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.
(Page 3 of 3)
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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."
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.