He’s a media darling of sorts, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. A man whose very name can whip your average Australian opinion writer into a frenzy, he’s the "spiritual leader" of Jemaah Islamiyah, is capable of driving any young man towards jihad, and is the alleged mastermind of the first Bali bombings.
In an op-ed in the wake of the executions of the Bali bombers last year, Piers Akerman called for Indonesia to crack down on Ba’asyir’s "campaign to foment hate against Australians and the West" and since the 17 July attacks on the Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton in Jakarta Ba’asyir has been all over the place, quoted in dozens of publications and generally held up as the poster boy for radical Islam in Indonesia.
But the Australian media have got their priorities wrong, according to Sidney Jones, who is a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group. She compares chasing Ba’asyir to "trying to follow the developments of the New York mafia and [focusing on]Al Capone".
To be fair, Ba’asyir was a key founder of Jemaah Islamiyah. At least 15 former students of his al-Mukmin boarding school in Ngruki, Central Java, have gone on to become terrorists. He tours the country giving controversial speeches and he was convicted — and then cleared — of a role in the first Bali bombing.
But just how much influence does he still wield?
"Abu Bakar Ba’asyir had nothing whatsoever to do with anything after the first Bali bomb and even the first bomb, there’s never been hard evidence to prove [the link]," says Jones.
And within Jemaah Islamiyah?
"He doesn’t have any control whatsoever," says Noor Huda Ismail, who attended Ba’asyir’s al-Mukmin school as a 12-year-old in the 1980s.
In part, this is because Jemaah Islamiyah has "completely collapsed," says Huda, who warned the day before the 17 July bombings that there was still a terror threat in Indonesia. "There is no leadership, no organisation."
The organisation has split into a number of different groups, some of which have renounced attacks on civilians entirely. There are believed to be territorial coordinators, including a few in the Philippines. The current leader, or amir, is unknown. Noordin Top, who is believed to be behind the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott blasts, is running his own splinter group and has been for some time. It is separate from JI, although it still uses many of the contacts and support networks. Little is known about it, other than that it has gone under several names and probably consists of small autonomous cells that have a common objective.
Ba’asyir himself now heads up Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, an "above ground" group that agitates for sharia law in Indonesia and an end to democracy — but its focus is on evangelism rather than war. The International Crisis Group says that most of the old East Java Division of JI are now members of JAT, to the point where there may only be around 200 "pure" members of JI left.
In his time as amir of JI, from 1999 — when co-founder Abdullah Sungkar died — to around 2002, Ba’asyir was not a particularly good leader.
"He was regarded as a lousy manager," says Jones. "Somebody who was a pale shadow to Abdullah Sungkar."
He was jailed in 2005 and released in 2006 when his conviction for "committing a criminal conspiracy" was overturned. At the time, Jones warned he would become a "media star", although she thought it would not last. But he has managed to hold onto the limelight, touring the country to preach his hardline message that sharia law should be established in Indonesia.
"He is still important as a spiritual leader, but I doubt he knows what is going on in the field," Huda says. "And I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest he was involved in the bombings."
Back at home in Solo, Central Java, he lives on campus at the al-Mukmin school, but does not teach, although he does give sermons most Fridays. Jones says that the school itself could not be blamed for producing terrorists and that most of the 15 known terrorists from there had links to other organisations. Most of those 15 graduated in the mid-1990s.
"The JI network has changed in character and the nature of [the school’s]importance has changed," she said. "It’s certainly the centre of the JI publishing industry."
JI publishes a wide range of texts, from "traditional" jihadi works to books on women’s issues and a range of Islamic periodicals.
"[But] if you’re looking for who the [more recent]bombers are, most of the people in the last attacks have come from the Darusy Syahadah and al-Muttaqin schools," she said. "[al-Mukmin] for them is the mother school, it’s the anchor. The radicals have moved from Ngruki to other schools."
Contrary to popular belief, lessons at al-Mukmin don’t consist of non-stop lectures on the evils of the West, either. "Ngruki follows the national education curriculum," says Jones. "The problem is not what’s taught in the classroom — it’s the discussion groups, martial arts groups, nature lovers groups — which is a nice cover for other stuff."
Huda agrees. "I wasn’t taught to make bombs at school," he said, but added that radicalism came through unofficial classes with some teachers.
"There is not a single criminal act taking place in these schools," says Jones, and closing them, as has been suggested by those looking for an easy end to the growth of radical Islam in Indonesia, would do nothing but cause even bigger problems.
"If you did shut [al-Mukmin] down, you would get an outcry, not just from the radical fringe, but from the entire Islamic education system," she says.
Huda, who now heads up the International Institute for Peacebuilding, which works to deradicalise jihadis and bring them back to mainstream society, said that calls to shut down the school and silence Ba’asyir would probably have a negative effect.
"What would happen if you disband the school is people would disperse out [and be hard to track]," Huda says. "It needs to be clear so we can look at them and see who’s in the zoo."
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