25 June 2006
Bashir’s release may revitalize militancy
Radical Indonesian cleric Abu Baker Bashir (68), the spiritual head of the allegedly Al-Qaida-linked South Asian group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) has recently been released after 26 months in jail for his role in the deadly 2002 Bali massacre and several other bombings in Indonesia.
The event has generated a wave of debates and speculation over its possible impact on terrorist activities in the country. Some analysts have argued that Bashir’s release would help revitalize JI and spark more terrorist attacks. According to them, Bashir’s stature has grown in prison and he is now seen as a symbol of defying the West. This will make him a star at many mosques throughout the country, as well as at every anti-West rallies, where he can make impassioned speeches and consequently pollute the minds of young Muslims with his radical ideas. Bashir’s release, on the other hand, will harm the emerging success of an official policy of lobbying Muslim leaders to help the government’s effort to curb extremism among devout Muslims.
Australia, which lost 88 of its nationals in the Bali attack, and the United States are of the same opinion. Criticizing the release, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he had written to Indonesia’s president urging him to monitor Bashir’s activities and reminding him that a UN Security Council resolution had listed the man as a terrorist who must be subject to an assets freeze, restricted international travel and a ban on accessing arms.
Indonesian authorities, however, disagreed with such analyses, saying JI has become decentralized and weak, owning to the government’s anti-terrorism operations in the last two years, and Bashir no longer holds the influence he once did over the militant group.
Many believe that Jakarta had faced a dilemma as Bashir’s jail sentence was coming to an end, given limited options at its disposal. If it kept him longer in jail without a court decision, it would be criticized by local and foreign human rights organizations of violating the law and juridical principle. And if it released him, the action would provoke strong criticism from allied nations and might be seen as wavering in the fight against terrorism. To solve the problem, Jakarta resorted to the second option but simultaneously announced that it would put the controversial cleric under police surveillance.
Observers, however, argue that while the authorities can restrict Bashir’s movements, it will be difficult to monitor his rhetoric as there are countless ways to channel his instructions to his followers and incite people against Indonesian and other governments without leaving evidence behind.
Let us not forget that his plans are to retake his positions at the head of the Islamic boarding school that he jointly founded at Solo (300 miles from Jakarta) with his colleague Abdullah Sungkar in 1972, and at the head of his legal Islamic organization, the Council of Mujahideen for Islamic Law Enforcement (CMILE) which was formed in 2000 as an umbrella group for people seeking to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state. This will give him excellent access to communicate with and pass radical ideas to members of the militant groups and others.
Bashir’s immediate soft statements upon his release led to a conclusion that his jail term had tamed his extremist rhetoric and agenda. In those statements, he condemned the use of bombs and weapons in a non-conflict zone, called on Malaysian-born terror chief Noordin Mohammad Top and his followers to revise their violent methods, and accused them of misguiding young men. This, of course, was a dramatic change, given his repeated support for fugitive Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, whom he once described as “a true Muslim warrior”, not to mention his role in sending young Indonesians to the southern Philippines for military training at the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camp. According to a terrorist involved in the 2003 suicide bombing of Jakarta’s Marriott Hotel, Bashir visited the MILF camp when he was undergoing military training, and gave a speech about the need to strike against foreign interests.
Such new rhetoric, however, did not last long. Soon after his return to Solo, Bashir urged Muslim to fight for Islam, described the militants as holy warriors, promised to continue his fight for a strict Sharia state, and accused Washington and Canberra of conspiring against Islam. Furthermore, he called Howard and US President George Bush “infidels” and urged them to convert to Islam, saying it was “the only way to save their souls”.
Now that Bashir is free, existing tensions between moderate Islam represented by the 40-million strong Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and hard-line Islam represented by the CMILE and the Islamic Defenders Front (IDF) is expected to increase. NU, led by former president Abdurrahman Wahid, has repeatedly opposed attempts by CMILE and IDF to apply strict social codes, and called for the banning of both organizations.
*Academic researcher and lecturer on Asian affairs