North Sumatra, Indonesia – Abu Bakar Bashir, the 82-year-old former spiritual leader of the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), has been freed from prison in Indonesia after serving two-thirds of a 15-year sentence.
Bashir was released from Gunung Sindur Prison in Bogor on the island of Java on Friday before dawn, to prevent his supporters from gathering.
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The leader had been convicted of supporting training camps for fighters in Indonesia’s Aceh province in 2011, although he is also thought to have been the ideological inspiration for the bombings on the island of Bali in 2002, which killed more than 200 people.
Farihin, a member of JI who lived with Bashir in Malaysia for several years, told Al Jazeera that he visited the scholar in prison two months ago and that while he appeared in good health physically, he had trouble remembering the names of his legal team and other friends and acquaintances.
Nevertheless, he insists the years of incarceration will not have dampened Bashir’s ideological effect.
“He still has a strong influence in Indonesia,” Fahirin said ahead of Bashir’s release. “That’s why the Indonesian government is so scared of him. They are more worried about Bashir than Rizieq because Bashir’s influence is much more situational. One word from him [Bashir] and all his followers will rise up. And he believes in armed jihad.”
Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, a hardline Muslim scholar and leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), was arrested on 12 December and is currently in custody having been charged with incitement of criminal acts and holding mass gatherings in breach of coronavirus health protocols following his return from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia in November last year.
The FPI, which had unsuccessfully campaigned for Bashir’s release from prison for years was officially banned on 30 December last year.
In 2019, ahead of Indonesia’s 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 fuelled accusations that the president was appeasing hardline groups.
The clemency plan was scrapped when Bashir allegedly refused to swear 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, having received 55 months of remission time for good behaviour. The sentence also included the year he had already spent in jail following his arrest in 2010.
According to Quinton Temby, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, Bashir’s importance is now symbolic rather than material.
“Bashir’s release may set him up to become a potent symbol for the Islamist opposition because the view that he’s held to for decades, that the Indonesian state is a tyrannical unIslamic regime, is increasingly popular in opposition circles,” Temby told Al Jazeera. “He walks free without having caved to demands in 2019 to sign an oath of loyalty to the state, so his credentials have been enhanced in recent years.”
Speaking from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for his part in the Bali bombings, Ali Imron maintains that Bashir was not directly responsible for the atrocity in which suicide bombers attacked several nightclubs in Kuta and detonated a van filled with explosives.
“He was not involved in the first Bali bombing, he was just the spiritual leader of the group at that time,” Ali Imron said. “I don’t know if he agreed or disagreed with the plan.”
Bashir’s release also comes just a few months after the arrest of several high-profile members of JI, 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 JAT itself split again into Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and Jamaah Ansharut Syariah (JAS) after Bashir pledged allegiance in 2014 to Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIL (ISIS) group who was killed in 2019.
On Wednesday, Indonesia’s counterterrorism unit (Densus 88) raided the hideout of 22 suspected JAD members in Makassar, South Sulawesi, killing two who resisted arrest. The suspects are thought to have been involved in two church bombings in Jolo in the Phillippines in 2019 in which 20 people were killed.
According to Judith Jacob, a terrorism and security analyst at the London School of Economics, the recent arrests suggest the security services continue to be “largely effective” in containing the threat posed by hardline groups in Indonesia.
And while Bashir’s freedom might provide a short-lived boost, she says the situation in Indonesia has also changed.
“Bashir’s release will be a bit of a morale boost for beleaguered militants as they will likely be able to crow about how it is a form of defeat for the state and a triumph for 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 readily than he did while in prison. That said, we shouldn’t overstate the symbolism of the release and the effects of his widening pulpit. Bashir isn’t the great ideologue he once was.”