By Kusumasari Ayuningtyas
Cleric Abu Bakar Bashir on Thursday denied that he knew about the 2002 Bali bombings ahead of time and said he opposed violence in Islam’s name, as counterterrorism officials visited him as part of their monitoring of former terrorist inmates.
The elderly Bashir spoke to officials from the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) as they dropped by at his home in Sukoharjo, Central Java, for the first time since his release last month after serving a decade in prison on terror-related charges. His lawyer, Achmad Michdan, said Bashir told the officials he had never supported acts of violence in the name of religion.
“What are you afraid of? I will not carry out a bombing, I will never carry out a bombing,” Michdan quoted Bashir as saying.
The 82-year-old radical cleric had no prior knowledge of the 2002 Bali bomb plot and claimed that no one told him about it or asked for his permission, Michdan said.
“The Bali bombing is straightforward, if they had told me or I found out, for sure I would have said no,” Bashir said, according to his lawyer.
Bashir, who co-founded Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the al-Qaeda-linked group blamed for deadly attacks in Indonesia in the 2000s, was freed from prison on Jan. 8 after serving nearly 10 years of a 15-year sentence for funding a militant training camp. Authorities cut 55 months off his term for good behavior.
JI was blamed for the October 2002 twin bomb attacks on Bali Island that killed 202 people. Most of the victims of Indonesia’s deadliest terrorist attack to date were foreigners, including 88 Australians.
When he received the news of Bashir’s release in January, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his nation would have to respect the Indonesian justice system’s decision.
“[T]his is very distressing to the friends and families of the Australians, the 88 Australians who were killed in the Bali bombings of 2002. I still remember that day very vividly, like I’m sure many Australians do,” he said, according to an official transcript.
Australians have called Bashir the alleged mastermind of the Bali bombings even as the U.S. Justice Department noted in 2005 that he was acquitted of a terrorism charge related to the attack.
Morrison said that he and his predecessors had always called for the perpetrators of the Bali bombings “to face tougher, proportionate and just sentences in these cases.”
However, Bashir’s release was a matter of the Indonesia’s justice system, Morrison said.
“We have made clear through our Embassy in Jakarta the concerns we have that such individuals be prevented from further inciting others,” the PM added.
While Indonesian prosecutors could not link Bashir to the bombings, a Jakarta court found him guilty of falsifying documents and sentenced him to 18 months in prison. The conviction was dismissed after an appeal.
He was arrested in 2010 and sentenced in 2011 to 15 years on charges that he had helped fund a training camp for Islamic militants in Aceh province and incited extremists to carry out terrorist attacks.
Bashir: Pancasila ‘good’
During the one-hour meeting with Bashir, Irfan Idris, BNPT’s director for de-radicalization asked the cleric for his opinion about the state ideology known as Pancasila, to which Bashir replied that it was “good.”
“Pancasila has elements of monotheism, acknowledging that there’s one and only God. It would be better if the law is also God’s law, Islamic law,” Bashir said.
But while he was in prison, Bashir refused to take part in deradicalization programs or pledge allegiance to the state.
BNPT’s head of community development, Col. Salahuddin Nasution, said the visit was in line with the agency’s task of monitoring former terrorism convicts.
Indonesia has no law that forces terrorism convicts to follow a de-radicalization program, Nasution said.
“There is no compulsion for convicts to accept deradicalization programs but guiding them is our job. So we stay in touch with them and monitor them. That they accept us is a good thing,” he said.
Michdan said Bashir was planning to visit BNPT and meet with its director, Boy Rafli Amar, to share views about fighting terrorism in Indonesia.
Irfan said the agency would open its doors for Bashir.
‘A victim of false information’
Authorities had also accused Bashir of pledging allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group in 2014, but his spokesman said at the time that the cleric was merely expressing support for the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
A photo of Bashir sitting with known Islamic State followers in a prison against the backdrop of the IS flag circulated online at that time.
His son, Abdul Rohim, said that his father’s views had softened after discussions with family members and that he had received no visits by people known to harbor radical views.
He said Bashir had been misled into believing that the IS was a force for good.
“As we’ve always said, he was a victim of false information,” Rohim told BenarNews.
Last week, Bashir visited Gontor and Tebuireng, two of the most well-known moderate Islamic boarding schools in his hometown in Jombang, a regency in East Java province, where he prayed at the graves of clerics. Bashir himself is an alumnus of Gontor.
Rohim said the visit was part of the family’s commitment to distance Bashir from radicalism.
“This is also for the sake of re-establishing relationships that have been cut off for a long time,” Rohim said.
Tebuireng spokesman Teuku Azwani confirmed that Bashir had visited the boarding school and met with its caretaker, cleric Abdul Hakim Mahfudz.
“He came with his son and the conversation revolved around how they were doing,” Azwani told BenarNews.
According to a terrorism analyst at Malikussaleh University in Lhokseumawe, Al Chaidar, Bashir’s trips to the boarding schools should be no cause for concern.
“He’s old and he wanted to visit his old school and his friends,” he told BenarNews.
And while Bashir remains a believer in establishing an Islamic state, he appears to have eschewed violence, said Muhammad Taufiqurrohman, a researcher at the Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies (PAKAR).
“Muslims of the world must unite under one leadership, the caliphate. There should be no mass organizations and no political parties,” Bashir told his congregation in a recorded January sermon heard by BenarNews.
Taufiqurrohman said he believed that Bashir no longer recognized IS as the true caliphate by acknowledging that there was no single Islamic state in the world.
“I think his trips were intended to convey the message of unity,” Taufiqurrohman told BenarNews.