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Bashir's release: Implications for counter-terrorism efforts in Indonesia

Updated On: Jun 16, 2006

While Indonesia announced plans to beef up the combating of terrorists and hardline groups, the release of militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir from prison this week created fear that this could help consolidate the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorist network, sparking criticism on the failure of counter-terrorism efforts in Southeast Asia.

Convicted for being part of a “sinister conspiracy” behind the 2002 Bali bombings which killed 202 people, Bashir was released from maximum security prison inJakarta on Wednesday.  Indonesian and foreign intelligence agencies believe he is the founding member and spiritual leader of South-east Asia's radical Al-Qaeda-linked JI.

While hundreds of Bashir’s supporters cheered his release from prison, not everyone was as happy.  The United States and Australia expressed disappointment at the brevity of Bashir's sentence.  Survivors of the bombings expressed their outrage and frustration that Bashir has walked free after just two years in prison.

But some Indonesia-based analysts have questioned the legality of Bashir’s conviction, arguing that foreign powers had pressured Indonesia into securing it on flimsy evidence.  Andi Mappetahang Fatwa, deputy chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly, said the case was “fraught with political nuances, not only domestic politics but also in the framework of global anti-terrorism propaganda.” 

That aside, security analysts believe that militants could use Bashir's release to revive and consolidate JI.  Dr Rohan Gunaratna, head of Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, described Bashir’s release as a strategic failure from a counter-terrorism perspective in Southeast Asia, and a reflection of the failure of Australia and the United States to influence Indonesia to develop a robust counter-terrorism law.

While most security analysts acknowledged that Bashir's release could potentially galvanise militants, some felt that the cleric himself posed very little direct threat to security in the world's most populous Muslim nation.  Many experts believe his influence within JI has largely faded, and the situation has changed hugely since he was imprisoned.  Sidney Jones, Southeast Asia project director with the International Crisis Group, believes this is “partly because in some ways the organisation has moved on”, citing how “there are factions that don't look to Abu Bakar Bashir for leadership -- such as the group around Noordin Mohammad Top.”  Political analyst Ichlasul Amal did not see any problem with the cleric’s release as he said Bashir’s supporters were very limited in number, visible and could easily be tracked if the authorities really wanted to.  Bashir’s release would even give the radical elements among Muslims in Indonesia less ground to protest, he added.Indonesian officials say that despite the capture of nearly 300 people suspected of violating anti-terrorism laws, violent militants remain a serious threat in the vast archipelago of 17,000 islands and 220 million people.  For this reason, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Widodo A S said the government has placed combat against terrorism high on the agenda. 

Last week, the Indonesian government announced it will establish a Terrorism Handling Agency to improve the coordination of combating terrorists.  Widodo said the agency is needed to coordinate government capacities and abilities and other public elements in combating terrorism. 

However, Indonesia will not be accepting increased international involvement in the eradication of terrorism.  Widodo said, “We have decided that Indonesia has its own ways of combating terrorism, as only the Indonesian people know the kind of terrorism it is dealing with.”  Thus, Indonesia would only accept exchange in intelligence, increasing capacities and mutual legal assistance.At the same time, following mounting pressure on the government to do something about violent groups, Home Minister M. Ma'ruf revealed a plan that has won the support of Members of Parliament to amend a law governing public organisations.  The amendment will empower the government to take supervisory action, including the dissolution of organisations disturbing security and order. 

The groups being targeted include the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), the Betawi Brotherhood Forum (FBR) and Hizbut Tahrir, all of which have a history of violence, including raiding places they consider indecent such as bars and nightclubs, and attacking members of minority faiths and political opponents such as mainstream Muslim clerics who promote pluralism and Islamic liberalism. “We will first deploy a persuasive approach,” Ma'ruf said.  “If it is ineffective, the government will take repressive action against them,” he added.

Police have so far been criticised for turning a blind eye to these groups' activities, but both President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his deputy Jusuf Kalla vowed last week to get tough on hardline groups.  Yudhoyono is reported to have said that the government was determined to use existing laws to impose sanctions on mass organisations found taking the law into their own hands and using violence to reach their goals.Sources:Bashir to be freed from jail today (The Straits Times, 14 June 2006)

Sources:

Bali bomb cleric freed from jail (BBC, 14 June 2006)

Indonesia cleric freed after terror jail term (Reuters, 14 June 2006)

Indonesian cleric's release not seen boosting threat (ANTARA, 13 June 2006)

Govt sets up terrorism handling agency (ANTARA, 13 June 2006)

Govt to act against mass organizations given to violence (ANTARA, 13 June 2006)

Jakarta to take action against vigilante groups (The Straits Times, 13 June 2006)