Indonesia's Commitment to Anti-Terror Fight Faces Test

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has welcomed the restoration of U.S.-Indonesia military ties, but the Southeast Asian country's commitment to combating terrorism will be under new scrutiny within days when a leading terrorist is due to be freed from prison.

Abu Bakar Bashir, a radical Muslim cleric linked to the Oct. 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali, has been in prison since 2003, convicted first on immigration offenses and then found guilty in a subsequent trial of involvement in the Bali bombing conspiracy.

More than 200 people were killed in Bali, but the conviction brought Bashir a prison term of just 30 months, prompting a strong reaction from Australia, which lost 88 citizens in the attack.

An Indonesian independence day remission for well-behaved prisoners later reduced Bashir's sentence by more than four months, and he is expected to walk free next Wednesday.

Indonesian Justice Minister Hamid Awaluddin told reporters there were no hurdles standing in the way of the cleric's release.

The U.S. and Australia, Indonesia's southern neighbor, have tried to draw the world's largest Muslim country into the international campaign against Islamist terrorists, launched after 9/11.

Western security officials frequently praise Jakarta for its (usually quiet) cooperation in fighting terrorism, but the government also has been criticized for holding back in some areas.

Bashir is believed to be the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the al-Qaeda-affiliated terror network responsible for the Bali attacks and other deadly bombings elsewhere in Indonesia.

Yet despite a string of arrests and convictions of JI members after Bali, the Indonesian government has consistently refused to outlaw the organization. JI is proscribed in the U.S. and Australia, and it is on a U.N. terrorism list.

Jakarta has also rejected calls to shut down an Islamic boarding school in Central Java, set up by Bashir in the 1970s and attended by many of the convicted JI terrorists.

Upon his release, Bashir, 68, plans to return to the Ngruki school and continue teaching, his lawyers told the Associated Press.

In spite of the government's reluctance to act against JI or the school, some Islamic organizations in Indonesia have nonetheless been critical of its handling of Bashir, accusing it of bowing to pressure from the U.S. and Australia to arrest and prosecute him in the first place.

Rumsfeld has been visiting Indonesia, whose military ties with the U.S. are slowly being restored to normal after they were frozen because of human rights abuses by the military in the formerly Indonesian-occupied East Timor.

Despite some opposition in Congress because of continuing human rights and accountability concerns, the Pentagon has promoted the restoration of ties as central to Indonesia's cooperation against terrorism.

Asked in Jakarta about Bashir's pending release, the defense secretary declined to comment publicly, saying he did not have sufficient information on what was being planned.

Whether he raised the matter in his talks with Indonesian leaders was not clear, but Rumsfeld did receive a polite warning from his Indonesian counterpart, during a joint press conference Tuesday, about the U.S. not being "over-insistent" in urging other countries to implement security measures.

Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said America's power had led to the "perception, or misperception, that the U.S. is overbearing."

Rumsfeld responded that the U.S. had never pushed other countries to take steps that they were "not comfortable with."

"There are different countries, different governments, so it's necessary to allow that degree of flexibility so they can participate [in the campaign against terror] in a way that they're comfortable with," he said.

Officials in both the U.S. and Australia argue that Indonesia's size, religious makeup and status as an increasingly stable democracy make it a crucial player in the war on terror, and in the broader drive to counter the lure of Islamic radicalism.

During a visit to the White House last month, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he spoke to President Bush about the strategic importance of promoting Indonesia as a "successful democratic model" in the Islamic world.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow