- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The imprisoned Islamic cleric thought to be a guiding force behind the Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah warned that all Muslim countries with close ties to the United States were targets for attack.

“As long as Muslim countries have close ties or support the U.S. government or U.S. policy, [they] will be threatened by a Muslim militant attack,” said Abu Bakar Bashir, as he sat on the rough floor of the Salemba Prison, the Jakarta prison where he has been held for the past year.

“Indonesia, Egypt, Afghan-istan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and some Mideast countries,” were all potential targets, the 66-year-old, white-bearded cleric told The Washington Times.

Bashir was convicted last year on charges of treason. But prosecutors at the time tried and failed to convince the court that the preacher was a leader of the militant Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network responsible for a string of bombings and attacks across Southeast Asia, capped by the horrific October 2002 explosions that killed 202 persons, including many Australian and Western tourists, in the Indonesian beach resort of Bali.

The cleric and his lawyer, Mahendradata, have rejected all charges against him, including the one which landed him four years in prison. The Bush administration saw the short sentence as a slap on the wrist for the JI, which reportedly has links to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network.

Bashir rejected Afghan President Hamid Karzai as “an American doll,” and dismissed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism, as an American lackey. He accused Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri of neither understanding nor caring about Islam. Indonesia is 87 percent Muslim and is the world’s most populous Islamic country.

Leaders of the small Islamic states around the Persian Gulf “are too soft against America. They are under America’s influence,” he continued, speaking under the gaze of four prison guards.

“As long as they are still under U.S. control like Megawati, we cannot call them as Muslim leaders. The Muslim leader should be free from American influence and should have power to rule the country. A Muslim leader should control the country, and non-Muslims in the country should obey.”

According to a report on JI by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group in August, Bashir was one of group’s top leaders from late 1999 until his arrest in 2002.

He also was the founder of a Muslim “pesantren,” or boarding school, committed to the principles of Islamic holy war, or jihad. A number of the graduates of the Pondok Ngruki school have been linked to JI attacks.

“I called on the students — the young Muslims for jihad — to help and protect Muslim people in Afghanistan and Bosnia who suffered and were killed by non-Muslims as their obligation, if they had enough capability and money,” Bashir said.

“Some of them were then recruited and trained by many militant Muslim groups such as al Qaeda, the [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] or Abu Sayyaf,” he said, referring to two Islamic separatist groups fighting in the Philippines. “Others only live normally.”

“But, then some of them who were trained by militant Muslim groups in the Philippines or Afghanistan committed bombings. I cannot control one by one my students after they leave my pesantren,” he said.

Like many Muslims in the region, Bashir denied the existence of Jemaah Islamiyah, which translates roughly as “Islamic Community.” Instead, he blamed al Qaeda for last year’s Bali bombing and the Aug. 5 Marriott hotel bombing in Jakarta that left 12 dead.

“If we look at the concept [the bombers] used, it was clear that they used the concept of al Qaeda. I can say that al Qaeda was behind the attacks,” he said.

Families of fellow prisoners visited during the interview, but stayed a respectful distance away. Dressed in the traditional Muslim white cap, white tunic and sarong, Bashir is a short, slight man, and peers through thick glasses.

But he is still a powerful figure among certain Indonesians, and he has about 400 followers in this jail, set amid a riddle of crowded city streets. Saremba holds a little more than 2,600 prisoners, most of them sentenced for drug trafficking.

Of the roughly 14,000 pesantren schools in this largely moderate Islamic country, only a few are under extremist militant influence. Some leaders of the new generation of Islamic activists here have broken with Bashir’s former school and set up their own pesantrens, arguing that the aging cleric was too moderate.

“Even though they hate the Bush administration, he does not agree with the way of these groups involved in Bali bombing and in Marriott bombing,” said Mr. Mahendradata, the lawyer, speaking later outside the prison’s gray steel gates and walls topped with razor wire. Many Indonesians go by a single name.

Inside the prison, Bashir, who later led the evening’s Ramadan prayers from within an open-air caged-in courtyard, praised bin Laden, whom the United States thinks is the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks.

“He is the big hero, the big martyr who sacrificed his time, his wealth and his life to defend Muslim people all over the world even though I, myself, don’t agree with his way of struggle,” the cleric said.

“But I believe he is God’s army. He is the army of God who has mandate to fight against the enemies of Allah, of Islam.”

Those caught in the cross fire, Mr. Bashir added in the interview held through a local translator, were collateral damage.

“Civilians killed in the attack are a consequence of the war, the effect of unannounced attacks. Actually, the rule of war says it is normal, and Islamic teachings say it is the destiny of human beings to die in many ways, so if a non-Muslim died in a bomb attack that was his or her destiny.”

“That’s why I don’t agree with the way of al Qaeda’s struggle, because its effect will hit and kill innocent people.”

The cleric blamed the increasing militancy of extremist Islamic groups on the United States, arguing that President Bush’s pro-Israel stance and his policies in Iraq and Afghanistan threatened the existence of Islam.

“If the U.S. can change, not to be driven by Israel as the enemy of Islam, the world will be peaceful, because Islam loves peace. But if the enemy disturbs Islam and kills Muslim people such as in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Chechnya and other places, we, as Muslim people, are obliged to protect and defend our brother Muslims.”

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