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Reversing Radicalism: In Indonesia, special schools are trying to undo the indoctrination of the children of Islamic militants.

One day in the spring of 2018, 7-year-old Ais squeezed onto a motorcycle with her mother and brother. They carried a package that Ais (pronounced ah-iss) refers to as coconut rice wrapped in banana leaves. Her father and other brother climbed onto a different bike with a second parcel. Both motorcycles sped toward a police station in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, a place where people of many different religions live.

The parcels were bombs, and they were detonated at the gate to the police station. The force of the explosion catapulted Ais off the motorcycle. Every other member of her family died. No bystanders were killed. The terrorist group ISIS, based thousands of miles away, claimed responsibility for the bombing, which was meant as an attack on religious diversity.

Ais, who is being identified by her nickname to protect her privacy, is now part of a deradicalization program for children run by the Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs on a leafy compound in the capital, Jakarta. Her schoolmates include children of other suicide bombers and of Indonesians who were intent on joining ISIS in Syria.

With 265 million people, Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population (see chart, p. 14). While most Indonesians practice a moderate form of Islam, the country has suffered a series of suicide attacks carried out by radicalized Indonesians in connection with ISIS, also known as the Islamic State. Indonesia's efforts to purge its society of extremism--including the deradicalization school for children like Ais--are being watched carefully by the international counterterrorism community.

The endeavor has taken on more urgency with the recent chaos in Syria: Turkish incursions of Kurdish-held territory have stoked fears that a terrorist group will try to reorganize and that ISIS families in detention will try to escape. The worry is that ISIS's violent ideology will not only renew itself in the Middle East but also rear its head thousands of miles away in places like Indonesia.

"Hundreds of Indonesians went to join ISIS," says Josh Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations. "So the idea of them coming back and staging attacks or bringing home radical ideas is a major concern for the Indonesian government."

A Tradition of Tolerance

When Indonesia declared independence from the Netherlands in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II, religious diversity was enshrined in its constitution. More than 85 percent of Indonesia's population is Muslim, 10 percent is Christian, and the remainder are adherents of many other faiths.

Islam in Indonesia has a long history of being more tolerant than in the Middle East. As Islam began spreading in the 7th century in the Middle East and later elsewhere, it often did so through violent conquest. In contrast, Islam came peacefully to this part of Southeast Asia in the 13th century via traders from India, and Indonesians often layered its beliefs atop existing Buddhist or Hindu practices.

Now that tradition of tolerance seems to be under threat. The rise of ISIS in the past five years has lured hundreds of Indonesians to Syria to fight for the terrorist group (see Key Dates, p. 14). The group was formed in Iraq and Syria in 2013, but it branched out and now has affiliates all over the world, in places ranging from Afghanistan and Yemen to the Philippines and Sri Lanka. It has continued to carry out attacks in those places and has also inspired attacks in Europe and the U.S.

The ISIS fighters who return to Indonesia are bringing a radical interpretation of Islam back with them. Even Indonesians who never left home are succumbing to ISIS's influence from afar; there is a local militant group that authorities consider an affiliate of ISIS.

All of this radical ideology has filtered down to the very young: thousands of vulnerable children who've been indoctrinated by their extremist parents.

Khairul Ghazali, who served nearly five years in prison for terrorism-related crimes, runs an Islamic school in the city of Medan to rehabilitate the children of Islamic extremists. He says he came to renounce violence in prison and 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 says. "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."

The risks of extremist ideology being passed from one generation to the next are well documented, and a number of Indonesians linked to the Islamic State are the children of militants. The son of Imam Samudra, one of the masterminds of the 2002 bombing on the island of Bali that killed 202 people, including 7 Americans, was 12 when his father was executed in 2008. He joined the Islamic State and died in Syria at age 19.

Khairul, whose father and uncles were members of a militant organization, says he understands the pull of family obligation. He landed in prison in 2011 for armed robbery and for planning an attack on a police station. Before his conviction, Khairul taught 4 of his 10 children to fire weapons.

"Deradicalizing my own children was very difficult," he says.

From Bomb Making to Taylor Swift

Some of the children at Khairul's school learned from family members how to assemble bombs. The parents of about half the students died in armed conflict with the Indonesian counterterrorism police. "It's natural for the children to want revenge for their parents' deaths," Khairul says. "They were taught to hate the Indonesian state because it is against the [Islamic State]."

