- 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.

Mr. Ba'asyir founded the Al-Mukmin boarding school in the Central Java town of Solo that produced some of Indonesia’s deadliest bombers.

According to Mr. Atran, Mr. Ba´asyir and several Al-Mukmin graduates try to recruit youths to their cause through radical DVDs and T-shirts that sport logos such as “Giants of Jihad,” “Waiting for the Destruction of Israel” and “Taliban All Stars.”

Consisting of more than 17,000 islands with more than 230 million people, Indonesia is the fourth-most populous country and the largest Muslim-majority nation in the world.

In May, Indonesian authorities unearthed a plot to assassinate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in a rifle-and-grenade assault during the country’s independence day celebrations next week.

A U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss intelligence matters, said Mr. Ba'asyir’s arrest “demonstrates the decisive, aggressive efforts the Indonesian government has undertaken in recent years to fight terror.”

“The Indonesians clearly recognize the serious threats posed by extremists operating within their own borders, and they’ve become even more intensely focused on the problem,” the official said.

Mr. Ba'asyir has accused the U.S. of being behind his arrest.

The State Department’s annual terrorism report, issued last week, said the U.S. and Indonesia “enjoy excellent cooperation on issues related to international terrorism.”

Although there is no mutual legal-assistance treaty in place, there is considerable sharing of information between Indonesia and the United States, the report said.

The FBI also has solid ties with Indonesia’s anti-terrorism strike team Detachment 88.

The Indonesian government has cracked down on terrorist suspects with a vengeance in recent years.

This counterterrorism effort has led to the arrest of 14 militants and the deaths of nine, including Noordin Mohammed Top, the Malaysian leader of a splinter Jemaah Islamiyah group based in Indonesia.