Indonesia’s release of Bali bombing mastermind casts doubt on counterterrorism approach

The Bali bombing memorial. Photo: Jorge Láscar from Melbourne, Australia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The release of the suspected mastermind behind Bali bombings from prison has not only brought back memories of the fateful attack for victims and families but has also raised concerns about Indonesia’s counterterrorism policy.

By Umair Jamal

Earlier in January, Abu Bakar Bashir, a radical Islamic leader with links to the 2002 Bali bombings, was released from an Indonesian prison.

Bashir, who has long been a spiritual leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant organization, is considered one of the most notorious extremists in Indonesia.

The release of Bashir has triggered grief and anger among the families of the victims of the 2002 attack which killed over 200 people.

While Bashir’s release from prison raises security concerns, experts say he has lost the support of his followers. However, the government’s decision to allow him to preach again is likely to ignite a new wave of militancy in the county.

Bashir continues to deny responsibility for the Bali bombings

In 2005, Bashir was jailed for conspiracy over the Bali bombings but his sentence was annulled on appeal as there was not adequate evidence to convict him in the case.

Bashir has been in prison since his arrest in 2010 on charges unrelated to the 2002 Bali bombings. In 2011, the radical leader was handed a 15-year sentence for allegedly financing militants in the country.

But his jail term has now been reportedly cut short due to health reasons and other regular sentence reductions given to inmates in Indonesia. Bashir is suffering from chronic venous insufficiency, which generally causes swelling in the legs.

Bashir has a long history of facilitating extremists in Indonesia and elsewhere. He founded his militant organization, JI, in the early 1990s when he was in exile in Malaysia and radicalized many followers.

JI is believed to have ties to Al-Qaida and the group has carried out several high profile attacks, including the JW Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta in 2003 that killed 12 people.

To this day, Bashir has denied involvement in the Bali attacks and his exact role in the incident remains the subject of debate—he was never convicted for his role in the 2002 bombing.

Unfortunately, the government is now allowing Bashir to preach again even after working with militant groups like Al-Qaida, pledging allegiance to IS-linked militant organizations and founding a terrorist organization responsible for killing hundreds of people.

Bashir has never apologized for his actions or leading a group that killed more than 200 people in a single attack.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo: Eesan1969, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bashir’s release incites anger and grief for victims

The 2002 Bali bombings, on the island’s Kuta party strip, killed 202 people. Around 164 foreigners from 21 nations, including 88 from Australia, died in the attack.

Condemning Bashir’s release, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, said that the move was “very distressing” for the families of the 88 Australians that died on that day.

Morrison further said that Bashir’s release was “hard, it’s gut-wrenching” and that Canberra had always asked for “tougher, proportionate and just sentences” for individuals involved in the attack.

“Decisions on sentencing … are matters for the Indonesian justice system and we have to respect the decisions they take … [but] that doesn’t make it any easier for any Australian to accept that,” Morrison said.

Reacting to Bashir’s release, Jan Laczynski, a victim of the attack, said that it brought back the “horror of the memories.”

“It hurts me a lot. I wanted to see justice done,” Laczynski said. “There are still people even next week having operations for their burns; people are still suffering.”

Thiolina Ferawati Marpaung, another victim of the attack, said she hoped that authorities would continue to monitor him.

“His movements must be closely watched,” Mappaung, whose eyes were permanently damaged from the bombing, told the Straits Times. “We don’t know what he was thinking while in prison, [whether] it is positive or negative.”

“This man killed 202 people and that’s how many life sentences he should serve,” Sandra Thompson, whose son died in the attack, told Australia’s ABC News.

Has Bashir’s influence waned among his followers?

Bashir was once considered a charismatic leader by his followers. However, after many years of isolation and exclusion from the country’s militant landscape, Bashir may have been deserted by his supporters.

Al Chaidar, who teaches anthropology at the University of Malikussaleh in Aceh Province, told Deutsche Welle (DW) that Bashir no longer poses a threat. “He is now like a floating leader who has been abandoned by his supporters,” said Chaidar.

According to Chaidar, another reason for Bashir’s loss of clout is that he left JI and joined an Islamic State (IS)-linked militant organization, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), in 2014 while he was in prison.

Before he joined JAD, Bashir’s group JI had close ties with Al-Qaida. However, after his announcement that he would join IS, even Al-Qaida cut ties with Bashir.

Sidney Jones, director of Indonesia’s Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, maintains that Bashir’s long sentence forced his followers to look to other leaders and groups for inspiration and support.

“I don’t think [Bashir’s release] is going to make a major difference in terms of the risk of terrorism or the danger of extremism in Indonesia,” Jones told ABC News.

“I think this is a man who is seen as an elder statesman of the extremist movement, but he isn’t in a position to actually influence actions at all,” she said.

Eddy Hartono, director of Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), believes Indonesia’s militant landscape evolved while Bashir was in prison. According to Hartono, this change was led by the emergence of IS, which called for attacks not only on Western countries, particularly the US, but on anyone who disagreed with the group’s doctrine.

According to Chaidar, the dynamics of extremism have been changed by the new phenomenon of virtual jihadism, especially the use of social media to recruit and radicalize people. He further warns that the emergence of family-based terrorism through exclusive and closed religious groups in Indonesia is also now an emerging threat.

“These groups are attended by violence-oriented clerics, who have spread their teachings to many families in Surabaya, Sidoarjo, Sibolga, West Sumatra and in Aceh. This is a new terrorism development that must be understood by the security forces in Indonesia,” Chaidar said.

The Bali bombings pressured Indonesia to boost its counterterror cooperation with the US and Australia. As a result, many militants involved in the attack were either arrested or killed, and JI has been considerably weakened.

Is Indonesia truly combating extremism?

In December 2018, Bashir was offered early release by the government on humanitarian grounds due to his worsening health.

However, his release came with the condition that he make a renewed pledge of allegiance to Indonesia and Pancasila, which is obligatory for all rehabilitated terrorists. Bashir refused to abandon his extremist views in exchange for early release.

Hartono recently said that Bashir could continue to radicalize followers after his release. “We hope Abu Bakar Bashir will deliver peaceful and soothing sermons,” Hartono was quoted as saying by Kompas TV.

In one of his statements, Bashir said al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and three militants sentenced to death for the Bali attacks were not militants but “soldiers in Allah’s army.”

The decision to release Bashir and allow him to preach again shows that Joko Widodo is not truly committed to combating religious extremism in the country. Bashir may have lost the support of his group and followers, but the fact that he was released despite refusing to abandon extremist views means he could support a new wave of militancy in the country. His release may send a message to other extremists in the country that it is possible to rejoin normal life after killing hundreds of people and pledging allegiance to militant groups like Al-Qaida and IS.

Bashir and many others offered similar treatment in Indonesia should be made into examples rather than offered deals to return to the streets. 

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15