The parents of Ais, who is now 8, were members of a local militant group affiliated with ISIS. The day before Ais and her family rode up to the police station in 2018, another family--a mother, father, two sons, and two daughters--made their way to three churches in Surabaya and detonated their explosives. Fifteen bystanders and the entire militant family were killed; the two girls had gone to school with Ais.

Hours later, members of two other families in the militant group also died, either from shoot-outs with police or when explosives hidden in their apartment detonated. The six children who survived the carnage are now in the deradicalization program with Ais.

When they first arrived, the children shrank from music and refrained from drawing images of living things because they believed it conflicted with Islam, social workers say. They were horrified by dancing and by a Christian social worker who didn't wear a head scarf.

In Surabaya, the children had been forced to watch hours of militant videos every day. One of the boys, now 11, knew how to make a bomb.

"Jihad, martyrdom, war, suicide, those were their goals," says Sri Wahyuni, one of the social workers taking care of the Surabaya children.

The students seem to be making progress. They now draw the human figure, which they once considered taboo. Ais likes to dance to Taylor Swift and she knows the words to "I'm a Little Teapot."

An Uncertain Future

But there are also troubling signs of how entrenched the problem is. Outside a mosque in Medan, a 12-year-old boy named Dan tells his friends that Indonesia should be an Islamic state. Asked about the churches throughout the city, Dan giggles, makes an explosion gesture, and says a single word: "Bomb."

Experts say that allowing kids to maintain their religious practice is an important part of deradicalization.

"We don't want to challenge their religion by stopping them," says Ahmad Zainal Mutaqin, a social worker who also teaches religion classes. "Indonesians respect their elders, and we don't want them to think their parents were evil."

Some day soon, these children of suicide bombers will have to leave the government program in which they've been enrolled for 15 months. It's not clear where they will go, although the ministry is searching for a suitable Islamic boarding school for them.

The children of those who tried to reach Syria to fight get even less time at the deradicalization center--only a month or two. Some then end up in the juvenile detention system, where they re-encounter extremist ideology, counterterrorism experts say.

"We spend all this time working with them, but if they go back to where they came from, radicalism can enter their hearts very quickly," says Sri Musfiah, a social worker. "It makes me worried."




2013 An extremist group in Iraq combine: with a radical group fighting in Syria's civil war Calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the new group begins seizing territory.

2014 ISIS seizes major cities in Iraq, including Fallujah and Mosul, prompting a refugee crisis.

2015 The U.S. sends troops to northeastern Syria to fight ISIS. The Americans partner with Kurdish militias and over the next few years make substantial progress in retaking territory from ISIS.

2015-16 ISIS carries out terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, and downs a Russian plane in Egypt. It also inspires terrorist attacks in the U.S.

December 2018 President Trump declares ISIS defeated and says he wants to bring U.S. troops in Syria home. Over the next year, the number of U.S. troops there gradually declines.

October 2019 President Trump pulls the remaining U.S. troops in Syria back. Chaos follows, including a Turkish military incursion, renewed fighting, and fears of an ISIS resurgence.

INTERNATIONAL PAGES 12-15 Lexile levels available online

Reversing Radicalism

In Indonesia, special schools are trying to undo the indoctrination of the children of Islamic militants.

Before Reading

1 Set Focus: Pose these essential questions to guide discussion: What is radicalism--particularly in relation to religion? How does radicalism spread? How can it be curbed?

2 List Vocabulary: Share with students some of the challenging vocabulary words in this article (see right). Encourage them to use context to infer meanings as they read.

3 Engage: Ask students to imagine that they are working to help a group of children. Explain that the children have been trained to hate modern society and to carry out terrorist attacks. Ask: How would you get the children to stop hating?

Analyze the Article

4 Read: Have students read the article, marking the text to note key ideas or questions.

5 Discuss: Distribute or project Up Close: Reversing Radicalism, a close-reading activity for students to work on in small groups. (Note: The questions on the PDF also appear on the facing page of this lesson, with possible responses.) Follow up with a class discussion. If you're short on time, have each group tackle one or two of the questions. Collect students' work or have each group report its findings to the class.


Print or project:

* Up Close: Reversing Radicalism

(close reading)

* Article Quiz

* Get a Clue (vocabulary)


* Imprisoned ISIS families

* What is the authors' main purpose in the first two paragraphs of the article?

