Indonesia deals blow to militant Islam with arrest of radical cleric Bashir

Abu Bakar Bashir has been arrested before. The Indonesian radical cleric's detention Monday appears based on stronger allegations of material support for a terrorist group in Aceh.

Irwin Ferdiansyah/AP Photo
Radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, center, is escorted by antiterror police as he arrives at Indonesian police headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 9. Bashir, once imprisoned for his links to the terror group behind the Bali bombings, was arrested Monday for alleged involvement in a new militant network.

Indonesian police today detained Abu Bakar Bashir, an outspoken preacher. His arrest may be a major blow against a powerful symbol of radical Islam in secular Indonesia.

In the past, Mr. Bashir has been put on trial for giving spiritual guidance to jihadist movements. But his latest detention is based on alleged material support to a terrorist group uncovered earlier this year, according to news reports. This could prove a stronger charge against the cleric, who has spent much of his career proselytizing against Indonesia’s moderate brand of Islam and foreign influences.

His detention followed investigations into terror plots against President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Western targets in Indonesia that have underscored the persistence of militant Islam despite scores of arrests and killings of notorious terrorist leaders.

Bashir: my arrest a US conspiracy

Arriving Monday at a police station in Jakarta, Bashir told reporters that his arrest was an American conspiracy. He once claimed that the 2002 bombings, which killed more than 200 people packed into nightclubs on Bali, was a Zionist trick to smear Islam. Following the bombings he was convicted on conspiracy charges but released on appeal in 2006.

Police have not yet charged Bashir for his current arrest. Under Indonesian law, he can be held without charges for up to one week.

A police spokesman, Gen. Edward Aritonang, told reporters that Bashir – seen as the spiritual leader of Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) – had abetted a militant group in Aceh that is an offshoot of JI.

“He routinely received reports from their field coordinator. He also played an active role in preparing the initial plans for their military struggle,” he said, according to The Associated Press.

The Aceh cell, discovered in February, has been accused of plotting Mumbai-style attacks against hotels popular with foreigners and of seeking to kill President Yudhoyono. The cell was allegedly supported by the legally recognized Islamist group Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, which Bashir helped establish in 2008, according to the International Crisis Group.

In May, three of Bashir’s followers at Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid were arrested and charged in connection with the Aceh camps. Dozens of other suspects have been detained and police have uncovered several weapons caches.

Prior links with JI

In the 1990s, Bashir lived in exile in Malaysia and helped found JI, a group that seeks Islamic rule across Southeast Asia. It drew on networks forged in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Southeast Asian jihadists, including Al Qaeda associates. But most of the militants involved in recent attacks in Indonesia are new recruits and there is less evidence of outside funding or support.

Bashir has denied the existence of JI and his role as spiritual head, contradicting accounts by former members who came to refute its radical teachings.

Indonesia has used these former members to rehabilitate detained militants, with some success. But antiterror officials have said that some militants released from jail have returned to terrorist groups, including members of the Aceh cell.

Since the Bali bombings, Indonesia has won praise for cracking down on extremist networks and prosecuting suspects in open court. But militants have continued to stage deadly attacks, including twin bombings in July 2009 of luxury hotels in Jakarta.

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