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Bali Bombing Coordinator Sentenced to Death for Role

The cleric is convicted of plotting the attacks that killed 202 people. Authorities in the region eye security for an upcoming summit.

October 03, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The Islamic terrorist who coordinated last year's Bali nightclub bombings was sentenced to death Thursday as authorities in the region searched for missiles and bombs alleged to be in the hands of his confederates.

Ali Gufron, a cleric and teacher better known by the alias Mukhlas, was found guilty of plotting, organizing and carrying out the attack, which killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists.

"His act caused many casualties," presiding judge Tjokorda Rai Suamba said in an interview after the hearing in Bali. "He damaged the tourism industry. He did not show any remorse for what he has done. Instead, he said the Bali bombing was an act of devotion."

Authorities say Mukhlas, 43, is a top leader of the Jemaah Islamiah terror network, which is allied with Al Qaeda and is believed to be responsible for dozens of attacks in Southeast Asia, including the Aug. 5 bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta that killed 12 people.

Some officials are concerned that Jemaah Islamiah is plotting to carry out further attacks in coming weeks as President Bush prepares to visit five countries where the terror group has been active: Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and Australia.

In Thailand, where Bush is expected to attend a meeting of world leaders on Oct. 20 and 21, the Bangkok Post reported this week that police have been searching for six surface-to-air missiles allegedly smuggled in from Cambodia. Such missiles are capable of shooting down a commercial airliner.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra dismissed the report as "rumors" but acknowledged that police have been hunting for them.

"We cannot be negligent," Thaksin said. "We must do more rather than less. So we investigated to be sure that it was not true."

Aircraft flying in and out of Bangkok, the capital, are considered by some security experts to be vulnerable because the international airport is close to an urban area and there are many sites from which a shoulder-fired missile could be launched.

Thailand will deploy 10,000 police to guard the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum's gathering, and Thaksin insisted that Bush and the other 20 leaders attending will remain safe.

In Indonesia, police said they were continuing to hunt for bombs and suicide bomb vests made by terrorists involved in the Bali and Marriott attacks who remain on the loose. Authorities have expressed concern that the devices could be used to attack people attending an Oct. 12 ceremony in Bali commemorating the first anniversary of the nightclub bombing.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard and hundreds of his fellow citizens who lost family members or friends in the attack are scheduled to be there. Australia suffered the heaviest toll in the attack, with 88 killed. Some of the bombers have said their goal was to kill Americans, but only seven died in the blast.

Mukhlas, who trained in Afghanistan and once fought alongside Osama bin Laden against Soviet troops, is the highest-ranking member of Jemaah Islamiah convicted of carrying out the attack.

Mukhlas was accused of organizing and leading meetings to plan the attack and disbursing funds that came from Al Qaeda through Hambali, a top Al Qaeda operative and Jemaah Islamiah operations chief before his arrest in Thailand in August.

Judge Suamba said the evidence showed that Mukhlas inspected the two nightclubs and approved their selection as targets.

The cleric also served as religious advisor to the two suicide bombers who staged the Bali attack. One bomber wore a vest packed with explosives into Paddy's Bar; the other parked a minivan carrying more than a ton of explosives outside the nearby Sari Club.

Both knew they would die in the attacks. Under Mukhlas' religious guidance, they apparently believed they would become martyrs and go directly to paradise as their reward for the killings.

"He gave them spiritual counseling so they would feel sincere about carrying out jihad," Suamba said.

Mukhlas' path to terrorism illustrates the role Islamic boarding schools have played in the recruitment of operatives.

Like many Jemaah Islamiah members, he graduated from the Al Mukmin pesantren, or school, which was founded by radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged leader of the network who was recently sentenced to four years in prison for treason.

After fighting in Afghanistan, Mukhlas co-founded the Al Islam school in a remote East Java village. The school later served as a base for several of the Bali bombers, including two of his brothers.

Mukhlas also was the headmaster of Luqmanul Hakiem, a boarding school in southern Malaysia where leaders and members of Jemaah Islamiah -- including some accused in the Bali bombing -- congregated during the 1990s.

The two brothers have already been convicted for their roles in the bombing. Amrozi bin H. Nurhasyim, the so-called "smiling bomber" who bought the car and explosives used in the attack, was sentenced to death.

Ali Imron, the youngest brother, cooperated with police after his arrest and acknowledged that the bombing went against Islam. He was sentenced to life in prison.

So far, 16 others have been convicted in the bombing, including field commander Imam Samudra, a computer whiz and Islamic fanatic who was sentenced to death.

Before the court ruled in his case, Mukhlas tried to minimize his own role in violence by criticizing Western leaders.

"I'm only a tiny terrorist while there are still many big fish out there, like Ariel Sharon, Tony Blair and George Bush," he said last month.

After the five-judge panel read out the verdict and death sentence, Mukhlas shouted "Allahu akbar!" -- God is great.

Sari Sudarsono in The Times' Jakarta Bureau contributed to this report.

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