Deradicalisation Schools: The Answer to Terrorism?

Khairul Ghazali explains how he was deradicalised: it happened when he was arrested for his roles in a 2010 bank robbery in Medan, North Sumatra, and a terrorist attack on a police station. He hadn’t been directly involved in either incidents but was one of the masterminds behind the plots (including harbouring those who carried out the attacks). He was sentenced to six years in prison.

“I was interrogated every day for hours on end,” he says. “When I was asked to go through the details of what I had done and the reasons behind it all, I started to realise how flawed my radical thinking had been.”

Ghazali now runs Al-Hidayah Islamic Boarding School on the outskirts of Medan in Deli Serdang. It’s a small establishment with just 20 pupils, but what makes it different from the thousands of other schools across the archipelago is that all its students are the children of convicted terrorists. Ghazali opened the school upon his release from prison after seeing the effects his incarceration had on his own family, and the families of other inmates convicted on terror-related charges.

The school grounds include classrooms as well as a mosque built by the National Counter-terrorism Agency (BNPT) to support the deradicalisation programme. Credit: Aidli Rizki Nasution

“The inmates always talked to me about their families,” he says. “Most of their children had dropped out of school because of the stigma of having a parent who is a terrorist. They were no longer accepted as part of the local community.”

This stigma alone is highly damaging, but Ghazali explains that it goes deeper than just being bullied at school: “The children usually drop out of school at an early age. They then lack education, particularly religious education. This means that they have no good role models and don’t have the intellectual ability or historical context to understand that terrorism is wrong.”

This leaves these young, impressionable children more vulnerable to following in the footsteps of the only role models they have—parents or other relatives who have been radicalised. Thus begins a cycle of generational terrorism.

“Becoming a terrorist was like my inheritance”

Generational terrorism is not a new phenomenon in Indonesia. Many of the most well-known terrorists in Indonesian history have come from “terrorist families”. Ghazali himself is an example: his father, grandfather and other relatives were all members of Negara Islam Indonesia (NII), a group dedicated to transforming Indonesia—which recognises religious pluralism—into an Islamic state. Offshoots of NII include the militant extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

“Becoming a terrorist was like my inheritance,” Ghazali says.

He also points to other famous examples, like Iman Samudra, who received the death penalty for his part in the 2002 Bali bombings; his son later joined the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, where he was killed. Another is Abu Jibril, a hardline Indonesian preacher implicated in the 2009 bombing of the JW Marriot Hotel in Jakarta; his son, Muhammad Ridwan Adburrahman, also died in Syria fighting for ISIS in 2015.

Ghazali realised the importance of breaking this cycle of generational terrorism while held in solitary confinement in prison. Once removed from an environment where everyone held the same deeply-entrenched extremist views of Islam, he was able to look at his radicalisation objectively and start questioning his choices.

“The idea of ‘lone wolf’ attacks or someone waking up one day and suddenly wanting to be a terrorist or join a terrorist organisation is largely a myth in Indonesia”

For children of terrorists, deep reflection is usually not an option. If they drop out of school, they tend to stay at home with family members who will continue exposing them to the same thought processes and ideologies. Isolated from and disillusioned with the local community which they feel has rejected them, these children have nothing to emulate other than their family’s radical legacy, often stretching back generations. Without intervention, it’s very difficult to break them out of this cycle.

Ghazali explains: “The idea of ‘lone wolf’ attacks or someone waking up one day and suddenly wanting to be a terrorist or join a terrorist organisation is largely a myth in Indonesia. It happens, but people who commit terrorist attacks are far more likely to be people who have family members who are convicted terrorists or who come from areas known for having high numbers of residents who believe in radical ideology.”

Many youngsters also have little motivation to turn away from terrorism, Ghazali says. Many of the children at his school were present when their parents were arrested. They saw them, in some cases, being shot by Indonesian police officers and dragged away in handcuffs. Many swore they would avenge their parents’ treatment at the hands of the police, who have increasingly become terrorist targets in recent years. Add this to social problems like low levels of education, poverty that keeps children isolated in rural areas, and failure to integrate into wider society and Al-Hidayah’s significance becomes clear.

“We can’t cure social problems,” Ghazali says. “They will always be here and will always be a factor in terrorist recruitment. But we can tackle other issues and start with a grassroots approach when the children are young.”

Al-Hidayah’s deradicalisation programme

The study of deradicalisation is a fairly new one. There are still only thought to be around 40 deradicalisation schools around the world, and Al-Hidayah is one of the few focused solely on the children of terrorists. Studies are now being undertaken, such as research by social psychologist and co-director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Arie Kruglanski. According to Kruglanski’s research into deradicalisation programmes in countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, most share a set series of initiatives. These usually include intellectual, emotional and social initiatives to provide a full programme of support.

There are 20 students at the school, all of whom are the children of convicted terrorists. Credit: Aidli Rizki Nasution

At Al-Hidayah the intellectual component of the training comes in the form of classes that teach the students the true meaning of the Qu’ran, which has often previously been misrepresented by their parents.

“We teach the students how the Prophet Muhammad protected other religions in Medina and taught his followers not to threaten other people,” says Ghazali.

The emotional component comes from providing students with a stable home life—they all live in the boarding school—as well as providing emotional support while their parents are still in prison. The students call Ghazali “Ayah”—Indonesian for “Father” instead of the more formal “Bapak”—and he says he considers all of them to be like his own children.

When it comes to the social component, Ghazali helps the children reintegrate into the local community by, in some cases, sending them to local schools on top of their classes at Al-Hidayah if he feels they need more support like learning basic writing and arithmetic skills. The students also grow corn and beans—which they then sell at the local market—and raise fish in a large pond on the school property, which Ghazali describes as the “Life Skills” portion of the children’s education. They also interact with members of the local community such as teachers sourced from neighbouring schools.

But even those who are hopeful about the effectiveness of deradicalisation programmes have to qualify their optimism. As John G. Horgan, the director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, said in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times:

It is not a silver-bullet solution, nor can it ensure 100% success, but there is no doubt that de-radicalization programs can be tremendously effective in countering terrorism. Although they are becoming more common around the world, such programs remain an experiment in progress. Indeed, some operate in secret, waiting to see whether they are successful before the outside world learns of their existence.

Horgan also called for creativity in seeking solution to combating extremism. Al-Hidayah has risen to the challenge, doing things a little differently from other programmes by focusing on the next generation.

But the issue with such programmes is that they are too new for anyone to come to any conclusion about success or failure. Al-Hidayah’s youngest pupil is only 11 years old, and there’s no knowing for sure what path he’ll take as he grows up.

“We will never be able to stop terrorism in Indonesia completely, but we can try to cut off the roots…”

This 11-year-old student didn’t want to give his name for fear of further stigma, as he is one of the children who also attends a local community school, but he’s thriving in the school so far. When he came to Al-Hidayah a year ago, he couldn’t even write the letters of the alphabet. His father is incarcerated in Nusa Kembangan, an island prison known as the Indonesian version of Alcatraz. According to Ghazali, the boy hardly spoke when he arrived at the school and was suspicious of strangers, but now he cheerfully asks us to join him for lunch. He says, like many of the other pupils, that he wants to become a police officer, which Ghazali sees as a sign of changing attitudes towards the local authorities.

At this early stage, Al-Hidayah appears to have a lot going for it. And when asked whether deradicalisation programmes like this are the answer to Indonesia’s problem with terrorism, Ghazali is simultaneously realistic and hopeful.

“We will never be able to stop terrorism in Indonesia completely. But we can try to cut off the roots with schools like this.”

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