- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
This publication is now archived.
Who is Abu Bakar Bashir?
An elderly Indonesian cleric, stately if frail in appearance, Abu Bakar Bashir (also spelled Ba’asyir) hardly strikes the eye as one of the world’s most fearsome men. His inflammatory rhetoric, however, has commanded widespread concern. Bashir was released from Indonesian prison on June 14, 2006, after serving out a twenty-five month sentence. He was found guilty by Indonesian courts in 2003 of being part of an "evil conspiracy" to commit the 2002 Bali suicide bombings, though all charges directly linking him to the attacks were dropped.
If Bashir’s involvement coordinating Bali is debatable, as many experts have said, it is also somewhat beside the point. Indonesian officials say a striking number of the more than 200 Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militants arrested in the aftermath of the Bali attacks cited Bashir as their inspiration, the ideological general of their "holy war." Bashir has accordingly been labeled the "spiritual leader" of JI by a number of news sources.
Some experts have questioned whether any direct links exist between Bashir and the enigmatic terrorist group. Bashir himself has repeatedly insisted that he is merely a preacher. Whether or not he has terrorist ties, Bashir’s influence on regional terrorist activities is undeniable. A fundamentalist firebrand of wide repute, Bashir has inveighed against the United States, Australia, and Israel, and has condoned violence motivated by jihad. "I support Osama bin Laden’s struggle because his is the true struggle to uphold Islam," he said in a statement following the Bali attacks. "The terrorists are America and Israel."
What terrorist acts are linked to Bashir?
Claims that Bashir helped coordinate the Bali bombings were dismissed in the first of two trials brought against him in 2003. The judge said there was insufficient proof to establish a connection between Bashir and JI, despite the avowals of JI operatives that they had acted to please him and to fulfill his vision of overthrowing the Indonesian government to establish a pan-Islamic state. In a second trial, he was charged with an array of offenses related to both the Bali bombings and the 2003 attack at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta. The court found Bashir guilty of specific and relatively minor charges, and he was sentenced to less than four years in prison—a term that was later shortened by three months in light of "good behavior."
Given that he can’t be pinned to specific attacks, why is Bashir considered so dangerous?
As one New York Times article put it, "there can be no doubt that Bashir is a very extreme thinker who inspires deadly actions." He has been called the ideological godfather of JI, and regardless of any official connection to the group, his influence is clear.
Bashir insists upon the establishment of traditional Islamic law, or sharia, and has actively encouraged a violent toppling of the Indonesian government if sharia is not enacted. "No deed is nobler than jihad," he said in a 2002 interview with the New York Times from his Jakarta jail cell while awaiting trial. "If we commit to jihad, we can neglect other deeds." Experts say the predominant theme of Bashir’s teachings has been holy war and the idea that existing Muslim communities are only a precursor to a more complete Islamic state.
Is Bashir associated with al-Qaeda?
Bashir has repeatedly praised al-Qaeda’s activities, and there is broad speculation that JI and al-Qaeda are at least tenuously affiliated. Sidney Jones, an analyst on South East Asia at the International Crisis Group, told cfr.org’s Bernard Gwertzman there are "solid links" between JI and al-Qaeda, though she expressed doubt that al-Qaeda "controls" JI. There is certainly variation in the two groups’ local goals, and to the extent that JI is itself loosely organized, experts say it is unlikely that average JI members have strong loyalties to al-Qaeda.
There are more pointed doubts, however, about Bashir’s personal dealings. One Malaysian JI member, Faiz bin Abu Bakar Bafana, testified that Bashir was involved in al-Qaeda plots, though Bashir has publicly denied any connection to the organization.
What is Bashir’s personal history?
Unlike al-Qaeda’s front men, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bashir does not come from a family of distinction. His parents were both immigrants to Indonesia’s East Java province, where he grew up. He did not have a sophisticated education, and dropped out of a Gontor, a boarding school focusing on sharia, to begin preaching at a young age.
According to various accounts, Bashir’s politics revolved around the idea of a sharia-governed state, even in his youth. He refused to recognize the authority of a secular Indonesian state, and in 1971 founded a school to spread a disestablishment gospel. Understandably, this bristled local authorities; Bashir was imprisoned, without trial, from 1978-82. Soon after his release, he was convicted again on similar charges, but he fled and remained in exile until after Indonesian President Suharto’s fall in 1998. In the time since, he has reestablished himself as one of the region’s leading clerics and a staunch proponent of overthrowing the Indonesian government.