Trial of Indonesia’s Abu Bakr Ba’asyir a Test of Indonesia’s Counterterrorism Resolve

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 14

Abu Bakar Ba'asyir behind bars.

Reputed Jema’ah Islamiya leader Abu Bakr Ba’asyir told the Jamestown Foundation in 2005 that “the highest deed in Islam is jihad” (see Spotlight on Terror, December 16, 2005). After being arrested in August 2010, the Indonesian cleric is now on trial, facing charges under Indonesia’s Anti-Terror Law of 2002 for “inciting a terrorist act” and “trafficking in weapons and explosives for the purpose of conducting terrorism,” both of which carry a maximum penalty of death. He faces an additional charge of “supplying funds for terrorism,” which carries a jail term of between three and 15 years. Ba’asyir has portrayed the charges against him as illegitimate, saying he is “being tried for defending Islam,” so that in the case of a guilty verdict, it will be the secular Indonesian government – and not his movement – that loses credibility. Ba’asyir calls the case a “fabrication… engineered by America,” but he acknowledges and even openly admits to the substance of the charges (AFP, August 9, 2010).

In justifying the setting up, funding, and arming of mujahideen in an al-Qaeda-style terror camp in Aceh, Ba’asyir says, “The paramilitary training is recognized by Shari’a, and I say the religious teachings should not be violated.” In admitting to the charges, Ba’asyir says he was “following orders from Allah that Muslims perform i’dad [physical training for armed conflict] as ordered by God to deter Islam’s enemies” (Jakarta Globe, March 8).
An acquittal would damage Indonesia’s reputation as a reliable partner in the war on terror and undermine what President Obama called Indonesia’s “progress in rooting out terrorists and combating violent extremism” (Jakarta Globe, November 10, 2010). Indonesia already disappointed America and Australia when it acquitted Ba’asyir in 2005 on seven of eight terrorism charges for the bombings of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003 and nightclubs in Bali in October 2002 (Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2005).

Now the stakes are even higher. The terrorist cell Ba’asyir is accused of sponsoring in Aceh – known as “al-Qaeda in the Veranda of Mecca” or “al-Qaeda in Aceh” – was probably his attempt to establish an al-Qaeda front in Southeast Asia. According to Indonesian police, the cell was planning to use squads of suicide-bombers and gunmen to attack foreign embassies and Western targets similar to those carried out in Mumbai in 2008 and to assassinate Indonesian government officials, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (Jakarta Globe, November 10, 2010).  If Indonesia does not sentence Ba’asyir to a serious prison term with 130 witnesses testifying that he founded the terrorist camp, it is doubtful that the United States and its allies will feel confident about future extraditions of Indonesian terrorists such as 2002 Bali bombings suspect Hambali, who is now in detainment at Guantanamo Bay (Jakarta Globe, February 21).  The extradition process is already under pressure due to Jakarta’s practice in issuing sentence remissions for terrorist suspects extradited to Indonesia (BBC, March 4, 2009).

Furthermore, an acquittal for Ba’asyir runs the risk of turning Ba’asyir into even more of a celebrity among his followers and could serve as a propaganda platform for Ba’asyir, who spreads in Southeast Asia the same ideology as AQAP’s Anwar al-Awlaki. Both are articulate, non-combatant religious figures who advocate for militant Islam and feed off of anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world. Recalling al-Awlaki’s suggestion: "Whenever you see the word terrorist, replace it with the word mujahid," Ba’asyir used a live broadcast from the courtroom to say:  “Those they call terrorists are holy warriors who are keen to defend Islam and Muslims from the pharaoh America, Australia and their allies” (The Age [Australia], February 25). [1]

On the other hand, if Ba’asyir is convicted, the court must be sure to present the evidence against him transparently so the Indonesian public believes the sentence is not the result of foreign pressure or internal political vendettas. Indonesia ended 32 years of dictatorial rule in order to become a democracy in 1998 – in a protest movement similar to those in the Arab World now – and the Anti-Terror Law, which criminalizes preparatory acts of violence, resembles the anti-subversion laws that targeted the political opposition during the Suharto era and in Mubarak’s Egypt. A trial perceived as legitimate will help dispel the anti-Muslim conspiracy theories proffered by Ba’asyir and show that religious leaders can be held accountable for conduct in violation of the law. Anything less than a legitimate trial will turn Ba’asyir into a victim, or “martyr,” even among mainstream Indonesians, and possibly enhance his appeal.

If there is a guilty verdict, Ba’asyir’s supporters may respond with violence. Within a one week period in mid-March as the Ba’asyir trial was already underway, a series of “book bombs” targeted the leader of the Liberal Islamic Network, a former officer of the elite counterterrorism unit Densus 88, the chairman of the Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth) organization and an Indonesian rock musician known for songs protesting religious extremism (Jakarta Globe, March 18).  A deputy spokesman for the Indonesian National Police announced on March 23 that the IEDs concealed in the books had forensic connections to Jema’ah Islamiya church bombings in Sulawesi in 2006. The book bombs are part of a larger wave of attacks against those Ba’asyir has reportedly called “non-believers” – including anyone who is not a mainstream Muslim and officials who do not support the creation of an Islamic state. Ba’asyir insists that these individuals “should be killed and their property seized” (CBS News, February 14).  This year there have been attacks against the Ahmadi community and Christian churches in Temanggung. [2]

The trial underway in Indonesia is about more than determining Ba’asyir’s fate. It is also a test of Indonesia’s willingness to prove that it can play a leadership role in the war against terror and that its judicial system has the ability to prosecute a terrorist leader despite pressure, intimidation and a potential backlash from extremist militants in the country.


1. Al-Awlaki’s comments taken from the video "Constants of Jihad," in which al-Awlaki translates and interprets a well-known Arabic-language book  by the late Saudi jihadist Yusuf al-Ayyiri (d. 2003) that promotes fighting in the name of Islam.
2. Ba’asyir believes the United States is using the Ahmadiya sect to destroy Islam. The Ahmadiya originated in the Indian subcontinent in the 19th century and is considered heretical by most orthodox Muslims for its insistence that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) was the Mahdi. The movement has had notable success in expanding to Indonesia.