September 4th 2010

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Labor's federal election debacle

EDITORIAL: A new deal for rural Australia?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Can the independents agree on a policy agenda?

QUARANTINE: WTO rules in favour of NZ apples

NATIONAL SECURITY: Significance of Abu Bakar Bashir's arrest

CHINA I: Beijing's bid to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake

CHINA II: Do China's upheavals herald liberalisation?

ISLAM: What the West must demand of Muslims

NATIONAL MARRIAGE DAY: Why we need a renewed culture of natural marriage

OPINION: Choosing sex, the next great leap in selfish parenting

CHILDHOOD: Children at risk from internet pornography

EDUCATION: Seeking truth in the electronic age

POLITICAL FUNDING: Secular left's cynical use of religion

Population debate (letter)

Annual abortion tally (letter)

Why handicap language with political correctness? (letter)

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Financial recovery falters / Digital device over-use may cause brain fatigue / Young people not maturing to adulthood / US withdrawal from Iraq

BOOK REVIEW: BONHOEFFER: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas

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Significance of Abu Bakar Bashir's arrest

by John Miller

News Weekly, September 4, 2010
Osama bin Laden (left) and Indonesia's Abu Bakar Bashir.

Most News Weekly readers will recognise at least one of the photos on this page.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, left, is widely recognised as a totemic figure and war leader, and the key figure behind the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Indonesia's Abu Bakar Bashir, by contrast, is respectfully referred to by the media as a "cleric". In the Western mind, a cleric is usually a holy man in the service of a church, a pastor tending his flock.

The tall, almost skeletal, bespectacled 72-year-old Islamic preacher comports himself with enormous dignity, usually dressed in white clerical garb and wearing a beatific smile with twinkling eyes. However, he is arguably one of the most dangerous supporters of terrorists in the West, although the reason that he is not immediately recognisable as such is that he is habitually referred to as the "spiritual leader" of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Bashir has often been arrested, but his stays in prison have been short and he is almost treated as a celebrity and is usually released before finishing his sentence. A few weeks ago, on August 9, he was arrested in West Java, hard on the heels of the arrest of five members of a radical Islamic group, Jama'ah Ansharut Tauhid (Partisans of the Oneness of God).

Australians should never forget that Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world and home to the largest Muslim population, the majority of whom are relatively peaceful. However, the priority of radical organisations such as JI is the institution of Sharia law and Islamic practices across Indonesia - a country as close geographically to Australia as Cuba is to the United States.

Bashir was born in East Java from a family of Javanese and Arab descent. It appears he was a Muslim activist from his youth, being involved with the Al-Irsyad Youth Organisation and later president of the Indonesian Islamic youth movement. In 1972, he was one of a number of founders of an Islamic boarding-school, Al-Mukmin, in a suburb of Surakarta. Some of the distinguished alumni of this school dedicated themselves to jihad and terrorism. Among these individuals were the notorious Hambali and others engaged in the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2003 Marriott Hotel bombing and the 2009 Jakarta bombing. The International Crisis Group (ICG), not given to exaggeration, states that this school is in fact an "Ivy League" for Jemaah Islamiyah recruits.

It is estimated that there are around 2,000 students at Al-Mukmin. Walls are festooned with pictures of graduates with AK-47s. According to the CNN, a sign hung in classrooms proclaims: "Death in the way of Allah is our highest aspiration."

During the period known as the New Order (March 1967-May 1998), when Indonesia was governed by General Suharto, the country tackled Communist insurgency and cracked down on internal dissent in order to win back overseas relief agencies and foreign investment.

Bashir, along with another co-founders of the Al-Mukmin school, was arrested for the active promotion of sharia law and for the refusal of the school to salute the Indonesian flag and to recognise the secular state. He appealed against his arrest but was jailed without trial from 1978 to 1982. He then fled to Malaysia and proceeded to teach Islam in Malaysia and Singapore.

The US Government regards this period of exile as the time when Bashir became involved with JI, which was suspected at the time of having links with al Qaeda. He remained abroad until the fall of the Suharto government in 1998, and returned the following year, declaring himself to be a cleric and renewing his call for sharia law. In the more liberal and chaotic social situation in Indonesia at that time, there was no shortage of recruits.

Following the turn of the millennium, a series of terrorist attacks took place in Indonesia, including the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings. The J.W. Marriott Hotel in southern Jakarta was attacked twice, first in August 2003 and again in July 2009, the latter attack done in conjunction with a bombing at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel five minutes later.

JI was believed to be directly responsible in the majority of these attacks, but it is considered that al Qaeda provided assistance in some instances.

What was the role of Abu Bakar Bashir against the backdrop of his connections to Jemaah Islamiyah and Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia and Southeast Asia? Following 9/11, he expressed sympathy with Osama bin Laden and Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein. In a masterpiece of dissembling, he claimed that 9/11 was a pretext for the US to attack Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, adding that it was perfectly acceptable for Muslims to attack Americans, and by extension other Western countries, in their homelands.

It must be said that the Indonesian counterterrorist authorities have damaged the infrastructure of JI. However, as with al Qaeda, a dispersed organisation can be hard to cover and certainly will not lack recruits, especially given the anti-US and anti-Western feelings in the Islamic world. My professional opinion is that all Islamic fundamentalist organisations have an organic link with al Qaeda and share a common objective: to extend Islam, defeat the West and establish a Caliphate.

There is very little ambiguity about the aims and objectives of JI. Following the bombing of the Australian embassy in 2004, JI also claimed responsibility for the 2002 Bali bombings but it was left to an Islamic website to spell out the reasons why Australia was being targeted. It stated in part: "We decided to settle accounts with Australia, one of the worst enemies of God and Islam ... and the mujahedin brother succeeded in carrying out a martyr operation with a car-bomb against the Australian embassy. ... It is the first of a series of attacks. ... We advise Australians in Indonesia to leave this country or else we will transform it into a cemetery for them."

That would appear to be fairly straightforward declaration of war.

Bashir, as we have noted, has been arrested on a number of occasions; but the problem has always been for the prosecution to make the case against him, even when he was charged with plotting to kill the then Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri and, it is said, masterminding the 2009 attacks on churches. Convicted but later cleared of involvement in the Bali bombings of 2002, he has arrested again, based on the Indonesian authorities' allegations that he was the guiding hand behind a terrorist training operation in northern Aceh, involving 100 militants, which was broken up in February 2010.

This will be the most important trial to be held in Indonesia, certainly the most in the field of counter-terrorism.

The trial will be an important test of resolve for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the more moderate mainstream brand of Islam in Indonesia that appears willing to peacefully co-exist with the government. Several press reports in Australia suggest, largely at the prompting of the ICG's Sidney Jones, that "this time, the police have the goods".

The police also claimed, without specifying the evidence, that Bashir was linked to five men arrested in the west Javanese city of Bandung and accused of creating a bomb-making factory to be presided over by a chemistry graduate from a local university. The police say the five planned to attack foreign embassies, international hotels and police facilities.

We now know that the targets included the US and Australian embassies

The Indonesian police will be under intense pressure to come up with hard evidence against Bashir, who still has powerful political friends. And, as a cautionary ending to this most serious affair, I am forced to agree with Ms Sidney Jones and others that Bashir's arrest also demonstrates a more disturbing trend: the indomitable resilience and ingenuity of the many groups that make up Indonesia's militant Islamic movement, and their relentless determination to continue their campaign of terror.

Unfortunately, irrespective of whether he is convicted, it is likely to have little effect on the future of Islamic jihad in Indonesia and the region. His arrest and trial will provide only a brief pause in the Indonesian jihad.

John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.

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