Report into study abroad students being radicalised

A number of Asian governments – among them Indonesia and Malaysia – are concerned their citizens who study abroad in the Middle East could become exposed to Islamic State doctrine, or, due to the proximity of Turkey to Islamic State strongholds in Syria, could be recruited from Turkey.

Reports from Jakarta, Indonesia, suggest students returning home from the Middle East have been monitored by the Indonesian government for evidence of radicalisation.

However, a wide-ranging study of Indonesian students studying in Egypt and Turkey over the past five years has found the students are not being radicalised, even though many of them, particularly those studying in Egypt, are religious students.

The just-released report by the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia in collaboration with the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Jakarta, examined the effect of political unrest in Egypt and Turkey, and the rise of Islamic State – variously known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh – in Iraq and Syria on Indonesian students’ views on democracy, religion, political leadership and terrorism.

“Religion is only one criterion by which they [students] judge political events,” the report's authors said.

“What came through in this study, in common with others [other studies], is that people are not radicalised, by and large, in the Middle East,” said Anthony Bubalo, deputy director of the Lowy Institute, launching the report in Sydney, Australia, on 15 April. “People tend to go to the institutions and study with Islamic scholars that reflect their existing outlooks in Indonesia. They are not suddenly exposed to extremist ideology.”

Students saw events in countries like Egypt – such as the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 in what some called an ‘Islamist coup’ – as having “only limited relevance to the situation in their home country”, he said.

‘Firmly against IS’

Indonesia is particularly concerned about the threat from returning students, after major terrorist attacks by groups linked to al-Qaeda, notably the 2002 Bali bombing which killed over 200, including foreign tourists.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on a shopping mall in Jakarta on 14 January that killed eight and injured two dozen.

From the research, and interviews with some 47 Indonesian students in Egypt – mainly at Al-Azhar University, an Islamic university in Cairo – and Turkey, “there was no sense at all that any of the Indonesian students would change the system they already have [in Indonesia] even though they were critical, in some cases, of the political system in Egypt”, said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Jakarta.

The students interviewed were “very firmly against Islamic State”, she said, noting Indonesians known to have joined Islamic State had not come from universities and schools in the Middle East.

“Overwhelmingly the people that have joined [Islamic State] have come from Indonesia and not from studying abroad,” Jones said.

Some 4,500 Indonesian students are in Egypt, while some 700 Indonesians, most from the Aceh region, are studying in Turkey, many on scholarships provided by the Turkish government and non-government Turkish organisations.

Of some 400 Indonesians – out of a total population of 210 million Muslims – who travelled to Syria or Iraq to join Islamic State or other extremist groups, only four are known to have come from the Indonesian student cohort in the Middle East, although others may have slipped through, the report notes.

As a proportion of the Muslim population in the country these are tiny numbers, compared to Islamic State recruitment from Muslim communities in some European countries, particularly Belgium. The European Union police agency Europol estimates up to 5,000 Europeans have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join Islamic State and other jihadist groups.

Turkey recruits

Concerns were heightened after reports in 2013 and 2014 of two Indonesian teenagers studying at a school in Turkey crossing into Syria to join Islamic State. One of them was killed in Syria.

But Jones said these were exceptions and that contact networks for Islamic State to recruit among Indonesian students in Egypt and Turkey were not developed and that the networks were in Indonesia.

One of the two students in Turkey who joined Islamic State first had to return to Indonesia to make contact with those who would help him cross the Turkish border into Syria.

The two students in Turkey were highly talented in mathematics and science and Olympiad champions who accepted scholarships to Imam Hatip school in Kayseri, a religiously conservative city in central Turkey, and a technical institute in Izmir, a more European city in the West.

“Nobody told them that the place they were going to go to [in Turkey] was a religious school and they weren’t going to be able to continue to study maths and science,” Jones said, “and from the beginning they were miserable. They did not want to be there.“

“They felt they had been cheated, and they felt they had been tricked, and they gradually withdrew,” Jones said.

They watched video games and videos of the fighting in Syria, according to friends of the two interviewed for the report. Then they began to talk about joining up in Syria. “They had nobody they felt they could trust that they could report to on this,” Jones said, noting that this presented lessons for preventing radicalisation among students abroad.

Preventing radicalisation

Indonesian students were actively discouraged from political activism by Al-Azhar University and the education attaché at the Indonesian embassy in Cairo who was described as having a close relationship with students.

“It was clear from our interviews that in both Egypt and Turkey, the Indonesian embassies and the schools attended by Indonesian students were taking steps to discourage students from joining the Syrian conflict,” said Navhat Nuraniyah of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Jakarta, who carried out the interviews for the report.

Al-Azhar University ran many lectures, informal gatherings and study groups to counter Islamic State propaganda. “Al-Azhar thought if they did not provide these off-campus lectures, they [the students] would go to these dodgy preachers,” she said.

“By contrast, in Turkey monitoring and contact seemed less effective, not least because the students were in smaller groups and spread more widely across the country,” she said.

Most Indonesian students studying in the Middle East are from mainstream Muslim communities in Indonesia such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.