- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2010

Indonesian police on Monday arrested the spiritual leader of an al Qaeda-linked group that is accused of carrying out the 2002 Bali bombings and of plotting to assassinate the country’s president.

Police arrested Abu Bakar Ba'asyir as the cleric was on his way home in West Java after delivering a sermon, Mr. Ba'asyir’s son, Abdul Rohim, told the Associated Press.

National police spokesman Gen. Edward Aritonang said Mr. Ba'asyir was accused of abetting al Qaeda in Aceh, a militant offshoot of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, which is accused of the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people.

Al Qaeda in Aceh was planning to bomb hotels and embassies in Jakarta and was conspiring to assassinate Indonesia’s president, the police spokesman said, adding that Mr. Ba'asyir was deeply involved in the group’s activities.

“He routinely received reports from their field coordinator. He also played an active role in preparing the initial plans for their military struggle,” Gen. Aritonang was quoted by AP as saying.

Under Indonesian law, police must formally charge Mr. Ba'asyir within seven days.

Mr. Ba'asyir has been the focus of an investigation since a counterterrorism team stumbled upon a jihadi training camp in the foothills of Jalin in Aceh province during a raid on militants in February. The cell was supported by “an ostensibly above-ground” Islamist group, Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid, which Mr. Ba'asyir helped establish in 2008, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Mr. Ba'asyir has been arrested twice before — in 2003 and 2005 — and has served time in prison for giving guidance to jihadists and providing inspiration to the suicide bombers who attacked Bali in 2002.

Indonesia’s supreme court overturned his conviction in 2006.

Indonesian officials say they have gathered evidence showing Mr. Ba'asyir’s financial ties with the jihadi camp in Aceh.

Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based senior adviser with ICG, said the Indonesian police are “confident enough to make the arrest of such a high-profile figure, so their evidence for his financing the Aceh camp has to be strong, and they aren’t worried about a political backlash.”

Ms. Jones said Mr. Ba'asyir and his inner circle continue to be involved in covert support of violence even though the cleric maintains JAT is simply an advocacy organization for Islamic law.

Scott Atran, research director in anthropology at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, who closely studies terrorism in Indonesia, said it is possible that Mr. Ba'asyir helped channel money to others who fund the Aceh operation.

“But he would have been careful to avoid any direct payments to operatives themselves,” Mr. Atran said. “That he would give moral support and encouragement to Aceh operatives is also entirely possible.”

Mr. Ba'asyir is “too wily,” and “hands-on operational control of things is neither his inclination, nor his style,” Mr. Atran said.

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