Once free, Indonesian cleric could 'revitalize' radicals

Abu Bakar Bashir, set to be released from jail Wednesday, has a new book and a long list of invitations.

A forthcoming prison diary by Islamist preacher Abu Bakar Bashir, who is due to be released Wednesday, shows his 25-month sentence has not tamed his jihadist fire. In the diary, he calls US President George Bush "evil" and claims the "infidel" Australian Prime Minster John Howard bullied a weak Indonesia to imprison him on trumped-up charges pertaining to the Bali bombings in 2002.

Upon release, Mr. Bashir is expected to return home to his Islamist boarding school, Ngruki, which schooled dozens of Indonesia's most prominent terrorists.

Yet analysts are downplaying fears that Bashir, accused of being the "emir" or leader of the militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), will begin ordering bombings. Rather, Bashir is more likely to use his celebrity to preach fire and brimstone and bolster the cause of hard-line Islam.

Sidney Jones, a leading JI analyst with the International Crisis Group in Jakarta, argues that dozens of arrests have left the organization fragmented and damaged but still dangerous. Ms. Jones says that Bashir is likely to be become a "media star" and rallying symbol of Indonesia's Islamist fringe.

Indeed, the cleric plans to travel across Indonesia speaking of his experiences, says Muhyidin Djunaedi, a Bashir aide. On the itinerary are religious flashpoints such as Sulawesi and Ambon island, where Christian and Muslim groups have clashed in recent years.

Australia, a country that has suffered heavily from JI attacks, expressed concern last week that Bashir's release could "revitalize" JI. "We would have liked to have see him spend more time in jail," said Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. The US and the UN have listed JI as a terrorist organization and both Singapore and Malaysia have banned it. Indonesian officials say there is little they can do as he has served his sentence.

Bashir was sentenced in March last year to two-and-a-half years in jail on charges of conspiracy in JI-linked bomb attacks in Jakarta, but saw his sentence reduced. Bashir continues to deny his guilt and dismiss claims he was involved in terrorism.

Despite the denials, Bashir and his school are likely to be tightly monitored. Syamsir Siregar, Indonesia's intelligence chief, told Parliament on Monday that he "hoped Bashir would come to his senses and work with us."

Indonesian intelligence officials say that JI has evolved since Bashir's imprisonment, led by different men and with a more decentralized structure. Nasir Abbas, a former JI operative now working with police, says that the loose, cell-based structure meant that operatives were often working independently and may not be in touch with one another. He says Bashir played more of an "inspirational" than "operational" role.

"He will help boost the spirit of the faithful," says Habib Rizieq, head of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hard-line vigilante group known for its violent street rallies. Mr. Rizieq, who founded a school with Bashir, pledged to welcome him upon his release.

Bashir's freedom comes at a time of rising tensions between hard-line and moderate Islam. Leaders from Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, the 40-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), in June called for the banning of the FPI and of Bashir's official organization, the Indonesian Mujahidin Council.

The NU has long championed a secular over an Islamic state and defended the rights of Christian minorities. In recent months, the NU has opposed the FPI's attempts to support a radical anti-porn bill that would outlaw kissing in public and women exposing their navels. Verbal clashes between the groups escalated after FPI gangs forced former President Abdurrahman Wahid to leave a stage. Parliament and the government agreed last week to change a 1985 freedom of assembly law to allow them to disband groups deemed to be a threat to public order.

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