SEI MENCIRIM, Indonesia (AP) — The slim boys in Muslim caps and robes at the Al Hidayah Islamic boarding school are grinning bolts of energy who love football, need a little coaxing to do their math and Quran lessons assiduously and aspire to become policemen or respected preachers.
Their school, like many in rural Indonesia, started as a modest affair with a dusty yard, spartan sleeping quarters and an open-air classroom with a dirt floor and corrugated iron roofing. The boys, though, have been spoken to roughly by villagers, the school’s banners and billboards trampled and burned, and its head teacher reported to police.
The 20 pupils are the sons of Islamic militants, reviled by most Indonesians for killings and other acts of violence that they justified with distorted interpretations of Islam. Nearly half of the boys’ fathers were killed in police raids, and in some cases the children witnessed the deaths. Most of the other fathers are in prison for terrorism offenses.
Al Hidayah’s founder, Khairul Ghazali, is a former radical preacher whose involvement in militancy stretches back decades. He was recruited at age 19 by Abdullah Sungkar, the now-deceased leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah terror group responsible for attacks including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people.
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Nowadays, the soft-spoken Ghazali, 52, professes to be a changed man who wants to atone by preventing his young charges, who were ostracized and taunted at mainstream schools, from becoming the next generation of Indonesian jihadists. His three sons attend the school.
A turning point, he said, came in 2010 when anti-terror police raided his home in North Sumatra and shot dead two other militants, wanted for killing police officers, in front of him, his wife and children. In prison, he dwelt on his decades of jihad and in the hours spent poring over the Quran found his past wanting. With the encouragement of prison officials, he wrote several books against radicalism, earning the enmity of other jihadists who denounced him as an infidel who deserves death.
“It’s hurt our innocent children. It’s hurt us,” said Ghazali, who was released in 2015 after serving four years for offenses that included a major bank robbery to fund attacks. “Stigmatization, poverty and the fact that many innocent people were killed and the destruction we caused all accumulated…