At a School for Suicide Bombers’ Children, Dancing, Drawing and Deradicalization
Ais likes to dance. She knows the words to “I’m a Little Teapot.” Her dimples are disarming.
Her parents didn’t want their daughter to dance. They didn’t want her to sing. They wanted her to die with them for their cause.
Last year, when she was 7, Ais squeezed onto a motorcycle with her mother and brother. They carried a packet that Ais refers to as coconut rice wrapped in banana leaves. Her father and other brother climbed onto a different bike with another parcel. They sped toward a police station in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, a place of mixed faith.
The parcels were bombs, and they were set off at the gate to the police station. Catapulted off the motorcycle by the force of the explosion, Ais rose from the pavement like a ghost, her pale head-to-toe garment fluttering in the chaos. Every other member of her family died. No bystanders were killed. ISIS, halfway across the world, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Ais, who is being identified by her nickname (pronounced ah-iss) to protect her privacy, is now part of a deradicalization program for children run by the Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs. In a leafy compound in the capital, Jakarta, she bops to Taylor Swift, reads the Quran and plays games of trust.
Her schoolmates include children of other suicide bombers, and of people who were intent on joining ISIS in Syria.
Efforts by Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, to purge its society of religiously inspired extremism are being watched keenly by the international counterterrorism community. While the vast majority of Indonesians embrace a moderate form of Islam, a series of suicide attacks have struck the nation, including, in 2016, the first in the region claimed by ISIS.
Now, with hundreds of ISIS families trying to escape detention camps in Syria amid Turkish incursions into Kurdish-held territory, the effort has taken on more urgency. The fear is that ISIS’ violent ideology will not only renew itself in the Middle East, but may also metastasize thousands of miles away in Indonesia.
There are signs that it is already happening.
Last week, a man whom the police linked to ISIS wounded the Indonesian security minister, Wiranto, in a stabbing. Since then, at least 36 suspected militants who were plotting bombings and other attacks have been arrested in a counterterrorism crackdown, the police said this week.
Hundreds of Indonesians went to Syria to fight for ISIS. In May, the police arrested seven men who had returned from the country and who, the police say, were part of a plot to use Wi-Fi to detonate explosive devices.
The risks, however, are not limited to those who have come back. Indonesians who never left the region are being influenced by the ISIS from afar.
In January, an Indonesian couple who had tried but failed to reach Syria blew themselves up at a Roman Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippines. More than 20 were killed in the attack, which was claimed by ISIS.
In Indonesia, there are thousands of vulnerable children who have been indoctrinated by their extremist parents, according to Khairul Ghazali, who served nearly five years in prison for terrorism-related crimes. He said he came to renounce violence in jail and now runs an Islamic school in the city of Medan, on the island of Sumatra, that draws on his own experience as a former extremist to deradicalize militants’ children.
“We teach them that Islam is a peaceful religion and that jihad is about building not destroying,” Khairul said. “I am a model for the children because I understand where they come from. I know what it is like to suffer. Because I was deradicalized, I know it can be done.”
Despite the scale of the country’s problem, only about 100 children have attended formal deradicalization programs in Indonesia, he said. His madrasa, the only one in Indonesia to receive significant government support for deradicalization work, can teach just 25 militant-linked children at a time, and only through middle school.
Government follow-up is minimal.
“The children are not tracked and monitored when they leave,” said Alto Labetubun, an Indonesian terrorism analyst.
The risks of extremist ideology being passed from one generation to the next are well-documented, and a number of Indonesians linked to the ISIS are the offspring of militants.
The New York Times