For the skullcapped students of the Darusy Syahadah Islamic school, there is no question that the three radical jihadis behind the 2002 bombings on Bali is are heroes.
Sheltering from the equatorial sun on the steps of the school’s mosque, the students crowd to offer their approval of bombers Amrozi, Mukhlas and Imam Samudra.
Authorities said last week the bombers would face the firing squad by early next month for their role in the attack, which killed 202 people.
“They’re holy warriors, that’s how I respond, they’re holy warriors,” said Sir Muhammad Royhan Syihabuddin Ar-Rohmi, a slight 18-year-old.
His friend Nawawi, also 18, leaned forward in agreement: “They are like us, they wanted to do good deeds.”
With its peeling buildings, stray sheep and low-hanging mango trees, Darusy Syahadah in Central Java has long been a key hub for recruitment and indoctrination in the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant network, specialists say.
While authorities have wound up JI cells and killed and imprisoned key militants, JI-linked Islamic boarding schools across Indonesia have been left to spread the network’s radical ideology.
If a new generation of JI bombers were to emerge, it would be from schools like this. Alumni include Salik Firdaus, a suicide bomber who obliterated himself in the 2005 Bali bombing that killed 20 people. However, analysts say the picture is not quite that simple.
Hurt by the police crackdown and facing public disgust over bombings, JI is deeply split, said Sidney Jones, a JI specialist at the International Crisis Group think tank.
A small minority faction behind fugitive Malaysian Noordin Mohammed Top still supports and is working towards bombing local and foreign targets, she said.
The other more numerous faction, dominating the schools, continues to glorify jihad, but many of its members have been influenced by a government “deradicalization” strategy that has helped halt attacks.
“I think the schools are still problematic, they are inculcating the idea of the glory of jihad. But there isn’t a jihad to fight now,” Jones said. “The question is: what will these graduates be doing five to 10 years from now?”
For Mustaqim, the principal of Darusy Syahadah, the watchword is preparation.
The school encourages exercise and self-defense and aims to strengthen and defend Islam, said Mustaqim, sporting white robes, a wispy beard and bruises on his forehead from frequent prayer.
“It says in the Koran that infidels will strengthen each other and wage a war of falsehood. We have been instructed to strengthen Islam against falsehood,” he said.
On suicide bombings against civilians — the hallmark of Noordin’s faction — Mustaqim stressed that the aim is noble but the methods incorrect.
“In the methods [Noordin] has taken we’re not on the same path. Methods, that’s what I’m talking about, methods,” said Mustaqim, whose wife is the sister of Ubeid, a JI militant jailed for helping the fugitive Noordin.
Outside the mosque, student Nawawi said it was “up to God” whether he would follow the example set by the Bali bombers.
“Not everyone has to follow them,” he said.
At the al-Mukmin boarding school founded by alleged JI spiritual head Abu Bakar Bashir in the nearby town of Ngruki, the bombers are honored but opinions are similarly mixed. About 1,600 students attend classes in rooms bedecked with cardboard cutouts of assault rifles and posters extolling the virtues of “martyrdom.”
Sitting on the floor of his lounge in the school grounds, the acid-tongued Bashir blamed the main 2002 blast on a CIA “micro-nuclear” device fired from a ship off the Balinese coast.
“The bomb Amrozi set off, the first one, at most it shattered glass and didn’t wound people, or at most wounded them a little,” he said.
“[The bombers] struggled in that way not as terror but with the aim of defending Islam, which is being terrorized by America and its friends … they are counterterrorists, not terrorists,” he said.
But al-Mukmin school principal Wahyudin said the bombers’ indiscriminate bombing of nightclubs on the island was a disproportionate response to the global oppression of Muslims.
“What I can fault is that Bali is not a conflict area, it’s not an area of war. Although we can say there certainly were enemies there, there were also non-enemies. That has to be avoided. That was a mistake there,” he said.