By Andreas Harsono
Jakarta, 5 May 2004 (IPS) -- Less than 12 hours after deadly bombs had exploded near two nightclubs in the Indonesian island of Bali and killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, in October 2002 dozens of Muslim 'ulama' conducted a press conference in Solo, in the hinterlands of Java, around 800 kilometres west of Bali.
They condemned the "brutal act" in Bali and sent their condolences to the victims' families. They asked the police to investigate the bombing, but also stated that based on their "preliminary analysis," the bombings were not done by Indonesians.
"It was too complicated for any civilian to do that," Abubakar Baasyir, the spokesman for the group of 'ulama', had said, adding that they believed that the bombings must have been done by foreign agents to undermine the rise of Islam in Indonesia.
Baasyir accused Israel's Mossad and the CIA of committing the terrorist acts.
This was quite a popular analysis those days. Many Jakarta media subscribed to Baasyir's analysis, reporting that the bomb must have been a "micro-nuclear bomb" dropped from the sky or raising the public's suspicions about a French warship that docked in Bali a few days earlier.
Some Muslim politicians also believed that western countries were trying to undermine Indonesia's struggling democracy.
But other Muslim figures also openly opposed such conspiratorial views. "I'm really angry to hear that kind of statement from people like Abubakar Baasyir, who also say that the U.S. allegation against al-Qaeda in the World Trade Centre attack was groundless, " said Ulil Abshar-Abdalla of the Jakarta-based Liberal Islam Network.
"It is a kind of self-denial that opens doors to further violence in our country," he added in an interview.
That conspiracy theory only gradually diminished after Indonesian police began to unravel a string of bombing conspirators, ranging from a man who bought the deadly van to the field commander of the violent acts in Bali.
Most of them were alumni of the U.S.-backed guerrilla war against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan as well as of a 'pesantren' or Islamic boarding school in Solo - one that was co-founded by none other than Baasyir himself, who on Apr. 30 was rearrested on suspicion of having links to terrorist acts.
Police spokesman Maj. Gen. Bashir Ahmad Barmawi said that there is new evidence against Baasyir, including witness testimony about him attending a ceremony at a militant training centre in the southern Philippines in April 2000. One week after the Bali bombing in October 2002, Baasyir was arrested by the Indonesian police. But prosecutors have so far failed to convict him.
In September, a court sentenced him to four years in jail for taking part in a plot, supposedly by the Jemaiah Islamiyah militant group that seeks to have a pan-Islamic state in South-east Asia, to overthrow the government. But it said there was no proof he was its leader.
An appeals court in November overturned the treason conviction but ruled that Baasyir must serve three years for immigration offences and forgery. Last month, the Supreme Court halved that sentence and said the time he has spent in detention counted toward it, prompting expressions of dismay from the United States, Australia and Singapore.
Baasyir was released Friday, but was promptly re-arrested. The emotions were such afterwards that clashes took place between police and Baasyir supporters in some areas in Indonesia following his re-arrest.
In the days since, hardline and some mainstream Islamic groups in Indonesia have accused Jakarta of bowing to U.S. pressure in Baasyir's re-arrest, especially after U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce had contacted the police and asked some moderate Muslim leaders to continue to keep Baasyir in detention.
But if he is a high-ranking terrorist to officials, to others Baasyir remains a genuine religious leader. Ahmad Syafii Maarif, chairman of the Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia and himself a hugely influential Muslim cleric, called Baasyir only a 'kyai kampung' or village preacher.
In a column for the Indonesian-language 'Republika' daily, Maarif called on the police and the western governments to respect Indonesia's judiciary system. Maarif said he does not agree with Baasyir's thinking, but also refused to help Boyce in pressuring the police to re-arrest Baasyir.
Indeed, Baasyir, a frail 64-year-old man with a wispy beard, embroidered white skull cap and heavy glasses perched on his aquiline nose, likes to introduce himself as a village preacher.
He spent decades teaching Islam. His consistent theme has been that Islamic communities are the necessary preconditions for setting up an Islamic state.
He established the Ngruki 'pesantren' in 1971 with his colleague Abdullah Sungkar. Both of them were sons of Yemeni traders who migrated to Solo. Both are also fervently anti-Jewish.
Baasyir also sat on the Indonesian Mujahideen Council, formed in Yogyakarta in 2000 as an umbrella group for those who wanted to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state. He favours the adoption of 'shariah' or Islamic law across Indonesia. The Suharto dictatorship jailed Baasyir for subversion in the late 1978, accusing him of promoting an Islamic state. He fled to Malaysia in 1985 to avoid additional jail time, only returning to Indonesia following Suharto's fall in 1998.
In Malaysia, he developed his network along with Sungkar, who died in 1999. In 1997 and 1998, Sungkar told the Sydney-based 'Nidaul Islam' bi-monthly magazine that he had set up a network to campaign for an Islamic state in South-east Asia.
Despite his outspoken support for Osama bin Laden, purported leader of the al-Qaeda group, Baasyir denies having personal links with him or with terrorism.
Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, who has published extensive reports on Jemaiah Islamiyah, said: "It's not clear whether Baasyir played any kind of operational role, but he's the glue that holds the association together."
The cleric has repeatedly denied all the charges against him. He admitted that many of the Bali bombers are former students but denied giving any permission to bomb the Bali nightclubs.
Indonesian and other intelligence officials believe that the Bali bombers were part of Jemaiah Islamiyah. Officials have also blamed it for the bombings of more than 30 churches in Indonesia on Christmas Eve 2000 and the Marriott hotel blast in Jakarta in August, which killed 12 people.