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Recruiting a holy army of hate


19 October 2002

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER profiles the radical Muslim leader who wants to turn South-East Asia into an Islamic superstate.

His frail build and fixed smile belie a stubborn, steely will. At 64, Abu Bakar Bashir, the man suspected of ordering the Bali bombing, has been fighting to overthow Indonesia's secular state since he was a teenager. A survivor of several years in Soeharto's jails, who fled his homeland and lived in exile in Malaysia for 14 years, his CV reads like that of an Indonesian Ayatollah Khomeini.

All he lacks is a mass following, and observers fear that if Indonesia succumbs to Australian pressure and arrests him, he might get that, too.

His aim is to replace ASEAN with an Islamic superstate in which sharia law prevails. In such a campaign, says the veteran Indonesia watcher Dr Michael van Langenberg, Bali has huge symbolic significance.

"In the historical mindset of Javanese Muslim extremists like Abu Bakar Bashir, it's the last vestige of Hindu-Buddhist culture in the archipelago. And with all those nightclubs, a symbol of Western decadence as well."

The epicentre of Islamic terrorism in the world has moved, experts say, from the Middle East to South-East Asia, and Abu Bakar is alleged to be its home-grown Osama bin Laden.

Born in Jombang in eastern Java in 1938, he was an early convert to radical Islam, joining the Darul Islam movement that staged violent rebellions against Indonesia's secular constitution in the 1950s.

While others crunched the politics, Abu Bakar was proselytising young men. He led a youth movement and started an Islamic radio station, which urged non-co-operation with state institutions not governed by sharia law.

In 1973 he established a self-governing commune on strict Islamic lines, the first in a series of such communities which took the name Jemaah Islamiah.

"People in Indonesia are living hand to mouth, and communities like these which provide food and shelter and camaraderie can attract a loyal following," says Dr Daryl Jarvis, director of the centre for international risk at the University of Sydney.

As a firestorm of controversy encircles him, Abu Bakar is living in the village community in Ngruki he established almost 30 years ago. What burnished Abu Bakar's will was his experience of the pro-Western dictator Soeharto. In the late '70s, the preacher, then aged 40, was arrested and jailed. Convicted of subversion for circulating inflammatory literature calling for jihad or holy war against enemies of Islam, he was sentenced to nine years and served almost four.

As Soeharto's suppression of human rights intensified in the '80s, Abu Bakar continued to work underground until 1985 when he fled to Malaysia. From there he continued to run his network of Islamic communities in Indonesia by remote control.

Malaysia, which unlike Indonesia has declared itself an Islamic state, was a crossroads for militants making their way to the battlefields of Afghanistan to fight the Soviets with the support and encouragement of the United States and allies such as Australia.

With his resistance pedigree, quick wit and prized Arab ancestry, Abu Bakar was a popular and effective recruiter of Asian Muslims for the Afghan jihad, mirroring the role of a wealthy young Saudi named Osama bin Laden in recruiting Arabs on the other side of Asia.

In Malaysia, Abu Bakar met a hard-core Afghanistan veteran from West Java called Hambali. Although his whereabouts are unknown, Hambali is today believed to be the operational commander of Jemaah Islamiah. If Bali was a JI hit, Hambali would have organised it.

So long as Soeharto ruled in Jakarta, Abu Bakar could not return to Indonesia. In 1998, Soeharto's New Order regime unexpectedly collapsed, and the voice in the wilderness returned to a homeland that had radically changed. Globalisation had brought email and satellite telephones ideally suited to scattered networks of the like-minded radicals.

Just as useful, the satellite television that brought the world's struggles especially the struggles of Muslims in Kashmir, Chechnya and Palestine into even remote village homes.

Then there was the ease with which money could be moved from country to country, and the hardship and disillusion of a new generation of Indonesians in the aftermath of Indonesia's 1997 economic collapse.

Now in his 60s, Abu Bakar sensed his time had come. At a fundamentalist summit meeting in Jogjakarta, he formed the Majelis Mujahideen Indonesia, and emerged as titular head of Indonesia's Islamic extremists.

With the Taliban entrenched in Kabul, bin Laden had already blown up two United States embassies in Africa, and had his own Afghan camps targeted by US Cruise missiles in return. Planning for September 11 was well under way and the friendship bin Laden and Abu Bakar's followers had always enjoyed had developed into formal co-operation.

In the mid-'90s bin Laden had sent his brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, to the region to develop ties with Abu Bakar. Abu Bakar had travelled to Australia. By 2000 the network was in place.

In al-Qaeda's map of South-East Asia, Abu Sayyaf's strongholds in the Philippines provide the secure operational base while Malaysia, with its modern infrastructure, provides the logistics base for banking, communications and meetings.

In January 2000, two Arab al-Qaeda members, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi, flew into Kuala Lumpur.

At the request of JI operations chief Hambali, they were put up in an apartment by a 37-year-old former Malaysian army captain and Abu Bakar admirer, Yazid Sufaat, the FBI believes.

The two Arabs would fly the hijacked aircraft that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11. Another al-Qaeda member, the French Moroccan Zaccarias Moussaoui, the only person so far charged with involvement in the September 11 plot, visited Sufaat later that year, picking up $70,000 to fund his flight training.

After the fall of the Taliban regime last November, a mini-United Nations of Islamic radicals fell into the US hands. Their revelations have allowed investigators to painstakingly piece together the puzzle.

Based on such testimony, Singapore's first prime minister and now Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, named Abu Bakar the godfather of South-East Asian terror.

Indonesia has many Muslim radical groups and Malaysia and the Philippines have their own radicals.

The Jemaah Islamiah, however, is beginning to eclipse all of them, condemned by the words of captured brothers in arms from Afghanistan, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

They've told of plans to blow up embassies and bombings of churches and shopping centres across South-East Asia; of large consignments of ammonium nitrate, the chemical fertiliser used to make truck bombs; and of their leader's central role in organising the violence.

The picture is gradually developing and the long, thin face that emerges belongs to Abu Bakar Bashir, who is spending what may be his last days of freedom in open revolt.

Any action against him, he says, is an attack on all Muslims; the US has declared war on Islam; the Taliban and the Palestinian suicide bombers are true Muslims; Osama bin Laden is a great leader.

He stops just short of saying the victims of Bali had it coming.

His every word is a bomb.

--The Sydney Morning Herald


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