A school-days connection to later terrorists has set Noor Huda Ismail on a mission to find out what makes ordinary people turn to jihad
I KNOW Jemaah Islamiah only too well. I was a student of the Ngruki religious school in Solo, central Java, for six years from 1985.
My roommate was involved in the first attack on Bali. Another schoolmate became a suicide bomber. But only a small number of graduates became jihadists.
The school has been linked to JI because both share the same founder -- Abdullah Sungkar.
One of the perpetrators of the first Bali attack -- Mubarok, alias Fadlullah Hasan -- was my former roommate in Ngruki school. His wife and children told me what a loving husband and warm father he was.
The suicide bomber in the Jakarta Marriott bombing of August 2003 was Asmar Latin Sani, also from my school. All his former classmates describe him as a smart, polite and good-hearted young man.
Journalists who cover terrorism stories would agree with me that, in the main, friends, families and neighbors of terrorists are shocked and surprised to find out that they had been mingling with "terrorists". But I learned that most people who turn to terrorism are searching for answers to the meaning of life.
When the first attack in Bali happened in October 2002, I was there to cover it for The Washington Post, and since then I have talked to many jihadists both inside and outside jail, in addition to visiting abandoned jungle training camps on Seram Island in Maluku and reading classified jihadist documents.
In July this year, I went to the home of Heri Golun, the suicide bomber who attacked the Australian embassy last year.
He lived in a remote village in West Java. The name of the village is Cigarung, but people now call it the terrorist village.
Golun had a secondary school education but never went to my school. His father was a labourer working in the rice market and his spouse was a housewife.
In the middle of this year, I visited the house of Ismail Datam, 27, a devout man who did reconnaissance for the Marriott operation, in Riau. The house was simple and made of wooden planks. There were no chairs in the living room.
JI ringleader Noordin Mohammed Top stayed in this house a couple of days before the Marriott operation.
When I asked why Ismail joined the operation, his father, Datam, replied: "My son was very sad because he could not go to jihad in Afghanistan or in (the Philippines-based) Moro. I'm poor and I didn't have enough money to send him there."
They are poor, simple people.
In our society, there is a wide consensus that eliminating poverty from society also rids it of crime.
At a gathering of Nobel peace prize laureates, South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu and South Korea's Kim Dae-jong opined, "At the bottom of terrorism is poverty"; Elie Wiesel and the Dalai Lama concluded that "Education is the way to eliminate terrorism".
But poverty and lack of education are clearly not the main root-causes of terrorism. Osama bin Laden is a highly educated and very rich man, and JI mastermind Azahari bin Husin -- who was killed in a shootout with Indonesian police last month -- earned his PhD in Britain.
In May this year, on the outskirts of Jakarta, I interviewed Tajul Arifin, 38, a jihadist who robbed Bank Central Asia in 1999 and was alleged to have taken part in an attempt to assassinate Indonesian politician Matori Abdul Jalil, a one-time leader of the Awakening and Justice Party. He is not poor and is a son of an Indonesian military man.
Another former jihadist I interviewed was Fauzi Isman.
He was arrested in 1989 for subversion and released 10 years later. Isman comes from a military family and graduated from the Jakarta State Academy of Statistics in 1989. In his noisy house in Curug, east Jakarta, he said that he wanted to overthrow the Indonesian Government and replace it with an Islamic state.
In the same vein, a Singapore parliamentary report on 31 captured operatives from JI and other al-Qa'ida allies in Southeast Asia underscores the pattern: "These men were not ignorant, destitute or disenfranchised.
"All 31 had received secular education ... Like many of their counterparts in militant Islamic organizations in the region; they held normal, respectable jobs.
"As a group, most of the detainees regarded religion as their most important personal value ... secrecy over the true knowledge of jihad helped create a sense of sharing and empowerment vis-à-vis others."
So what leads a normal person to be involved in terrorism?
Part of the answer may lie in philosopher Hannah Arendt's notion of the "banality of evil", which she used to describe the fact that it was mostly very ordinary Germans who were recruited to man Nazi extermination camps; not sadistic lunatics.
I agree with Arendt that anyone could be involved in terrorism, especially if the environment shapes the conditions.
People like Top are seen as charismatic leaders, and he exploits this status. He takes ordinary people into a mindset of historical, political and religious grievance and turns them into terrorists.
This is especially true for the impatient young recruits who do not have a deep understanding of Islam and see their old leaders as lazy men who are not interested in jihad any more.
Azahari is no longer in the game. But we still have Top out there, who knows how to get fresh recruits. He has brainwashed Asmar Latin Sani, Heri Golun, Mochamad Salik Firdaus, Misno and Aep Hidayat.
In the second Bali blast, Top made a final step before a "martyrdom operation" in the form of a video testament.
Some security analysts say the video testament was part of Top's strategy to generate more recruits and wider support. They may not be JI members through induction, and they may never use the name of JI, but they share an ideology.
In the past, Top scouted mosques and schools for candidates deemed susceptible to intense religious indoctrination. Now he can find them everywhere.