- Associated Press - Monday, August 9, 2010

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia’s anti-terrorism unit arrested a radical Islamist cleric Monday for alleged ties to an al-Qaeda-affiliated cell accused of plotting high-profile assassinations and Mumbai-style attacks targeting foreigners in the capital.

Abu Bakar Bashir, who has been arrested twice before and spent several years in jail, was heading home after delivering a sermon when the police swooped, surrounding his van and smashing in the rear window when body guards tried to stand in their way, according to his son, Abdul Rohim.

“The United States is behind this!” shouted the white-bearded cleric, who was wearing his traditional flowing white robe. He smiled as he was escorted under tight security into police headquarters and said: “This arrest is a blessing… . I will be rewarded by Allah!”

The fiery 71-year-old is best known as one of the co-founders and spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda-linked network responsible for a string of suicide bombings in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, including the 2002 attacks on Bali that killed 202 people, most of them Western tourists.

Mr. Bashir, who always has denied terrorist links, was also one of the founders of the al-Mukmin boarding school in the Central Java town of Solo that produced some of the country’s deadliest bombers.

Police spokesman Maj. Gen. Edward Aritonang told reporters Monday this was the first time authorities had evidence Mr. Bashir was not just inspiring militants with his anti-Western rhetoric, but directly involved in planning attacks.

He allegedly provided funds for a new terror cell in westernmost Aceh province and played “an active role in preparing the initial plans for their military struggle.” The cleric also helped appoint its leaders and received regular reports from their field coordinator, the police spokesman said.

Police have one week to file official charges.

Monday’s high-profile arrest was the latest in a series of raids targeting Al Qaeda in Aceh since authorities discoved their jihadi training camp in February.

Gen. Aritonang said more than 100 suspects have been rounded up — including five on Sunday — and several large caches of assault weapons, ammunition and explosives have been seized.

Police also discovered a bomb-making laboratory in Cibiru, a village 110 miles southeast of the capital, he said, and there were indications at least two powerful test blasts had been carried out in nearby mountains in recent weeks.

The overwhelming majority of Indonesians are moderate Muslims who reject violence, but a small extremist fringe has gained strength in recent years. Mr. Bashir is considered by many to be a driving force for radical movements.

He served 2½ years in jail for allegedly giving his blessing to the Bali bombers, but his conviction later was overturned. After his release in 2006, he started holding sermons nationwide calling for the creation of an Islamic state and spewing hatred toward foreigners.

Recently, Mr. Bashir formed a new radical movement, Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid, or JAT, described by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group as an “ostensibly above-ground organization” that embraced people with known ties to fugitive extremists.

Mr. Bashir came under renewed police scrutiny in May after three JAT members were arrested for allegedly raising funds for al Qaeda in Aceh.

The cell was accused of planning gun attacks on luxury hotels in the capital in an alleged plot reminiscent of the attacks in India’s financial center of Mumbai, where 10 gunmen rampaged through the city in 2008 and killed 166 people. It was planning several high-profile assassinations, including on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who said over the weekend that authorities had discovered yet another plot on his life.

Gen. Aritonang said the most recent investigations indicated that the group also was planning bombings against Indonesian security forces in and around Jakarta and several embassies.

Ken Conboy, an expert on Southeast Asian terror groups, called Mr. Bashir’s arrest significant.

“Police have made tremendous headway in dismantling what was once JI and its remaining cell structures,” said Mr. Conboy, adding this was another big step in that direction. “The next step is to take a close look at their rehabilitation efforts, where they’ve really been stumbling in recent years.”

More than a dozen suspected members of al Qaeda in Aceh arrested by police were former convicts.

Mr. Rohim insisted that his father, who went to Ciamis, a district in West Java province, for a preaching engagement, was innocent.

“He was heading back to Solo when police arrested him, together with my mother,” he said. “We appeal police to treat my parents well… . He was just carrying out his obligations as a Muslim.”

Indonesia’s last suicide bombing at the J.W. Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta ended a four-year lull in attacks blamed on Jemaah Islamiyah and its affiliates. Since 2002, more than 260 people have died in terrorist attacks, many of them foreign tourists.

Associated Press writer Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report from Jakarta.


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