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Indonesian Cleric Laughs at Being Called a Terrorist


SOLO, Indonesia — With his white beard and bare feet, Abu Bakar Bashir hardly looks the part of a wanted international terrorist.

With students trailing behind, the 63-year-old Indonesian cleric ambled Monday across the grounds of the Islamic school he founded here 30 years ago. His large glasses and traditional white cap gave him the air of an aging owl.

He laughed when he was shown a photo of himself in a Malaysian newspaper under the headline "On the Run."

Officials in Singapore and Malaysia are not so amused. They allege that Bashir is the top leader of a terrorist network that plotted to kill U.S. military personnel and attack other American targets in Singapore. They also charge that the group is linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization.

In recent weeks, Singapore has arrested 13 alleged members of the Southeast Asian group, which is known as Jemaah Islamiah. Malaysia has arrested 40 alleged members since May, when several were caught during a bungled bank robbery and the network began to unravel.

Singapore alleged last week that the group had been amassing ammonium nitrate to make truck bombs and was targeting the U.S. Embassy in Singapore, among other locations. A videotape and notes about potential targets were found in the ruins of an Al Qaeda leader's house in Afghanistan in December, officials say.

Singapore released an organizational chart of Jemaah Islamiah that listed Bashir as the top leader of the group, with cells operating in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The chart identified an Indonesian cleric who goes by the name of Hambali as a regional leader of the organization. His whereabouts are unknown.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, has been reluctant to take action against Islamic extremists, although two men allegedly linked to the network were arrested last year after one blew off his leg while attempting to plant a bomb at a shopping mall in Jakarta, the capital.

Indonesian police spokesman Brig. Gen. Saleh Saaf said Monday that his department was investigating whether Bashir and Hambali were linked to Al Qaeda. Saaf declined to discuss whether Singapore and Malaysia had asked Indonesia to arrest them.

During a nearly two-hour interview, Bashir did not openly espouse terrorism but laid out a philosophy that tolerates violence if Muslims believe they are acting in defense of Islam. He denied that he was associated with Jemaah Islamiah.

"The organization does not exist," he said. "It is only a Koran reading group."

He said he had been singled out by authorities because his specialty is teaching young people about jihad, the sometimes violent struggle to defend Islam.

Helps Guide Group Favoring Islamic Law

Bashir is on the steering committee of the Indonesian Moujahedeen Council, an Islamic group that espouses the establishment of Sharia law in Indonesia, even though most Muslims in Indonesia are moderate.

Ultimately, the Indonesian Moujahedeen Council favors creation of an Islamic state linking Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the southern Philippines. Even so, he said, the organization is not connected to any group outside Indonesia.

This is not the first time Bashir has been in trouble because of his beliefs. In 1985, he went into hiding and fled to Malaysia to escape Indonesian President Suharto, a military dictator who didn't hesitate to crack down on Islamic militants.

Bashir said he did not return to Indonesia until 1999, after Suharto was forced to step down. Bashir took the name Abdus Samad in Malaysia to avoid detection. He is still known there by that name.

Bashir said he has not visited Singapore or Malaysia for three years, although when he was living in Malaysia, he gave lectures on Islam in both countries.

"Because I taught a jihad lesson, they blame me," he said. "The lesson about jihad was said to cause restlessness in the community. They blamed me because I was the teacher."

In Malaysia, Bashir said, he was friends with Hambali, who was also there in exile. He said he does not know where Hambali is now.

Bashir said an Indonesian intelligence agent visited him last week at his Al Mukmin school in Solo, a center of Islamic activism in Central Java province, to discuss the Singapore and Malaysia charges, but did not indicate that the cleric would be arrested.

Bashir said he expressed his view that the United States was behind the charges against him and that the agent agreed.

"In this case, I'm very sure that America pressed those countries," Bashir said, "because America wants to weaken all Islamic movements, individuals and organizations."

After Sept. 11, the Indonesian Moujahedeen Council recruited young Indonesian Muslims to go to Afghanistan to fight against America, but it ended up not sending any of them because of difficulties getting the men into the country.

Bashir said he has seen no evidence linking Bin Laden to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

He discounts a video found in a house in Afghanistan in which Bin Laden gloats about the success of the hijackings. Bashir is certain Washington fabricated the tape.

"The video was released by the United States," he said. "The technology there is very sophisticated. People can make things to show what they want.

"Muslims should defend Islam at any time when Islam is threatened," Bashir said. "Today Muslims and Islam are threatened in all parts of the world."

To help bring the message home to his school's 1,700 students, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a sign on one of the buildings bears messages in English and Arabic:

"Jihad is our way," it reads. "Death in the way of Allah is our highest aspiration."

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