Freed Bashir fans the flames of terror

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 June, 2006, 12:00am

At his home in Perth, Australia, 46-year-old Peter Hughes spent Wednesday contemplating the depressing news from Indonesia about the release from prison of a frail grandfather who claims to be a simple Islamic teacher.

Mr Hughes suffered burns to 56 per cent of his body in the bombing of Bali's nightclubs in 2002, a terrorist attack that appeared to be the harbinger of Islamic militancy opening a second front in Asia.

Australia suffered particularly badly - 88 of its young citizens were among the 202 who died. Eleven Hong Kong residents were also killed.

For hundreds of bereaved family members and maimed victims, this week's release of radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir added insult to their terrible injuries.

The 67-year-old is regarded by intelligence agencies as one of Southeast Asia's top terrorists, an inspirational leader who has led radicals for decades and was a father-figure to the men responsible for the Bali atrocity.

Like many Australians, Mr Hughes struggled to understand how the man who became the face of terrorism in Southeast Asia could be treated so leniently by Indonesia's courts. He said: 'It's hard to imagine how a leader of a gang ... can get only two years for orchestrating to kill 200 people and injuring many more. It doesn't make sense. I would have liked to see him put away for life.'

Like many Indonesian clerics Mr Bashir is of Yemeni descent and was born in East Java - an area known for Islamic extremism and rebellion.

Bloody rural revolts were launched from Java against the secular Indonesian state in the 1950s. Rebels founded the extremist group Darul Islam, which campaigned for an Islamic Indonesia and later gave birth to Jemaah Islamiah.

The cleric founded his pesantran - a kind of religious school - in 1972 and gained enough of a local name as a firebrand preacher to flee the strongman Suharto in 1982 after serving time in jail.

He spent 13 years in exile in Malaysia, which has long played a leading role in Southeast Asian terrorism. The chaos following Suharto's downfall allowed Mr Bashir to slip back into the country in 1998, at a time when radicals thought their opportunity to overthrow the state and impose sharia law had finally come.

A bombing campaign of churches and a series of bloody conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia's islands failed to ignite religious war. More ambitious plans were drawn up, including a plot to assassinate president Megawati Sukarnoputri and then a bomb attack on resorts in Bali.

According to Mr Bashir, he was simply a bystander while the jihad was being put in action in Indonesia, much of it apparently masterminded from the religious school which he headed, Al-Mukmin Islamic School near the city of Solo.

There was a wild celebration outside Jakarta 's Cipinang prison by a collection of jihadists, militia members and street thugs with Islamic leanings, as their jubilant leader emerged. His release was also greeted warmly by a surprising number of moderate Muslims, people who may have been horrified by the Bali attack, but still regard Mr Bashir as a devout teacher. They see him as man with perhaps extreme views but not guilty of the terrorism charges their government pinned on him under the pressure of his foreign enemies.

There are some, however, whose opinions about the cleric have changed forever. Nasir Abas, a former JI member who now works with Indonesian security forces, said he respected Mr Bashir deeply before the Bali bomb.

Mr Abas said: 'He is a very clever man and he is kindly and respectful - I have seem him win over opponents. His followers are fiercely loyal. I was too until the Bali bomb, then I lost my respect for him as many others did. That was not about defending Islam.'

Indonesian officials expressed vague hopes that he would co-operate with them in future.

In public the cleric is a man of many faces. He vehemently denies involvement in the Bali bomb plot, which he called barbaric, and insists in the book he wrote in prison that he was slandered at his trial. He says he has nothing to do with terrorism.

Yet in his firebrand oratory he calls for the destruction of America, Britain, Australia and other nations, and he admires Osama bin Laden. He considers suicide bombers to be holy warriors. He claims to be opposed to fighting jihad outside a place of war, yet his religious school has churned out terrorist recruits and he has been a mentor to some of Southeast Asia's most dangerous men.

In 2002, as a bombing campaign got under way orchestrated by Jemaah Islamiah, the organisation he is accused of leading, he made it clear where his loyalties lay.

'I support Osama bin Laden's struggle because his is the true struggle to uphold Islam, not terror - the terrorists are America and Israel,' he said.

If he is a terrorist mastermind, he has disguised it well. Aside from his religious teachings, he appears to be a family man with wife Aisyah Baraja and three adult children.

And the hard evidence against him is thin - he was convicted of conspiracy in the Bali blasts, but not of direct involvement in the plot. The circumstantial evidence is more powerful - his rhetoric, his association with the Bali bombers who hung around his school, and the leadership he provides to admirers of terrorism.

The commitment of his followers is fervent but paranoid, incoherent and, perhaps, slightly mad. They peddle a muddled ideology of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and see the sinister hand of the CIA at every turn.

They have proved their ruthlessness, planting bombs in churches, hotels and nightclubs, aiming to cause the maximum number of civilian casualties.

The garbled mix of denial and defiance is a powerful tactic of al-Qaeda, an organisation which for a long time refused to admit responsibility for the September 11 attacks and uses misinformation and paranoid conspiracy theory to defend its actions and motivate followers.

But although Jemaah Islamiah has learned from its association with bin Laden's group, Mr Bashir was campaigning for a pure Islamic state while the world's most wanted man was still living the life of a pampered Saudi prince.

He has blamed foreign enemies for his prison sentence.

In an interview he gave in jail he said: 'America knows I have nothing to do with bombings or terrorism. It is afraid of my struggle to impose Islamic law in Indonesia. It is trying to destroy Islam from within.'

He emerges from prison into a very different Indonesia. From being the weak link in the 'war on terror', Jakarta now has a good record of cracking down on jihadis and many hardline sympathisers were repelled by the carnage of Bali. An estimated 150 terrorists - half the strength of JI - are dead or in jail.

Although he will almost certainly concentrate his activities on legal struggle, his liberty, and new found celebrity, could prove potent weapons for the Islamic movement. Ken Conboy, a security consultant and expert on JI, said: 'He didn't detonate anything or handpick operatives. But if he is as fiery as before, that is not a good thing.'