(Abu Bakar Bashir) Abu Bakar Bashir, linked to Bali Bombings, freed in Indonesia (Aisyah Llewellyn, Al Jazeera)

Abu Bakar Bashir, the 82-year-old former spiritual leader of the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), has been freed from prison in Indonesia after serving two-thirds of a 15-year sentence.

Bashir was released from Gunung Sindur Prison in Bogor on the island of Java on Friday before dawn, to prevent his supporters from gathering.

The leader had been convicted of supporting training camps for fighters in Indonesia’s Aceh province in 2011, although he is also thought to have been the ideological inspiration for the bombings on the island of Bali in 2002, which killed more than 200 people.

Farihin, a member of JI who lived with Bashir in Malaysia for several years, told Al Jazeera that he visited the scholar in prison two months ago and that while he appeared in good health physically, he had trouble remembering the names of his legal team and other friends and acquaintances.

Nevertheless, he insists the years of incarceration will not have dampened Bashir’s ideological effect.

“He still has a strong influence in Indonesia,” Fahirin said ahead of Bashir’s release. “That’s why the Indonesian government is so scared of him. They are more worried about Bashir than Rizieq because Bashir’s influence is much more situational. One word from him [Bashir] and all his followers will rise up. And he believes in armed jihad.”

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, a hardline Muslim scholar and leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), was arrested on 12 December and is currently in custody having been charged with incitement of criminal acts and holding mass gatherings in breach of coronavirus health protocols following his return from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia in November last year.

Hardline scholar Abu Bakar Bashir ran an Islamic boarding school and inspired devotion among his followers.  The spiritual leader of the now-banned group Jemaah Islamiyah, which carried out the Bali bombings in 2002, was eventually jailed for supporting fighter training camps in the eastern province of Aceh [File: Supri/CP]

The FPI, which had unsuccessfully campaigned for Bashir’s release from prison for years was officially banned on 30 December last year.

In 2019, ahead of Indonesia’s presidential election, President Joko Widodo reportedly toyed with the idea of granting clemency to Bashir on humanitarian grounds, given his advanced age and declining health, a suggestion that fuelled accusations that the president was appeasing hardline groups.

The clemency plan was scrapped when Bashir allegedly refused to swear allegiance to the Indonesian state ideology known as Pancasila.

Wave of arrests

Bashir left prison on Friday after serving 11 years of his 15-year sentence, having received 55 months of remission time for good behaviour. The sentence also included the year he had already spent in jail following his arrest in 2010.

According to Quinton Temby, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, Bashir’s importance is now symbolic rather than material.

“Bashir’s release may set him up to become a potent symbol for the Islamist opposition because the view that he’s held to for decades, that the Indonesian state is a tyrannical unIslamic regime, is increasingly popular in opposition circles,” Temby told Al Jazeera. “He walks free without having caved to demands in 2019 to sign an oath of loyalty to the state, so his credentials have been enhanced in recent years.”

Speaking from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for his part in the Bali bombings, Ali Imron maintains that Bashir was not directly responsible for the atrocity in which suicide bombers attacked several nightclubs in Kuta and detonated a van filled with explosives.

“He was not involved in the first Bali bombing, he was just the spiritual leader of the group at that time,” Ali Imron said. “I don’t know if he agreed or disagreed with the plan.”

The Bali bombings ripped through a bar and nightclub in Kuta killing more than 200 people [File: Ed Wray/AP Photo]

Bashir’s release also comes just a few months after the arrest of several high-profile members of JI, although his affiliation with the banned group has waned in recent years.

In 2008, Bashir established Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), a splinter group of Jemaah Islamiyah, although JAT itself split again into Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and Jamaah Ansharut Syariah (JAS) after Bashir pledged allegiance in 2014 to Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIL (ISIS) group who was killed in 2019.

On Wednesday, Indonesia’s counterterrorism unit (Densus 88) raided the hideout of 22 suspected JAD members in Makassar, South Sulawesi, killing two who resisted arrest. The suspects are thought to have been involved in two church bombings in Jolo in the Phillippines in 2019 in which 20 people were killed.

According to Judith Jacob, a terrorism and security analyst at the London School of Economics, the recent arrests suggest the security services continue to be “largely effective” in containing the threat posed by hardline groups in Indonesia.

And while Bashir’s freedom might provide a short-lived boost, she says the situation in Indonesia has also changed.

Abu Bakar Bashir was driven out of prison in Bogor before dawn on Friday [Yulius Satria Wijaya/Antara Foto via Reuters]

“Bashir’s release will be a bit of a morale boost for beleaguered militants as they will likely be able to crow about how it is a form of defeat for the state and a triumph for true believers who stay the course,” she told Al Jazeera.

