Indonesian Radical Leads Campaign on Anti-Terror Police

The 68-year-old firebrand Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, who was convicted of being behind the 2002 Bali bombings and then freed by Indonesia’s Supreme Court, is now trying to wipe out the elite anti-terror squad that linked him to the bombings because, he says, it is “unfair to Islamic activists.”

Just days after his supporters called on him to run for president, Ba'asyir launched a startling legal challenge, suing to disband the FBI-trained, 500-strong Detachment 88, as it is called, which has reportedly developed more new evidence that he led the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network, which is allied with Al Qaeda.

Detachment 88, boosted by a substantial contingent from the Australian Federal Police, is widely acknowledged to be one of the world’s top anti-terror squads. Human rights campaigners and radical Islamic groups allege, however, that a series of crackdowns by the intelligence unit have spawned rights violations and claim that many of their arrests have been illegal.

Indonesia’s Supreme Court overturned Ba’asyir’s conviction for involvement in the planning of the 2002 Bali bombings, immunizing him against further prosecution on those charges even if new evidence surfaces. That evidence may have been found. Abu Dujana, the alleged head of JI’s military wing, who was captured in June by Detachment 88, allegedly told them that Ba’asyir had led the deadly terrorist network from 2000 to 2002. Jemaah Islamiyah has also been linked to bombings in Bali in 2005 that killed 20 and injured 129. Other bombings targeted the Marriott Hotel and the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004. The 2002 bombing of nightclubs in Bali killed 202 people and injured 209 in the deadliest terrorism attack in Indonesian history.

In an effort to avoid further radicalizing Muslims, Indonesian authorities have been careful not to upset religious sensitivities when pursuing terrorists. But critics, particularly in the US and Australia, are concerned that Ba'asyir has too much leeway since his highly controversial early release. The undoubted success of Yudhoyono’s anti- terror campaign has attracted praise, making it all the more odd that Ba'asyir, allegedly JI’s spiritual leader, has been allowed to gain the moral high ground among Indonesian radicals and their followers. That is at least partly because Syamsir Siregar, head of the National Intelligence Agency (BIN), saw the white-haired zealot's freedom as an opportunity to somehow co-opt him into the war on terror by cooperating with investigators. So far that has proven a vain hope.

Immediately after Ba'asyir's unconditional release in June of last year after serving nearly 26 months for his role in the Bali bombings, US and Australian officials asked Jakarta to keep the cleric under 24-hour watch.

JI's grand ambition is to create a single, fundamentalist pan-Islamic state of more than 400 million, which would embrace Indonesia, southern Thailand, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines. While the majority of Indonesian Muslims are moderates, the radicals, including Ba'asyir, who also heads the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), want to first force a religious state here ruled by Islamic law. Ba’asyir has crisscrossed Indonesia lobbying for shariah law.

Now he is charging that Detachment 88 is squeezing innocent Muslim activists. He has denounced the agency because part of its funding comes from the United States and Australia. "We want special Detachment 88 to be disbanded because Special Detachment 88 is established with foreign money, infidels, that is the US and Australia," he told Indonesian-language media. "Detachment 88 is a tool of the infidels in order to fight Islam and target Islam to catch Islamic activists by using the terrorism issue."

Much has been made of the fact that JI is not banned in Indonesia. Jakarta's consistent stand is that it can only ban established organizations, not underground ones like JI. Both John Howard, the Australian prime minister, and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who have been particularly scathing about Ba'asyir, have conceded that outlawing the group would make little practical difference.

The radical Muslim groups also strongly oppose tougher anti-terror laws, saying they could violate human rights. Despite having a record second to none in capturing homegrown terrorists, Indonesia’s terrorism laws are some of the world’s weakest. The 2003 Anti-terrorism Law allows a seven-day detention of suspects for questioning, following which they must be released if no charges are laid

General Ansyaad Mbai, head of Indonesia's anti-terrorism operations, has warned that security forces must to be permitted to take preemptive action against anyone suspected of plotting a terrorist strike. The draft anti-terrorism law, still moving slowly through the House of Representatives (DPR), would allow this, plus detention for another six months for questioning and prosecution. Intelligence reports would be enough to grant a detention order.

Yet the bill, quickly cobbled together in the aftermath of the Bali bombings by the Megawati Sukarnoputri administration, has been under debate since soon after it was proposed in late 2003. The major hurdle is that it provides for the arrest of suspects by the military, which would thus return the military to policing and criminal investigations, areas that were widely abused in the Suharto era.

While there is no obvious link between demands for shariah law and terrorism, Indonesian security forces would clearly benefit from strong anti terror powers. Yet it is unlikely, given the risk that a backlash from Muslim groups and political parties,, that any administration could win the political argument for the sort of draconian powers conferred on their counterparts in Singapore and Malaysia through their Internal Security Acts.

An unrepentant Ba'asyir, however, claims there is only one easy way to stop terrorism in Indonesia "Just cut all diplomatic relations with Australia and the US. Then there will be no terrorists in Indonesia."