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As Indonesia Dismantles Terror Groups, Successors Pose New Risks

Indonesian militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir - jailed for 15 years for his involvement with a group that aimed to kill the country's president - speaks to journalists while he waits inside a cell before his trial at South Jakarta court, June 16, 2011

The killing or capture of top militants in Indonesia has fractured extremist movements in the country. Government and security officials now worry, however, the groups are changing targets and recruitment tactics to enlist impressionable youths.

It has been nearly a decade since bomb blasts rocked a nightclub in Bali, killing more than 200 people. In the years since, Indonesia has formed counter-terrorism police squad Densus 88, which has arrested around 600 suspected terrorists.

Analysts say the conviction of firebrand cleric Abu Bakar Bashir signals the government's commitment to punish people who are involved in violent activity. Bashir is considered the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an al-Qaeda-linked group responsible for a wave of terror attacks over the past 10 years.

Public tolerance diminishes

Meanwhile, public support for large-scale attacks aimed at Westerners, like those in Bali, has evaporated.

The changes have shaken extremist groups, and led to smaller, disjointed factions focused on targeting police and non-Muslims who are seen as undermining Islam. But the weakening of JI and others are raising new concerns about youth recruitment.

Noor Huda Ismail, a terrorism analyst and former student of Pondok Ngruki, the Islamic boarding school co-founded by Bashir, said he has noticed a disturbing trend.

"Traditionally, people joining terrorist movements will come from specific schools, like my school Ngruki or Darul Syahadah or al-Muttaqin," said Noor Huda. "Now if you look at the different trend, they come even from secular schools."

Targeting impressionable youths

He said the shift in targets has made it easier for radical groups to persuade youths to join. Many use the idea of establishing an Islamic state to appeal to increasingly conservative or disenfranchised youths who believe the state has failed them.

The International Labor Organization estimates about 23 percent of Indonesian youths are unemployed. That is a startling statistic given that the country's growing economy is creating high-value jobs. The problem, say employers, is the lack of skill and education among new entrants.

Issues, such as unemployment and corruption, influence the way the young generation perceives religion, said Syafii Anwar, director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism.

And Noor Huda said hardline groups are perverting the notion of Islam to take advantage of youths who are easily co-opted.

"This has to do also with the lack of critical thinking among the Indonesian youth, and the way we teach religion is more black and white, and encourages intolerance toward differences," he said.

Leveraging the Internet

Increasing connectivity makes recruitment easier. Videotapes that promote jihad, and translations of Jihadist teachings from the Middle East that were previously passed hand to hand are now available online.

To counter those messages, Anwar's center for pluralism has been promoting ideas of democracy, human rights and pluralism through the Internet and by providing CDs that discuss how America and the West perceive Islam.

The center works with youth leaders, Islamic boarding schools and Muslim organizations, as well as the Departments of Religious Affairs and Education.

After three of the men executed for carrying out the 2002 Bali bombing were linked back to Bashir's Ngruki, some analysts turned a harsh eye on Indonesia's Islamic boarding schools, called pesantran.

Wahyu Kusuma attended the Pondok Ngruki school briefly in the early 1990s when he was 15.

He said he really hated non-Muslims at the time because the school's leader taught them that other religions were wrong, that they were the cause of so many problems. He was lucky that he did not attend fulltime, he said, so eventually he could make his own conclusions.

Indoctrinization in radicalism

Boarding schools today are very different, said Kusuma, whose nephews currently attend a moderate, modern pesantran that includes English and computer classes. It is what happens outside the classroom that worries some analysts, who say sports teams and informal religious study groups are prime grounds for recruitment.

Hariyono is a security guard in a village outside Solo, where high-level militant Noordin Top was killed during a police raid in September 2009. Though Hariyono was not aware of Top's background, he said Top used to gather neighborhood youths on his porch for discussion. Had police not gone after Top, Hariyono fears his own son could have adopted extremist ideas.

Radicalism is a process of indoctrinization, he said. It is very easy to influence young people by giving them an idea about the future, especially for young people who don't really have certain ideals or ambitions.

Terrorism analysts say big organizations like JI recognize that in order to rebuild their bases they need to appeal to issues that resonate in local communities. And while they may not be concentrating specifically on youths, it is clear high school students are targets.

But researchers caution that the threat should not be overblown. Many universities now have programs that promote tolerance or connect students with community-building organizations. Supriyadi, a student at state-run Diponegoro University in Semarang, works with Noor Huda on a program that provides employment to former jihadis.

He said he is not worried about threats of terrorism. What is more important is taking the energy and conviction that drives people to extremism and finding a way to do something positive with it.