The jailing of radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir on terrorism charges will not diminish his influence on militant extremists unless he is strictly controlled behind bars, analysts said Friday.
An Indonesian court jailed the wiry old preacher for 15 years on Thursday after a four-month trial for funding a terrorist group that was planning attacks against Westerners and political leaders.
It was the culmination of a decade of trials and allegations against the 72-year-old alleged co-founder of the Jemaah Islamiyah terror network responsible for a string of attacks including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people.
Many expect him to die behind bars but International Crisis Group analyst Sidney Jones said it was not the end of the Bashir story.
“I think the officials need to ensure that he does not lead a regular praying session from inside,” she told AFP.
“He’s got to be treated like a high-risk individual rather than a celebrity. The challenge is to keep him from contact with other inmates who could be affected by his preaching.”
It is a challenge Indonesia has ignored in the past, according to senior police, who say the mainly Muslim country’s so-called deradicalisation programme has been an arrant failure.
Independent studies of the country’s prisons have shown they are breeding grounds for groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah and Bashir’s latest creation, the extremist Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid, founded in 2008.
Prison mosques are used to spread jihadist messages, convicted terrorists form “shadow governments” inside jails, and radical ideologues such as Bashir are allowed to run religious studies sessions and use mobile phones.
Research released last month by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found recidivism was a major concern, as was the radicalisation of the non-jihadist inmate population and even the guards.
Indonesian terror expert Mardigu W. Prasantyo said an inmate like Bashir should be banished to a “remote island” to keep him from doing more harm inside the notoriously corrupt and poorly managed prison system.
“Terrorists who are imprisoned here become first-class citizens. The toughest thugs in prison are even afraid of them,” he told AFP.
“The inmates don’t see them as having committed any crime. They’re good at praying, have gentle eyes and they become shoulders to lean on.”
Many analysts say that an effective police crackdown on Jemaah Islamiyah has diminished Bashir’s influence and led to a dangerous splintering of Indonesian jihadist groups into harder to track freelance cells.
But Prasantyo estimated the bearded, bespectacled cleric still had about 35,000 fanatical followers who would hang on his every word, whether he is behind bars or not.
Prosecutors had demanded a 20-year life sentence for Bashir, who was found guilty of channelling about $50,000 to the so-called Al-Qaeda in Aceh group in 2009.
Police say the outfit was planning assassinations and Mumbai-style attacks by highly-trained suicide gunmen.
Bashir rejects all allegations of materially supporting terrorists, but openly calls for jihad against the West and Indonesia’s secular national ideology.
For decades he has agitated in mosques, Islamic schools and through radical groups for the creation of an Islamic state under strict sharia law. Previous stints behind bars have done nothing to reform his thinking.
“I reject this (sentence) because it is cruel and disregards Islamic sharia law. This ruling is by the friends of the devil and it is haram (forbidden) for me to accept it,” he said in response to the judge’s ruling.
University of Indonesia expert Andi Widjajanto said even if Bashir is effectively neutralised behind bars, a new spiritual leader would take his place as the patriarch of local militants.
“The new leader will try to prove he’s worthy by launching a big attack of some sort,” he said.-By Alvin Soedarjo