“For his part, Bashir will be able to encourage and perpetuate the virtues of jihad more readily than he did while in prison. That said, we shouldn’t overstate the symbolism of the release and the effects of his widening pulpit. Bashir isn’t the great ideologue he once was.”


Indonesians unknowingly fund hardline group behind Bali bombings (Aisyah Llewellyn, Al Jazeera)

Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the al-Qaeda-affiliated group that masterminded the Bali bombings in 2002, has found a new source of income – a network of charity donation boxes stationed across Indonesia that were only discovered after one of the group’s leaders was arrested along with 23 other members late last year.

The group’s use of the seemingly innocuous boxes, which are clustered outside minimarkets across the archipelago and usually used by charities, could be more significant than the arrest of JI leader Zulkarnaen, also known as Aris Sumarsono, who had been on the run for 18 years, analysts said.

He is thought to be one of the most senior members of JI and was instrumental in the attacks on Bali, which left more than 200 people dead.

“The real major blow for JI isn’t the arrest of Zulkarnaen but the discovery of JI’s source of income through both illegal and legal ‘charity work’”, Noor Huda Ismail, a former member of the hardline group Darul Islam who has since founded the Institute for International Peace Building and runs deradicalisation programmes and workshops across Indonesia, told Al Jazeera.

“The importance of the arrest is uncovering the active JI cells who have been hibernating ‘peacefully’ using legitimate covers such as foundations, charity organisations and NGOs,” he said.

National Police Spokesperson Inspector General Argo Yuwono told the media in December that police had found more than 20,000 donation boxes in raids across 12 regions in Indonesia, including Jakarta, Lampung, North Sumatra, Yogyakarta, East Java and Maluku.

According to the police, donation boxes were also placed in other locations in addition to minimarkets, including petrol stations, restaurants, cafes and shops raking in millions of Indonesian rupiah every day. The scale of the operation appeared to have increased significantly over the past few years, the authorities said.

The boxes were registered, legally, to the Abdurrachman bin Auf (ABA) Charity Foundation but that was not where the money was going.

ABA was a front for JI, and some of the foundation’s members have also been arrested, including Fitria Sanjaya, who was detained after giving information about the alms boxes and the diversion of funds to Jemaah Islamiyah.

Weapons, training

Speaking to Al Jazeera, former JI operative Arif Budi Setyawan, who has since written a book that warns of the dangers of radicalisation, says the discovery of the donation boxes marks a distinct escalation in the group’s fundraising efforts. “They had this kind of system of donations before, but not as many as now and not in public places like minimarkets,” he said. “No doubt this has astonished many people, but as a former member of JI, I’m just surprised by the sheer numbers [of donations boxes].”

There is speculation that Jemaah Islamiyah implemented the new public donation system after failing to raise enough funds from its own members, who are typically expected to contribute their own money in the form of alms to the group.

According to Ali Imron, who was jailed for life in 2003 for his role in the Bali bombings, JI previously relied on high-level donors rather than soliciting funds from the public. “That method didn’t exist before. We had our own money. For jihad in Ambon and Poso, we had financial help from lots of sources and for the Bali bombing we had money directly from Osama bin Laden,” he said.

The police say the funds from the boxes had been used to buy weapons and explosives, as well as to provide training for JI operatives in Syria. The group has been out of the limelight for nearly 10 years, but is estimated to have about 6,000 active cells, according to the police’s Yuwono.

Several weeks before Zulkarnaen was apprehended, another senior member of Jemaah Islamiyah, Upik Lawanga, was also arrested. At his home, police discovered an underground bunker containing weapons and bomb-making equipment, prompting fears that the group was planning a new wave of attacks.

In addition to the recent arrests, 82-year-old Abu Bakar Bashir, who was the so-called “spiritual leader” of JI at the time of the Bali attacks, is set to be released from prison on Friday after serving two-thirds of a 15-year sentence for supporting religious training camps in Indonesia’s Aceh Province.

In 2014, he pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of the ISIL (ISIS) group, who was killed in Syria in October 2019.

Ismail says the discovery of the funding network will probably be only a temporary setback to the group’s ambitions.

“The discovery of JI’s source of funding will weaken the organisation temporarily before it can bounce back and rejuvenate itself through its massive network in the country,” he said.

“I think JI will metamorphose from using the tactic of ‘bullets’ to ‘ballots’ by pushing its extremist ideology through politics. Sadly, the threat of terrorism will not be rooted out completely in Indonesia. What we can do is to slow down the process of growth and contain its tentacles.”

The former member Setyawan agreed that JI, which was banned in Indonesia in 2008 after a sustained crackdown by counterterrorism forces, should once again be viewed with concern.

“In the short term, we should not fear JI, but perhaps in the long term we need to remain cautious,” he said. “In particular, we need to examine the relationship between raising funds through thousands of donation boxes in minimarkets with the discovery of homemade weapons in bunkers.”


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