Radical too well known to pose threat to security

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

Before Abu Bakar Bashir's imprisonment, few Indonesians had heard of him although he was well known as a firebrand speaker in radical Muslim circles. Now he is one of the best-known faces in Indonesia and a subject of intense interest on which he will try to capitalise.

Terrorism expert Sidney Jones, of the International Crisis Group, believes he poses no real security threat, partly because he is too well known to take part in terrorist operations, but he will become a 'media star', at least for a while.

After taking a break in his religious school, Mr Bashir plans to make speaking tours, visiting the 40 or so radical mosques in Java which have supported Jemaah Islamiah in the past and even paying a visit to religiously divided Poso in Central Sulawesi - where bloodletting has continued between Christians and Muslims despite a peace deal brokered in 2001.

A taste of what is to come was seen when he was released from jail. Together with hundreds of his followers, he set off in a cavalcade of vehicles across Java to his religious school, Al-Mukmin, near the city of Solo about 480km from Java.

At liberty he will also hope to revitalise the legal organisation he heads, the Mujahedeen Council of Indonesia, known by its Bahasa acronym MMI, and he will plunge into the debate over anti-pornography laws.

In many areas of Indonesia, fundamentalists have enjoyed considerable local success in the past couple of years, introducing sharia-inspired bylaws banning alcohol or forcing women into traditional dress. Mr Bashir can be expected to campaign on such issues.

Even if he wants to become involved in terrorism, the jihad has moved on. Now underground and dominated by a handful of highly trained operatives, there is very little support for terrorism. Just as they abandoned the rebellions of the 1950s or the militia battles against Christians in the late 1990s, most hardliners have given up on violence for activism, for now at least.