Leader without a following

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am


When Indonesian radical Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir spoke for the final time last month at his terrorism trial, he continued his venomous rants against the United States, accusing it of waging war against Islam in his country and framing him of charges of forming a terrorist army.

Hundreds of his supporters in the gallery and the car parks of the South Jakarta District Court - young men in skullcaps and young women in burqas - raised their fists and shouted 'Allahu akbar' ('God is great').

But when the same court convicted Bashir on Thursday of organising and funding a terrorist training camp in the remote Indonesian province of Aceh and sentenced him to 15 years in prison, the defiance was strikingly missing. The 700 or so Bashir supporters gathered outside the court dispersed without incident after the panel of judges handed down their verdict - which took nearly five hours to read.

It may have been the fatigue from standing in the hot sun all morning, or the presence of 3,000 heavily armed police and soldiers, that took the fight out of Bashir's band of faithful followers. But most likely it's the fact that the firebrand cleric has long worn out his welcome among the Indonesian public, which explains the pathetic turnout in support and the muted public response to the verdict.

'He's not attractive at all. The Indonesian public is not worried about him, but other things: corruption, [exam] cheating scandals in the public schools,' said Dharmawan Ronodiporo, an adviser to security minister Djoko Suyanto. 'I think the Indonesian public is saying: 'Screw him - there are real issues to deal with.''

Indeed, Bashir's appeal among Indonesia's 190 million Muslims could not be any lower.

While the controversial cleric found sympathetic ears among some Indonesian politicians and intellectuals, and on university campuses, with his anti-American tirades after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, he quickly lost any support outside of a few thousand hardline Muslims as Indonesia itself began suffering a succession of deadly suicide bombings by home-grown Islamic terrorists.

While the terrorists went after Western targets, they also killed dozens of Indonesian Muslims.

Bashir became the poster child of Indonesian extremism with his public admiration of Osama bin Laden, calls to turn Indonesia into an anti-Western Islamic state, and claims that the CIA was behind the September 11 attacks as well as terrorist bombings in Indonesia.

He also once famously said that a nude female body was more sinful than the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, including 11 Hong Kong residents.

But Indonesia's silent majority of mainstream Muslims, who can watch US television shows, have 38.1 million Facebook accounts and enjoy their country's hard-won secular democracy, didn't buy in.

'It doesn't resonate any more, outside of his core followers,' said Greg Moriarty, the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, whose country lost 92 citizens to bombings in Bali in 2002 and 2005 and had a suicide truck bomb explode in front of its embassy in Jakarta in 2004. 'That idea of shaping conflict between the West and the Islamic world ... has clearly failed.'

Bashir, who despite his trademark toothy grin is a frail 72-year-old, will probably die in prison. But Indonesia's troubles with radicalism as well as terrorism are not over with Bashir safely locked away.

The country is experiencing growing religious intolerance, in particular against minority Christians. Mass radical organisations such as Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), which was founded by Bashir, and the Islamic Defenders Front have continually attacked churches and forcibly sealed off church construction sites.

These groups have also targeted the minority Ahmadiyah sect, burning their homes and mosques and driving them out of rural villages. On February 6, a mob of about 1,500 in West Java attacked local Ahmadiyah leaders, beating and hacking three of them to death.

'It has a life of its own. It's by no means directed or initiated by Bashir,' said Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based terrorism and extremism expert at the International Crisis Group. 'The only thing is that JAT has taken part in local coalitions against church constructions or Ahmadiyah because they have to find issues that resonate with the population. And it's a recognition that some of the issues related to Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere are too abstract for local villagers.'

Jones also warned about the activities of another local radical group, the Islamic People's Forum, which is using Indonesia's open democracy to push a hardline ideological policy agenda.

Recent events have also shown that Indonesia's terrorism threat is not gone either.

Jemaah Islamiah, blamed for several major terrorist bombings in Bali and Jakarta, has many splinter cells actively plotting attacks, and there are also 'lone wolf' extremists. One of them, Muhammad Syarif, detonated a suicide vest at a mosque inside a police compound in Central Java in April.

Police are still searching for 15 other suicide vests that could be ready to go, as well as remaining co-conspirators in the attack. Separately last Tuesday, police arrested 16 people for plotting to poison officers' food with cyanide, and shoot them with pen guns.

Dharmawan said anti-terrorism authorities had no indication there may be retaliatory terrorist attacks because of Bashir's conviction, but had not let down their guard.

'So far, we haven't seen any actual real potential threats. That doesn't mean that nothing could happen,' he said.

Life of a radical

1938: Born in East Java, Indonesia.

1970s: Jailed for subversion by Suharto regime, accused of promoting Islamic state in Indonesia

1985: Flees to Malaysia to escape further prison sentence

1999: Returns to Indonesia after fall of Suharto. Becomes teacher at Islamic school in Central Java

2002: Arrested in aftermath of Bali bomb attacks, which kill 202

2003: Acquitted of leading Jemaah Islamiah terror group

2005: Convicted of conspiracy over Bali attack, sentenced to 30 months

2006: Released early, conviction later overturned

2010: Arrested on suspicion of links to jihadi training camp in Aceh

June 16, 2011: Jailed for 15 years for helping plan and fund camp