The 68 year old Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir was released from an Indonesian jail this week. His supporters gathered outside the prison, cheering as he left the building. He had spent 26 months in Jakarta’s Cipinang jail after being found guilty of conspiracy charges relating to the 2002 Bali bombing.
Bashir says he is the leader of the legal Indonesian Mujahedeen Council (MMI). Intelligence agencies say is also the leader of the quasi-illegal Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). JI has been deemed a terrorist organisation by the US but remains legal in Indonesia. The name "Jemaah Islamiyah" means Islamic Community and the Indonesian government argues it cannot make the Islamic Community illegal. Nonetheless JI is thought to have been behind many terrorist activities in South East Asia, the most prominent of which were the two Bali bombings.
In his early years Bashir was active in conservative Muslim action groups. He created a pirate radio station and a boarding school in Java. The school's motto was, "Death in the way of Allah is our highest aspiration."
Bashir spent several years in prison as part of a crackdown on radical groups. He escaped with his followers to Malaysia where founded Jemaah Islamiyah. JI was founded in the early 1980s and has an avowed aim of creating an Islamic super-state in Southeast Asia. Many JI members joined the worldwide Mujahideen, the resistance movement against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It was at this time that JI established links with Al Qaeda. JI started to get serious in the 1990s when Bashir met fellow Indonesian Riduan Isamuddin, a.k.a. Hambali.
Hambali had big plans. He wanted to create an Islamic caliphate across all of the Muslim nations of South East Asia. They started to create terrorist cells dedicated to this goal. They set up Operation Bojinka, a precursor to 9/11. It was a plot to destroy 11 airliners in 1995 but it was foiled by an accidental fire at the plotter’s apartment.
While Hambali schemed, Bashir went back to his homeland after Suharto was overthrown in 1998. He openly preaching jihad and taught at his Islamic school. JI got busy. In 2000 they killed 15 people in a bomb attack on the Jakarta stock exchange. On Christmas Eve that year they killed another 18 in a co-ordinated series of attacks across the country. In 2002, they spread their attacks to the Philippines and launched fatal attacks on the southern cities of Zamboanga and Kidapawan.
Their biggest attack was the 2002 nightclub attacks on Bali. 202 people were killed in the deadliest act of terrorism in Indonesia’s history. It was a double attack. A suicide bomber blew himself up in a bar and when everyone panicked and ran out on the street, they became victims of a massive 1,000kg car bomb which blew out windows across Kuta town and left a 1 meter deep crater. The largest group among those killed were Australian tourists which numbered 88 fatalities.
Hambali was arrested in Jordan in 2003 and is now in CIA custody at a secret location. Meanwhile Bashir was tried in 2004 for his part in the Bali bombing. The prosecution hoped to get life imprisonment or even the death penalty under the primary charges of inciting or ordering acts of terrorism. However in the end he was cleared of the more serious changes and convicted only of conspiracy.
Australian PM said Bashir’s release was a matter of “great pain to Australia.” He told parliament “Many Australians will see that particular outcome, although a product of the Indonesian justice system, as an extremely disappointing result.”
Bashir has returned to his Ngruki boarding school, which has been dubbed the "Ivy League" of terrorism education centres by the International Crisis Group. Most of the Bali bombers were graduates of the school.
JI remains active. The cell structure and membership of JI is still virtually unknown, in part due to the lack of cooperating governments in the region, as well as the lack of knowledge about the scope of alliances between regional terrorist factions. It is not known whether Bashir still has influence in the organisation but he has certainly left his mark on those that follow him. While both Hambali and Bashir were in prison, they struck Bali again on 1st October 2005 killing another 23 people.
Bashir hasn’t softened his stance. On release from prison, he reiterated his ultimate goal: “All Muslims should unite in vision and mission. Islamic sharia law should be imposed in Indonesia."