'Nobody here is a terrorist ... But we are all ready to fight'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 June, 2006, 12:00am

The hard-eyed young men in Hamas-style headbands, mujahedeen T-shirts, and woollen Afghan caps formed a small, silent army for the television cameras outside Cipinang Prison as they waited for their hero.

The discipline was impressive until the alleged spiritual head of Southeast Asia's most dangerous terrorist organisation, Jemaah Islamiah, emerged from jail, 45 minutes earlier than expected.

The young men mobbed him, drowned out his carefully prepared speech with cries of Allahu akbar! (God is great), punched the air, and jostled with photographers and camera crews who threatened to outnumber them. Cameramen fought each other and the fanatics to snatch pictures of the elderly, stick-thin religious teacher who has become, to many, the face of terror in Indonesia.

Abu Bakar Bashir's release yesterday from prison, where he had been jailed for giving his blessing to the plotters of the 2002 Bali bombings was supposed to be a triumph for Indonesia's religious hardliners.

It was carefully staged and coincided with the launch of a book, written in prison, declaring his innocence - its title translates as I Was Slandered.

The whole event was a bit of a flop. The crowd of 150 fanatics only seemed to underline the lack of mainstream support for religious extremists who are regarded by most Indonesians as mad and dangerous - although many moderate Muslims do revere Bashir as a teacher and believe his claims of innocence.

'I will continue to fight to uphold the Islamic sharia,' he said in a brief speech before being whisked off. It was all over in a couple of minutes, leaving a bizarre array of oddballs milling around in search of more excitement.

To a man and woman they all insisted that the preacher was innocent of involvement in the Bali bomb blasts which killed 202, including 11 Hong Kong residents.

Gampung Suharto, 42, claimed to have been an accountant for a US company and said his support for Jemaah Islamiah, had cost him his job.

'I didn't mind,' Mr Suharto said. 'That company was damned by God.'

The jobless accountant insisted that the Bali bombs had been planted by the CIA to discredit Bashir, and claimed that the 150 supporters had actually been 3,000.

Other supporters wore an array of skull-caps, homemade uniforms and badges from radical mosques and disbanded Islamic militias which have fought bloody battles all over Indonesia. Some wore Afghan woollen caps, a mark of honour in jihadi circles where they are worn by veterans of al-Qaeda training camps. The boys wearing them sniffed disdainfully when asked where the caps had come from, but barely looked old enough to have trained overseas as grown-up terrorists.

A man who wore a Lashkar Mujahideen badge on his black paramilitary-style waistcoat, praised Mr Bashir and condemned the Indonesian leaders who he said were his 'oppressors'.

'Nobody here today is a terrorist,' the man said. 'But we are all ready to fight jihad. I would, at a moment's notice.'

Women were present too. They stood at the back. One grandmotherly figure with tears pouring down her face said Mr Bashir was loved by the people.

'He fights for Islam and he wasn't responsible for the Bali bombs,' she said. The woman, Nur Diniyah Binti Hasan Saad, said she was a professor of chemistry and had sent two sons to Mr Bashir's Al-Mukim religious school, which security experts say is notorious for producing terrorists.

However eccentric his supporters, yesterday's release marked the beginning of a new phase for the radical preacher who had been heard of by few Indonesians before his arrest.

Mr Bashir is expected to become a media celebrity, touring radical mosques with his trademark firebrand rhetoric and attempting to energise a hardline fringe that has seen its fortunes wane since his jailing.

The bombing campaign blamed on Jemaah Islamiah failed to ignite jihad in Indonesia and the carnage even repelled many hardliners. It also led to effective police crackdowns in which most leaders were jailed.

Mr Bashir also has a tailor-made political weapon, a campaign for anti-pornography legislation which has already galvanised Islamic radicals. Despite the poor display outside the prison yesterday for the radical fringe it was a day to remember. Their star performer is back in business.