry and that there does not appear to be any deviation from mainstream thought.
“The problem is that the schooling process also includes a hidden curriculum, with a specific focus – that could include the ideology of using violence in the name of religion – delivered by some teachers or religious teachers,” he said.
Sofwan Faisal Sifyan, a peace activist in Solo, said such ideologies are preached outside school hours. “Previous preachers were known to advocate violent views during the pengajian (religious study) and dakwah (proselytisation) sessions outside the school curriculum,” he said.
Abu Bakar Bashir, who introduced teachings at the school based on Middle-Eastern sources, had been known to invite radicals to meet him there.
One 33-year-old who admits to being part of a militant network in Solo said literature there still emphasises the same tenets used by JI to legitimise taking up arms to establish an Islamic state.
In the past, teachers even chose students to join radical groups and for paramilitary training in Indonesia and Afghanistan.
But since the first Bali bomb blasts in 2002, radical teachers have been cleaned out. Mr Hamim said police and ministry officials conduct regular checks on the school’s programmes. Police officers even send their children to school there, he claimed.
Madam Siti Nurlaila, 37, a shopkeeper who lives near the school, said Al Mukmin has a reputation for having the best teachers. She has attended classes there. She said: “The teachers are fiery and often tell us about the treatment of Muslims like in Palestine but I didn’t think anything was radical about that.”
Noor Huda Ismail, one of its most prominent graduates, worked for The Washington Post for some years before returning to Indonesia and is now engaged in anti-terrorism programmes through his Institute for International Peace Building in Jakarta. He wrote the book My Friend, The Terrorist, based on his personal account of the boarding school in 1991 and his friendship with Utomo Pamungkas, also known as Mubarok. The latter is serving a life sentence for his involvement in the 2002 Bali blasts.
“There were teachers whose preachings are hardline,” he told The Straits Times. “Some students were influenced to think that those in the West were infidels, and were selected for training in Afghanistan. But the school has now cleaned up and is a far cry from what it used to be under Abu Bakar Bashir.”
In an interview with this newspaper, Pondok Al Mukmin’s principal Ustaz Wahyuddin also said the school is not the hotbed of terrorism it is made out to be.
“We feel disappointed that we’ve often been made the scapegoat school responsible for churning out terrorists,” he said. “Only a handful of our alumni, who number in the tens of thousands, are suspected of such acts.”