ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Abu Bakar Bashir and the Renewed Jihadi Threat in Indonesia

Could the cleric’s release from prison reinvigorate Indonesia’s fragmented jihadi movement?

By Bilveer Singh for
Abu Bakar Bashir and the Renewed Jihadi Threat in Indonesia

Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir sits inside a van as he leaves upon his release from Gunung Sindur Prison in Bogor, West Java, Indonesia, January 8, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Aditya Irawan

If there has been a public and media face to Indonesia’s jihadi threat since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. and the October 2002 Bali bombings, it has been represented by Abu Bakar Bashir. Bashir, who today walked free from prison after a decade behind bars, has been associated with a strain of radical Islamism which aims to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state. This has been especially the case since the death in 1999 of Abdullah Sungkar, Bashir’s comrade-in-arms since the 1960s, but who was viewed as more senior due to his knowledge of Islam, fluency in Arabic, and organizational skills.

The 82-year-old Bashir has been associated with six radical Islamist groups, namely, Darul Islam, Negara Islam Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiyyah, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, and the Islamic State. Many of these groups are opposed to each other, mirroring the broader split and struggle between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State at the global level. Together with Sungkar, he founded the Al Mukmim Islamic Boarding School in Ngruki, Solo, which has been described as the Indonesia’s “University of Jihadists.” Bashir lost control of JI after his arrest in October 2002, when Abu Rusydan became the new emir before his own arrest in 2003. (He was released in 2005.)

Bashir was jailed by the government of President Suharto in the 1970s, when he and Sungkar were preaching the overthrow of the government and its replacement with an Islamic state. Bashir has since been linked to various individuals and groups involved in acts of violence, including the bombing of the Hindu-Buddhist Borobudur temple in Yogyakarta in 1985, and is often described as the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) that undertook the 2000 Christmas church bombings, which took place in a number of Indonesian cities, as well as the devastating Bali bombing in 2002.

In 2008, Bashir resigned from the JI and Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) to form the Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), and was later associated with acts of violence carried out by JAT members. The Indonesian government could not charge him in connection with neither the 2000 Christmas attacks, nor the Bali bombing. In 2011, however, he was jailed for 15 years for supporting terrorism in the country following the discovery of a terrorist military training camp in Aceh.

As more evidence surfaced about the dynamics within JI following Sungkar’s death in 1999, it became clear that the 2000 and 2002 bombings, and further attacks in 2003 and 2005, were led by a “pro-bomb” faction within JI. This group was led by figures including Hambali, Dulmatin, Umar Patek, Zulkarnaen, Azahari, and Noordin Top. Meanwhile, Bashir was the leader of the pro-dakwah faction of JI, which believed that the time is not ripe for a violent uprising, and was marginalized by action-oriented individuals who believed that Indonesia needed a spark to ignite an Islamic revolution. Hence, Bashir’s role as JI’s spiritual leader remained limited, because he was never a military commander.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The initial quest for Bashir’s release by his supporters and family members was mainly made on the grounds that even though Bashir had been associated with JI, MMI, and JAT, his crimes did not merit the 15-year prison sentence handed down in 2011. The fact that Indonesia had continued to suffer from bombings even after Bashir left JI and JAT were additionally adduced as reasons why he should not be held responsible for the continued terrorist violence in the country, and should be released from prison.

In 2014, Bashir abandoned the pro-Al Qaeda groups and pledged his loyalty to Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi and IS, and clearly moved away from his JI and JAT past. While this did not change the fact that he supported a brutally violent terrorist group, his image as a pro-Al Qaeda JI or JAT leader had clearly diminished and the continued description of him as the spiritual leader of JI was simply no longer valid. The fact that the Indonesian counterterrorism community was using ex-JI leaders such as Abu Rusydan and Abu Tholut to chastise IS in the national media further seemed to weaken the case that Bashir was a terrorist mastermind who had to be kept behind bars. The sympathy and support for his release thus increased, while the case for his continued incarceration weakened.

In early 2019, President Jokowi, just prior to that year’s presidential elections, announced that Bashir would be released on humanitarian grounds. This decision was later rescinded, after he reportedly refused to pledge his allegiance to Indonesia’s official Pancasila ideology. However, last week, the Indonesian Government announced that Bashir would be released after his prison sentence was reduced through remissions for good behavior. It was due to his old age, longstanding ill-health, and to the over-crowded prison where he was held that made him vulnerable to the danger posed by COVID-19, which eventually proved pivotal in his release.

The opponents of Bashir’s release believe that he should be punished for the crimes he had committed. Bashir’s deeds were seen as particularly painful for the family members and friends of the many victims who  died due to bombings associated with JI and JAT. This position is understandable and one that can be supported.

As Bashir has spent almost his entire adult life preaching and championing radical Islam, and the creation of an Islamic state, if necessary through violence, many believe that even at 82 years of age, Bashir remains a threat. This is because he is viewed as one of the most senior jihadists in the country. His badge of honor includes having being designated a “terrorist” by the United Nations, the United States, and many other countries. He is believed to have endured much pain and suffering for his belief in an Islamic State, something that will have traction in the world’s most populous Muslim state – one that is afflicted with all kinds of issues relating to poor governance. Regardless of his support for Al Qaeda or IS, he is seen as a powerful inspiration for young radicals. Indeed, many view him as Indonesia’s Syed Qutb.

On the other hand, there are many supporters who believe that Bashir has aged, is sick and has mellowed ideologically. He is also without any organizational base, having distanced himself from JI, MMI and JAT, and the operational capacity of IS has largely been degraded. He may be near-death and it would be crime to continue to keep him in prison, all the more when he needs urgent medical treatment that is not available in custody. Also, dying in an Indonesian prison could make Bashir a permanent martyr among radical Muslims.

In this line of thinking, the decision to release Bashir would make Jokowi look good, given that he will not be seen to be repressing Islamic scholars and teachers. It may also enhance Jokowi’s Islamic credentials in the country, something that he had suffered throughout his presidency, especially given his government’s recent decision to ban the Islamic Defenders Front, one of the country’s most prominent Islamist pressure groups.

Eventually, whether the decision to grant Bashir an early release is a wise one will depend on how Bashir behaves himself in the months and years to come. He may be old and sick, but for Indonesian radicals it could come as a great boon that Indonesia’s best known jihadi-salafi is a free man, which for some may also be a further turn toward Islamic radicalism in the country.

Bilveer Singh is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore.