“Firebrand” Extinguished? Abu Bakar Basyir Sentenced to 15 Years

by Chris Lundry

The next chapter in the saga of Abu Bakar Basyir, called the spiritual leader of terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah, came to an end on June 16. The court in South Jakarta pronounced its verdict of guilty to the charges of inciting terrorism related to the Jemaah Islamiyah training camp in Aceh — which was broken up amidst arrests and killings of militants in February 2010 — and sentenced the cleric to 15 years. The more serious charge of funding the camp was thrown out for lack of evidence. For Basyir, aged 72 and in frail health, this is almost certainly a life sentence, unless he is granted a pardon or a significant remission (a tradition in Indonesia on August 17, Independence Day, and one that Basyir has benefited from in the past).

Indonesian police arrested Basyir last August and held him for several months before formally leveling charges related to the camp. More than once police had to file for an extension of his imprisonment before they charged him, fueling speculation about the strength of the case against him.

Some of the trial highlights — or lowlights I suppose, depending on your perspective — include the accusation of hypocrisy leveled at Basyir (also spelled Bashir) for wearing American-made Crocs shoes, Basyir’s attempted justification of the camp despite claiming he had no ties to it, and the build up of security forces as the announcement of the verdict approached. The Indonesian police bolstered their presence in the area, and the Indonesian military offered its assistance. The police closed roads near the court, and many businesses were shuttered. Retributive violence, however, has thus far been avoided.

Basyir rejected the sentence as thaghut, or invalid because it is based on human law handed down by infidels and not divine law (never mind that divine law must be interpreted through humans); this, however, won’t stop his imprisonment. What happens in prison, however, is ripe for further speculation.

Norimitsu Onishi, writing today in the New York Times, is guardedly optimistic:

The ruling puts an end for now to the activities of Mr Bashir, whom the Indonesian authorities had often appeared reluctant to prosecute for fear of antagonizing Islamic extremists.

Yet Indonesian prisons do not have a good history of deradicalizing Islamist extremists — as this International Crisis Group report notes, raising the question as to how Basyir will shift his strategy from behind bars. At this stage in the game it is fair to argue that Basyir is beyond deradicalization; he is, after all, considered the emir or spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah. Cause for concern, however, is the potential for Basyir to recruit more extremists while in jail, as well as his ability to continue to influence or direct Jemaah Islamiyah operations from inside prison.

Islamist extremists are predictably condemning the verdict as tyrannical, demanding Basyir’s release and issuing a vague warning to the lawyers, judges, police and government they view as responsible. They are also beginning to refer to Basyir as a martyr. There is no doubt that some kind of retaliatory attacks will be planned, although what form they may take is unknown. Jemaah Islamiyah appears to have begun adopting new tactics, shying away from expensive bombing campaigns that kill indiscriminately and toward more focused attacks, especially on police, and including drive-by shootings.