My school roommate was recruited by a terrorist group. It could have been me
For most of us, the issue of foreign fighters is very foreign indeed, almost impossible to fathom.
Only deranged people who do not share our values could band with a terrorist organisation like Islamic State.
And if they choose to follow that path, then we should never let them come back.
But, for me, the lure of a terrorist group is very deeply personal. That’s because I was about to become one of them.
In 1985, my father sent me to an Islamic boarding school, Ngruki in Solo, Central Java, when I was 12.
The founders of this school were also the founders of Jama’ah Islamiyah (JI), Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir.
My roommate in that boarding school was named Hasan. He later became one of the first Bali bombers. After graduating from the school in 1989 he told me that he had received a scholarship from our school to further his study in Pakistan.
Both of us were recruited by the “talent scout” at my school to become a member of a clandestine organisation called Darul Islam. This clandestine organisation has been around since the 1950s and it aims to change the Indonesian secular system into sharia law.
I missed out on that ‘”scholarship” because I was considered morally tainted. I took the daughter of my school teacher for a date. I was caught and grounded.
Fifteen years later, I was reunited with Hasan in a very different setting: I was a reporter for the Washington Post covering the first Bali bombing and he was locked behind bars.
The Bali bombing changed my life forever. It shocked me, and caused me to deeply question many things. Why did a normal person like Hasan, a loving husband, a caring father and a deeply spiritual man, get involved in this path of violence?
To answer this answer question, I have been on a journey interviewing convicted terrorists inside and outside prison, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Yemen, and Egypt and even in Northern Ireland.
This journey taught me the following: No one is born as a terrorist. Becoming a terrorist requires a process. They are normal individuals who strongly believe in their peculiar ideology.
However they first become involved in terrorism not because of ideology, but usually because of their social networks, their mates and whom they admire.
Hasan told me in a jail interview that he never went to study in Pakistan. Instead he went to Afghanistan; answering the plea from his oppressed brothers when the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1980 during the Cold War.
This Afghan war also attracted Osama bin Laden from Saudi Arabia and thousands of other jihadists worldwide, including dozens from Australia.
Thirty-five years after that Afghan War, the nature of recruiting foreign fighters has changed dramatically.
You don’t have to attend a school like mine to find the networks to help you become a foreign fighter.
All you have to do is just download radical propaganda, especially from Islamic State, to your smart phone.
Gradually, the process of interaction with this propaganda forms what Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities talks about, a sense of shared consciousness.
That is not an abstract theory.
Last summer in Turkey, I met a 16-year-old boy from Aceh, Indonesia who was about to travel to Syria to join ISIS, and interviewed him for my documentary film, Jihad Selfie.
He told me that two of his friends from his high school had already joined Islamic State. Once they arrived in Syria, they posted “cool” selfie pictures carrying AK 47s to their Facebook accounts.
These teens have no known connection with radical organisations back home. They are a new type of recruit.
Looking at this 16-year-old boy, I remembered myself entering a terra incognito as young and reckless, in constant search for identity, including a sense of belonging.
As an individual, this boy will be nobody. But if he joined Islamic State to fight, he will be hero to some. Who doesn’t want to be hero?
For them, being part of Islamic State is like playing a video game: they are in hero mode; something that they will never get it in a real life.
Those who are disenchanted with the world, tend to seek groups that seem to be inclusive, which enhance their view of themselves and give them an opportunity to “prove their manhood” or whatever it is they need to feel powerful when their whole lives they have felt powerless.
How the government and the community labels these guys as misfits and “no-hopers” can have a significant role in an individual’s decision to turn to extremism.
We must help these young people finding ways to contribute to the greater good in our own society, so that they feel included rather than excluded; that they see themselves as valued.
Noor Huda Ismail is the director of the upcoming documentary Jihad Selfie and is undertaking a PhD at Monash University.