Militant preacher a focus for Asian terror hunt

Indonesia, once known for its moderate brand of Islam, is facing new scrutiny as an Al Qaeda hub.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A grandfatherly Indonesian cleric is being fingered by Malaysian, Filipino, and Singaporean intelligence officials as the leader of an Al Qaeda-backed terror network in Southeast Asia.

While unknown to the West until now, Abu Bakar Bashir has been a minor star among the global followers of militant Islam for nearly 40 years.

Mr. Bashir (also spelled Ba'asyir), who runs a Muslim boarding school, denies any links to Al Qaeda or terrorism. Indonesian police have questioned, but not arrested him.

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But as counterterrorism experts investigate Bashir, and look more closely at other groups, perceptions about Indonesia are changing. The conventional wisdom - that most Muslims here are moderate, and therefore militant movements won't have influence - is obsolete, says Suzaina Kadir, a professor at the National University of Singapore.

The nation's older, establishment Muslim organizations are splintering, she says, and new political groups are emerging to take their place, some of which are winning supporters with Islamic rhetoric - and action.

In a statement last week, Bashir praised Osama bin Laden as "a true Muslim fighter," and said the US is "the real terrorist." The US is "waging war on Islam, not terrorism," he said. Bashir stresses the glory of "dying an Islamic martyr" so often that it's almost a personal motto.

Until recently, his views would have been dismissed as belonging to an irrelevant fringe in the world's most populous Muslim nation. But as the war on terror has exposed the depth of Al Qaeda's penetration into Southeast Asia, counterterrorism experts are beginning to reassess the influence of clerics like Bashir in this sprawling archipelago.

Leaders of some of the nation's largest Muslim organizations have supported his views, and Indonesian officials privately say that they won't arrest him for fear it could provoke a Muslim backlash against President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Singapore and Malaysia say they have evidence that Bashir is the leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional terrorist group that was working with Al Qaeda to blow up the US Embassy in Singapore and provided logistical support to the Sept. 11 attackers in the US.

Those two countries currently have 35 alleged members of that group in detention, many of whom received Al Qaeda training and technical assistance. The latest edition of Newsweek cites FBI sources as saying one of the men in custody in Malaysia met with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers in January 2000, and bankrolled Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged principal planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, who is in US custody.

But Indonesia has been reticent to move against Bashir, which has Washington fretting that Indonesia could become a place of refuge for Al Qaeda operatives. "There are a lot of bad guys out there,'' says a US official in Jakarta.

Last week, Indonesia did question Bashir about his activities. "For the time being, the questioning has been suspended,'' says Suryanto Bakrie, one of his lawyers. "They asked a lot of questions about his activities, but he assured them he has no links to terrorism.'' He says Bashir has returned to his school in Central Java.

Bashir is just one of the Indonesian clerics who has an affinity for and shares an ideology with Al Qaeda. While he denies direct links to the group, he is well known to militant preachers in Saudi Arabia's puritanical Wahabi or Salafy school of Islam who have inspired and supported bin Laden and the Taliban.

For years, this radical minority in Indonesia operated in relative obscurity during the 32-year reign of the secular dictator Suharto, who outlawed Muslim political activity and jailed and harassed the preachers he considered a threat. Suharto's policies simply drove the movements' leaders underground, say experts here.

From poverty to prison

The 63-year old Bashir was one of them. From a poor family, his formal education stopped when he dropped out of sharia law school to preach to the masses, according to local press reports.

In the 1960s, he ran pirate radio stations that broadcast the call to jihad across the rice paddies of Central Java. In 1971, he established a puritanical Muslim boarding school in the court city of Solo, many of whose graduates have fallen afoul of the law here and elsewhere. And from 1978 to 1982 he was in jail for trying to start an Islamic militia. Shortly after his release, he was convicted again - for subversive political activity. He fled, along with Abdullah Sungkar, his closest collaborator, to Malaysia to escape prison.

During their years in exile, the two men gathered a group of like-minded Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos, and Singaporeans around them, articulating in writings and teachings their vision for a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia, Singapore intelligence officials say. Sometimes they referred to themselves as the Jemaah Islamiyah, or the Islamic Group.

In a 1997 interview with an Australian Muslim magazine, Mr. Sungkar, who was identified as the leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah, said the group's goals were to "establish the supremacy of Islam [in Indonesia] by the strategies of preaching, strategic evasion, and Jihad.''

