Noor Huda Ismail and the Fight against Radicalism

A major terror attack tends to change people lives. Most notably the victims and their immediate families and later, maybe those whose livelihoods or circumstances were impeded. Noor Huda Ismail (Chevening Alumni 2005 of St Andrews University in International Security) is not a victim nor that his life is in anyway directly hampered by terrorism. And yet, after the 2002 Bali bombing that consumed 202 lives from 22 different countries, Ismail’s live changed.

He was then a contributing journalist for the Washington Post chasing stories about the bombing dubbed as “the worst terror attack in Indonesia”. Several months after the attack, the police released a slew of suspects believed to be a network of Jemaah Islamiyah supporters in Indonesia. Amongst them was one Utomo Pamungkas known within the network to be Fadlullah Hasan or Mubarok – a roommate back to Ismail’s days when attending The Ngruki Pesantren during his teenage years. 

Mubarok, Ismail recalled, was intelligent, diligent, an eloquent memorizer of the Koran. What has gone so wrong that he opted to be part of the bloody terror network and killed innocent lives? Why has he changed?

Seventeen years fast forward and several degrees later, those are still the questions Ismail tries to answer. His postdoctoral thesis from Monash University in 2018 titled The Indonesian Foreign Fighters, Hegemonic Masculinity and Globalisation delved on the factors determine a deviation towards Islamic terror groups based on the case of Indonesians joining ISIS forces in the Middle East. 

His research revealed that being an Islamic fighter, by coalescing to a particular terror group, is perceived to be “far more important” than understanding globalised political Islam and even poverty. Contrary to a more common belief that religious ideology (and or poverty) is the confirmed factors to jihadism, Huda concluded that exposure to masculine values is more significant. In other words, one is enticed to be a jihadi fighter because he (most of the times it’s a he) looked for a masculine representation that was lacking in life. Preventing radicalism is therefore more of a familial task than a security one. Failure for the children, especially the boys, to find a proper masculine role model at home would drive them to find it outside, including those from the jihadi networks. Huda is currently promoting creative approach to advocate for peace whilst sitting as an RSIS NTU Fellow in Singapore. His book Escape from Raqqa is scheduled to be released this year detailing the gruesome experience of Indonesians fleeing the former ISIS colony in Syria. Following his initial film Jihad Selie that brought the light into Indonesians supporting ISIS, he is also directing two documentaries; Seeking The Imam and The Cubs of the Caliphate. From the intense engagement with Indonesian jihadis in the Middle East the last several years, Huda has helped returned several former fighters back to Indonesia. His ultimate goal is to make them the spokespeople of anti-radicalism movement. The returnees, Huda believed, are the credible voice against the khilafah campaign that promotes terrorism and has gripped Indonesia for the last decades.