North Sumatra, Indonesia – Abu Bakar Bashir, the 82-year-old former spiritual leader of al-Qaeda affiliated group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), was released from prison in Indonesia after serving two-thirds of a 15-year sentence.
Bashir was released from Gunung Sindur prison in Bogor, Java, before dawn Friday to prevent his supporters from rallying.
The leader was convicted of supporting training camps for fighters in Indonesia’s Aceh province in 2011, although he was also believed to have been the ideological inspiration for the 2002 Bali island bombings. , who killed more than 200 people.
Farihin, a JI member who lived with Bashir in Malaysia for several years, told Al Jazeera that he visited the researcher in prison two months ago and that although he appeared to be in good physical health, he had difficulty remembering the names of his legal team and other friends and acquaintances.
Nonetheless, he insists that the years of incarceration will not have mitigated Bashir’s ideological effect.
“He still has a strong influence in Indonesia,” Fahirin said before Bashir’s release. “That’s why the Indonesian government is so afraid of him. They are more worried about Bashir than Rizieq because Bashir’s influence is much more situational. A word from him [Bashir] and all his disciples will arise. And he believes in armed jihad.
Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, an extremist Muslim scholar and leader of the Front of Islamic Defenders (FPI), was arrested on December 12 and is currently in detention after being charged with inciting criminal acts and organizing mass rallies in violation of coronavirus health protocols after his return. self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia in November of last year.
The REIT, which had campaigned unsuccessfully for Bashir’s release for years, was officially banned December 30 of last year.
In 2019, ahead of the Indonesian 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 fueled accusations that the president was appeasing extremist groups.
The clemency plan was scrapped when Bashir reportedly refused to pledge 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, after receiving 55 months’ remission for good behavior. The sentence also included the year he had already spent in prison after his arrest in 2010.
According to Quinton Temby, visiting scholar at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, the importance of Bashir is now symbolic rather than material.
“Bashir’s release could make him become a powerful symbol of Islamist opposition because the view he has held for decades that the Indonesian state is a tyrannical non-Islamic regime is growing in popularity. in opposition circles, ”Temby told Al Jazeera. “He walks free without giving in to requests in 2019 to sign an oath of loyalty to the state, so his credentials have been improved in recent years.
Speaking from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for his participation in the Bali bombings, Ali Imron argues that Bashir was not directly responsible for the atrocity in which suicide bombers attacked several nightclubs in Kuta and detonated a van full of explosives.
“He was not involved in the first Bali bombing, he was just the spiritual leader of the group at the time,” Ali Imron said. “I don’t know if he agreed or disagreed with the plan.”
Bashir’s release also comes just months after the arrest of several high-level JI members, 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 the JAT itself again split into Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and Jamaah Ansharut Syariah (JAS) after Bashir had pledged allegiance in 2014 to Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi. , the former head of the ISIL group (ISIS) killed in 2019.
Indonesian Counterterrorism Unit (Densus 88) on Wednesday looted the hideout of 22 suspected JAD members in Makassar, South Sulawesi, killing two people who resisted arrest. The suspects were allegedly involved in two bombings of churches in Jolo in the Philippines in 2019, in which 20 people were killed.
According to Judith Jacob, terrorism and security analyst at the London School of Economics, recent arrests suggest that the security services continue to be “largely effective” in containing the threat posed by extremist groups in Indonesia.
And while Bashir’s freedom might provide a short-lived boost, she says the situation in Indonesia has changed as well.
“Bashir’s release will be a bit of a morale boost for the besieged militants as they will likely be able to say what a form of defeat for the state and a triumph this is for the 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 easily than he did in prison. That said, we must not exaggerate the symbolism of liberation and the effects of expanding its pulpit. Bashir is not the great ideologue he once was.