Author's purpose, text structure

(The authors' main purpose is to provide insight into why the Indonesian government is focusing on children as part of its efforts to purge Indonesia of extremism. The authors do this by recounting how one child was part of a suicide-terror attack in Indonesia that was organized by ISIS. She survived the attack and--to help keep her from spreading the extremist ideas she learned from her parents--is now in a deradicalization program.)

* Why does Islam in Indonesia have a long history of being more tolerant than Islam in the Middle East? Compare and contrast, sequence ot events

(When Islam began spreading throughout the Middle East in the 7th century, it often did so through violent conquest. In contrast, when Islam came to Indonesia in the 13th century, it was spread peacefully by traders from India. In addition, Indonesians held on to their existing peaceful Buddhist or Hindu practices when embracing Islam.)

* Why have Indonesia's efforts to purge its society of extremism recently taken on more urgency?

Central idea, cause and effect

(In the years since ISIS was formed in 2013, hundreds of Indonesians have gone to the Middle East to join the extremist group. The U.S. and its allies were able to somewhat contain ISIS. But now, amid the chaos in Syria after the pullback of U.S. troops and Turkish incursions, many ISIS families are trying to escape the detention centers where they are being held. Leaders in Indonesia are worried about radicalized Indonesians returning to their country and spreading their extreme ideas about Islam.)

* What challenges do the teachers face in deradicalizing the children?

Problem and solution, hey details

(The parents of about half of the children in the program died in conflicts with Indonesian counterterrorism police. Many of the children want revenge for their parents' deaths. In addition, the children were taught by their parents to hate the Indonesian government because it opposes the Islamic State. So there is a natural sense of distrust that the teachers have to get past. Furthermore, part of Indonesian culture is to respect elders. So guiding the children to understand that what their parents were doing was wrong is complicated.)

* At the end of the article, Sri Musfiah says, "It makes me worried." What makes her worried? Why?

Word meaning, make inferences

(Musfiah is worried that the children will become radicalized again after leaving the program. She is worried about this because it's not yet clear where many of the children will go. She worries that if they go back to their families or neighborhoods, they will be re-indoctrinated. And some children have already been sent to the juvenile detention system, where they likely have already re-encountered extremist ideology.)

* Review the timeline on pages 14-15. What does the timeline add to the main article?

Integrate multiple sources

(The timeline gives details about the formation and rise of ISIS, the fight against ISIS, and fears of an ISIS resurgence. This information provides context for the section on page 13 of the article that discusses the concerns the Indonesian government has about radicalism.)

Extend & Assess

6 Writing Prompt

Summarize Khairul Ghazali's history as detailed in the article. Do you agree with him that his history makes him a strong model for the children he works to deradicalize? Why or why not?

7 Video

Watch the video. What does the video add to your understanding of the challenges Indonesia faces in reversing radicalism?

8 Classroom Debate

Do you think Indonesia will succeed in purging its society of extremism?

9 Quiz & Skills

Use the quiz (online) to assess students' comprehension and Get a Clue (online) to review vocabulary skills.

Caption: ISIS fighters in a propaganda photo

Caption: U.S. troops working with Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in 2018

Caption: A memorial to those killed in terrorist attacks in Paris, 2015

Caption: Fighting in northern Syria after U.S. troops pull back from the Turkish border

Caption: A student at a school in Medan for the children of extremist parents; the goal is to prevent students from becoming the next generation of Islamic militants.

Caption: Radical Indonesians rally in Solo in support of ISIS in 2013; the aftermath of a bomb blast at a church in Surabaya in 2018.

Caption: Khairul Ghazali (at desk), who runs a deradicalization school, is a former extremist.

Caption: Outdoor recreation at a school in Medan for children of Islamic militants
Countries With
the Most Muslims


1. INDONESIA    227 million
2. PAKISTAN     204 million
3. INDIA        189 million
4. BANGLADESH   149 million
5. NIGERIA      95 million
6. EGYPT        87 million
7. IRAN         82 million
8. TURKEY       81 million
9. ALGERIA      41 million
10. SUDAN       39 million

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Article Details
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Title Annotation:INTERNATIONAL
Author:Beech, Hannah; Suhartono, Muktita
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Jan 27, 2020
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