He said the group's primary forerunner was the Darul Islam, a violent movement that tried to establish an Islamic state on Java before being crushed by nationalist soldiers in the early 1950s. Bashir, however, told reporters this year that the Jemaah Islamiyah is "simply a study group."

Only a week after Suharto fell in May of 1998, Bashir and Sungkar jointly penned a political manifesto that was published in regional Islamic magazines. They said Suharto had held power by use of "a strategy of deceit and torment devised by... Chinese and Christians." It said that "corruption, crime, nepotism, and various other misdeeds will only be ended by the laws of Islam."

By early 1999, they had come home, seizing on the daylight for political organization that Suharto's fall had created. That year they were instrumental in the creation of the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), an umbrella group for organizations that want to make Indonesia an Islamic state. Sungkar died soon after, and Bashir became the movement's head.

"Suharto's fall has paved the way for the emergence of political Islam on the level of the masses,'' says Din Syamsuddin, secretary general of the Indonesian Council of Ulamas, which is an umbrella for mainstream Muslim groups.

The MMI busied itself holding seminars on Islamic law, sending volunteers and money to help in sectarian fighting between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia's Maluku provinces, and seeking new followers. In September and October of last year, according to local press reports, the MMI signed up hundreds of young men and promised to send them to Afghanistan to fight. The plan fell through when Pakistan restricted border access.

Meanwhile, Indonesia's transition to democracy has been far from smooth, with separatist and communal conflicts flaring across the country. Generals who lost political power when Suharto fell are angling to get it back, and President Megawati's government has been struggling to contain separatism and a breakdown in law and order in many provinces.

Some groups are capitalizing on the change. Since Suharto's fall, groups like the Islamic Defenders Front and the Laskar Jihad have used vigilante attacks against gambling dens and brothels, and participated in attacks on Christians, to press their goals. While outside of the mainstream, their leaders are regularly quoted on the front pages here, and are rarely sanctioned by authorities.

These groups "are a minority but they are a very loud minority that can shift the discourse toward something more radical than Indonesia has ever seen before,'' says Professor Kadir at the National University of Singapore.

In part, Indonesia's more democratic atmosphere is making this possible. Under Suharto, any party with a religious agenda was outlawed. But now, scarcely three years after his fall, more than 20 percent of the members of parliament favor sharia, or Islamic law.

Many of the new leaders, like Bashir, say political Islam is the only potential solution to the corruption and violence that flourish here. That argument is proving increasingly persuasive to citizens weary of a government that has failed to address their aspirations for change, Kadir says.

Syamsuddin is representative of large numbers of Muslim leaders who, while neither militant nor campaigning for an Islamic state themselves, have some admiration for the stand some groups are taking in Indonesia.

"They have a high degree of moral sensitivity towards organized crime and evil - prostitution, gambling, sins, and the state has shown no capability to overcome these problems so their motivations are admirable. Don't call them radicals - they are a moral movement,'' says Syamsuddin. He says allegations that Bashir is a terrorist have been concocted "as a scenario to diminish Islam in the world. This is part of the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West."

Behind the bomb plot?

Officials in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines disagree. All three nations have arrested alleged members of the Jemaah Islamiyah. Singapore calls Bashir the "controlling figure" behind the Singapore bomb plot, and a number of the arrested men, at least eight of whom received training in Al Qaeda camps, have said Bashir was their leader. One of the men in Malaysian custody, Mohammad Iqbal Rahman, is a board member of Bashir's MMI.

Earlier this month, police in the Philippines arrested Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, an Indonesian who had studied at Bashir's boarding school, saying he had been involved in a Manila bombing two years ago that left 22 dead and had been working as a trainer for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is fighting to establish an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

Investigators in Indonesia are hoping Al-Ghozi's arrest could provide a break in another bomb case. In August 2000, a powerful car bomb destroyed the Philippine ambassador's residence, killing two people.

At the time, Indonesian officials said they thought the attack was carried out by local sympathizers of the MILF. During the police investigation, some Indonesian Muslim figures claimed that Bashir had been developing links with the MILF and sending some of his students to the Philippines for training. But the police never linked him to the bombing.

There have been other recent allegations of Al Qaeda ties with Indonesia. A Spanish magistrate said last year that a Spaniard he had jailed for allegedly assisting in the Sept. 11 hijackings had received training at an Al Qaeda camp on the island of Sulawesi.

Diplomats in Jakarta say visits to the site of the alleged camp, now abandoned, are inconclusive as to what its function was and who ran it.

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