Al Qaeda's new frontier: Indonesia

Video shows Muslim cleric calling for jihad against Christians.

On the steps of a humble mosque, Abu Jibril Abdurrahman quickens his cadence as he approaches the emotional crescendo of his sermon: "Oh God," he implores, "help us to destroy the infidels who have killed our children."

At this, a ragged chorus of "God is great!" goes up from three-dozen armed followers. The Indonesian preacher's voice quavers as he takes up a Koran in his left hand and a battered pistol in his right.

"You can't just have the Koran," he says, extending the pistol skyward, "without the steel. You will bring down the steel."

The sermon, delivered on the island of Halmahera in early 2000 and now on a recruitment video being distributed by the Indonesian Mujahidin Council, is chilling. It's no secret that Islamic militants are part of a religious war in the Maluku provinces that has killed 6,000 people since 1999. But this video, obtained by the Monitor, offers direct evidence of an Al Qaeda connection to this war.

The ongoing conflict between Christians and Muslims, the Al Qaeda ties to local preachers, and the refusal of the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri to arrest the key figures behind the violence are some of the reasons the US says the country is becoming an Al Qaeda haven. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage testified to Congress about Indonesia last month: "We are really worried that places that have sectarian violence can become the breeding ground [for terrorism].... It is an open, very hospitable country, and it is a Muslim country. It is one we fear that Al Qaeda could operate in relatively freely."

Jihad arrives in Maluku

Mr. Jibril's speech inspired a reorganization of Muslim fighters in Maluku that led to a deepening of the religious war. What had been a local conflict was transformed by the arrival of such jihad groups as Jibril's from outside the province.

Though Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country, the tiny Maluku provinces are about 50 percent Christian. The jihad groups have kept the fires raging in the country's worst communal conflict for two years and have insisted that they won't leave until the Christians there are wiped out or converted. Some parts of the Indonesian military are sympathetic to the group, which has left it untouchable.

Last Friday, an associate of Jibril, Jaffar Umar Thalib, urged a Muslim gathering to reject a recent peace agreement and go back to war with the "infidels." Over the weekend, 14 Christians were killed in renewed fighting.

While the US is worried that the Maluku war could lead to the arrival of Al Qaeda in Indonesia, both Singapore, and Malaysia say the group has already been here.

Officials in Singapore and Malaysia say that Jibril ran operations for a terrorist group called the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which received money and training from Al Qaeda. Nearly 24 alleged members of the JI were arrested in Singapore and Malaysia last October, according to both governments, and investigators say the prisoners have told them that Jibril was the group's second in command and primary recruiter. Police from Singapore and Malaysia say Abu Bakar Bashir, who leads the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), also runs the JI. Mr. Bashir, who lives openly here, says neither he nor Jibril, an old friend and fellow MMI leader, have ties to terrorism.

The Indonesian government says that Singapore and Malaysia's evidence against Bashir and his associates is not compelling. They say that they've seen no evidence that the MMI, which its neighbors say is a local front for the JI, is anything more than a peaceful advocate for the establishment of Islamic law. Yet the revenge attacks that Jibril helped to inspire in the Galela district of Halmahera, where the sermon was delivered, argue otherwise.

In late 1999, Christians in the neighboring district of Tobelo participated in a massacre of about 400 Muslims at Christmas, according to witnesses and aid workers. That massacre inspired a national Muslim backlash, and an outpouring of aid, arms, and fighters to Halmahera and neighboring islands. Jibril, who Singapore officials say received military training in Afghanistan, was in the vanguard. He and other MMI members arrived in Maluku January 2000 to organize a more effective Muslim fighting force.

Jibril's network

The chubby-cheeked Jibril and his colleagues introduced a centralized command structure in the provincial capital of Ternate, delivered money for communications equipment and better weapons, and provided ideological inspiration, according to a Western investigator. By the middle of 2000, the fighters Jibril helped to organize had routed local Christians with a series of well-coordinated attacks on Christian targets using speedboats from Ternate and local militias.

The worst massacre was in Galela on July 19, 2000, which claimed more than 250 lives. "This was self-defense,'' says Fauzan Al-Anshari, a Jakarta-based MMI leader, who acknowledges that the MMI sent fighters to the region in 2000. "We had to strike back."

Mr. Al-Anshari says the MMI wasn't worried whether its actions were illegal.

"When Muslims are attacked by Christians, it's our duty to act. No one else will stand up for us." The reorganization of the Muslim militias by outsiders had profound consequences, turning what had been a balanced and predominantly local conflict fought with homemade weapons into a national issue fought with mortars and M-16s. The fiercer fighting completely separated the Muslim and Christian populations of the two provinces, a separation that prevails today. Suspicion of Christians and other non-Muslims is a key tenet of both the teachings of Jibril and Bashir, a close colleague during most of the 1980s and early 1990s. Jibril's and Bashir's religious vision is of a vigorous, aggressive Islam that brooks no insults from nonbelievers.

"We are not terrorists – the US and the Jews are trying to frame us,'' says Bashir in a recent interview with the Monitor. "They don't like us because we teach true Islam, one that stresses dying a martyr and jihad. The US doesn't like that because it makes Muslims strong. I'm just a teacher. I'm not a violent man.''

Bashir says throughout history, Muslims "never start trouble – we are always attacked first."

Indonesia's reluctance to crack down

US officials view Malaysia and Singapore's claims as credible and have been alarmed by Indonesia's refusal to arrest Bashir. While Indonesia has helped deport some alleged foreign terrorists, it has refused to act against Indonesians who are alleged to have ties to Al Qaeda. Analysts say the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri is afraid of losing political support from Muslims if she takes a harder line.

"There are people here who, whatever the evidence against them, are clearly a major threat, judging solely by their statements,'' says a Western diplomat. "But there are a lot of people here who feel that some of these groups have legitimate grievances, so that makes the government reluctant to crack down."

Jibril's 2000 sermon was on one of his first visits to his homeland in nearly a decade. After serving a jail sentence here in the early 1980s for promoting the creation of an Islamic state, he exiled himself to Malaysia.

Bashir's vision of an Islamic state

Outside of militant circles, he was not a well know figure. Jibril returned to Malaysia, where police officials allege that he set about arming and financing a group there called the Malaysian Militant Group (KMM). Then in May 2001, two men with ties to Jibril and Bashir were killed and a third was captured in a failed bank heist. The captured man described Bashir and Jibril as leaders of a terror group who had ordered the robbery. Jibril was arrested soon after and is still in custody in Malaysia. Bashir, however, was already living in Indonesia, and Indonesian officials have refused to extradite him, saying they don't feel Malaysia's evidence is strong enough.

Throughout the allegations of terrorism, Bashir has kept an open door with journalists, saying it's been a good opportunity: The time is ripe, he says, to make Indonesia an Islamic state, and he needs to use every avenue possible to make his views known.

• Tomorrow, Abu Bakar Bashir.

Part 2 of 3

Indonesia is in the midst of a painful transition. It left the Suharto dictatorship behind four years ago, and is undergoing a transition to democracy.

But destabilizing social forces have reemerged in the more open political climate, and one of them is militant Islam.

Three Indonesian clerics – all exiles in the Suharto years – are accused of building a terror network with Al Qaeda assistance. Their stories show the challenges that political Islam is posing to the elected government and how complicated the US relationship with Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, has become in the wake of Sept. 11.

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