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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 / January 30, 2002


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.

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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.

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The conventional wisdom - that most Muslims here are moderate, and therefore militant movements won't have influence - is obsolete, says Suzaina Kadir, a professor at the National University of Singapore.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.