- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

From combined dispatches

JAKARTA, Indonesia For years the cleric lived openly in his hometown, Solo, an hour's flight from the capital, at a school where he is said to have watched over a Muslim extremist network with close ties to al Qaeda and a history of terrorist bombings.

But until this month, the existence of Abu Bakar Bashir's group, Jemaah Islamiyah suspected of carrying out the Oct. 12 bombing that killed more than 190 people at two Bali nightclubs wasn't acknowledged in Indonesia to even exist.

The 64-year-old cleric collapsed at his home on Oct. 18 and was taken to a hospital in Solo. Police forcibly took him this week, 10 days after he was hospitalized, from Solo to the police hospital in Jakarta. On Tuesday, he was moved again under tight police escort from a VIP ward to a tightly guarded pavilion about 100 yards away.

Yesterday, Bashir's attorney said his client is getting better and is ready for questioning, but that the police would get nothing from the cleric because he would remain silent.

"The police said that they have enough evidence," the Associated Press quoted the lawyer, Ahmad Taufik, as saying, "so we're asking them to prove their case. We ask them to show us anything they have."

Detectives want to interrogate Bashir about claims that he is the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, which was added last week to a U.N. list of groups linked to the al Qaeda network.

Another cleric, the head of Indonesia's second-largest Islamic group, warned the government this week against arresting any more Muslim leaders.

Ahmad Syafii Maarif, chairman of the 30 million-strong Muhammadiyah, said Bashir was a victim of a government seeking to appease the United States in its war against terrorism.

Mr. Maarif, who is considered a moderate, voiced support after the Bali bombing for tough anti-terrorist regulations rushed through by the government.

Military chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto warned that no mercy would be shown to any Indonesian soldiers found to be involved in the Bali bombing.

"They must shot be in the forehead," Gen. Sutarto told reporters after attending a meeting of government ministers, adding that such punishment would be imposed on anyone "whether it's a general or soldiers."

Although the military has repeatedly denied involvement in the blast, some analysts have speculated that retired generals unhappy with the civilian government could have been involved.

Meanwhile, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri made an impromptu visit to Bali this week on her way home from a trip to Mexico, telling reporters she hoped the on-site investigation of the car bombing could be completed speedily.

"By the end of November, all should be completed and normal life can resume," she said. "The sooner, the better."

On Wednesday, police issued sketches of three suspects including one possibly linked to al Qaeda who they believe planted the bombs that destroyed two nightclubs in Bali.

Maj. Gen. Made Mangku Pastika, who heads the investigation, described the three as "field operators" who may have died in the blast. He said there could be as many as 10 other suspects in the case. But he added that it was too early to say if the three suspects were linked to any international terrorist network.

Defense Minister Matori Abdul Djalil told the state-run Antara news agency, however, that police had evidence suggesting one of the three was linked to al Qaeda. He said the evidence came from the scene, including the van that carried the bomb and a motorbike one of the suspects may have used, Antara reported.

The release of the sketches was the first indication that the investigation into the murderous Bali bombing targeting foreign tourists was moving forward. The drawings are to be published in Indonesia and posted worldwide by Interpol.

Security forces said they are searching for Jemaah Islamiyah's fugitive operational commander Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali who is believed to be hiding in another country, possibly the Philippines.

Bashir is said to have formulated Jemaah Islamiyah's ideology of carving out an Islamic superstate in Southeast Asia encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and southern parts of Thailand and the Philippines while exiled in Malaysia in the 1980s.

Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to operate cells across the region and has been tied to several plots and attacks over the last two years, including a foiled plan to bomb the U.S., British, Australian and Israeli embassies in Singapore.

Intelligence agencies say Hambali built the organization in al Qaeda's image.

According to a U.S.-Australian report prepared for the United Nations, Hambali was a close associate of Ramzi Yousef, now imprisoned in the United States for his involvement in the 1993 bomb attack in a parking garage of the World Trade Center. They reportedly collaborated in an unsuccessful plot two years later to blow up 12 airliners flying from Asia to the United States.

Bashir's arrest followed the questioning of Omar al-Faruq, an al Qaeda operative seized by Indonesia and turned over to the United States in June.

Al-Faruq reportedly implicated Bashir in a string of church bombings in 2000 that killed 19 persons, and with plotting to have Mrs. Megawati assassinated. Bashir is not a suspect in the Bali bombing.

Governments across Southeast Asia say Bashir is a threat to regional stability. In Indonesia, though, he is seen as a symbol of the nation's weaknesses, including its fragile democracy, feeble judicial system and powerful military.

Bashir has been a keen manipulator of the government's fear that militant Islam could take hold in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 210 million. The cleric encourages the view that he can call up an army of angry Muslim supporters, even as he denies the existence of Jemaah Islamiyah and his involvement in terrorist acts.

Bashir is also believed to have ties to elements of Indonesia's military, which civil rights groups say has used Muslim extremists to carry out attacks to destabilize the country's still-frail democracy.

In addition, many politicians fear using the military for a crackdown on militants, lest this strengthen them politically. Indonesia's military has a long history of human-rights abuses, and has remained influential despite the ouster of the military-backed dictatorship in 1998.

"They are still a powerful influence," said Alvin Lie, a deputy in parliament and outspoken government critic. "Like it or not, a civilian government needs a strong military to keep the country in order."

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