New Australian research has explored the exposure to radicalism of Indonesian students who study in Pakistan and Yemen. In the past decade authorities in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, have had significant victories in the fight against extremism, but there are concerns that the next generation of extremists could be indoctrinated at Islamic institutions in the Middle East and South Asia.
Australian researchers say there has been a long tradition for Indonesian students to study at Islamic institutions abroad. Pakistan has always been popular and now Yemen, which practices a similar kind of Islam to Indonesia, has also become a favored destination. There are close ancestral ties between Yemen and Indonesia.
The study by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, an independent research body, reports that around 300 Indonesian students are studying at Islamic institutions in Pakistan and about 1,500 to 2,000 are studying in Yemen.
Researchers say the number of students attending well-known Islamic institutions has remained roughly constant in the past decade, there has been a sharp drop in the small number who attend extremist institutions.
Researchers analyzed the risks of students becoming exposed to extremist ideology or organizations. Their report states that, although the majority were not likely to “fall under the spell” of militants, the study’s author Anthony Bubalo says other Indonesian students were considered to be vulnerable.
“In the case of Pakistan, there's clearly still an interest amongst the Indonesian extremist community to get to Pakistan. You know, most recently we saw the arrest in Pakistan of Omar Patek, a, you know, famous JI [Jemaah Islamiyah] extremist in the same city in which Osama bin Laden was killed a short while afterwards," Bubalo explained. "And, the concern in relation to Pakistan is that the students -- is that these extremists might use student cover to go there. In the case of Yemen, our concern is mainly with a significant number of Indonesian students that go to Salafi institutions.”
Salafism is a movement for reform in Islam and has ideological links to militant groups, including al-Qaeda.
Researchers said the number of Indonesian students studying in Yemen has risen from a few hundred to some 2,000. However the majority of those students are attending well-established Islamic educational institutions with a mainstream religious outlook. They said a quarter of the students are attending Salafi institutions which raises concerns about students potentially at greater risk of coming into contact with extremists.
The Lowy Institute recommends that governments monitor the whereabouts of Indonesian students in Pakistan and Yemen to try to ensure they are there for legitimate educational experiences.
The study also involved researchers from the Center for International Security Studies at Sydney University and the Center for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia.
Australian and Indonesian authorities have collaborated closely since the attacks in Bali, in October 2002. The bombings of a bar and a nightclub by Islamic radicals killed more than 200 people. Eighty-eight of the victims were Australian vacationers, bringing their country to the frontline of international terrorism.
The bombings stiffened Canberra’s resolve to fight alongside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Australia regards Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy, as a key security partner.