Jakarta: A radical Islamic cleric was back in jail Monday after police said they had evidence he not only inspired al Qaeda linked militants with his fiery sermons but helped set up a new terror cell that was plotting attacks on hotels and embassies in Indonesia's capital.
They said they found a bomb-making laboratory and evidence of at least two powerful test blasts in a nearby mountain range.
Abu Bakar Bashir, who has been arrested twice before and spent several years in jail, was heading home after preaching in the West Java town of Ciamis when the anti-terror unit swooped, breaking the rear window of his van after his bodyguards tried to obstruct them, officials and family members said.
The white-bearded cleric, wearing his traditional skull cap and flowing white gown, was escorted under tight security to police headquarters in Jakarta.
"The United States is behind this!" he shouted before entering the building. Then he smiled and said: "This arrest is a blessing ... I will be rewarded by Allah!"
The 71-year-old is best known as one of the co-founders and spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah, the al Qaeda-linked network responsible for a string of suicide bombings in the world's most populous Muslim nation, including the 2002 attacks on Bali island that killed 202 people, most of them Western tourists.
Bashir, who has always denied terrorist links, was also one of the founders of al-Mukmin boarding school in the Central Java town of Solo that produced some of the country's deadliest bombers.
The overwhelming majority of Indonesians are moderate Muslims who reject violence, but there were fears Monday that Bashir's re-arrest would energize the country's small but vocal radical fringe.
Supporters of the cleric chanted slogans at a protest against his arrest Monday. The US Embassy warned its citizens to stay clear of demonstrations, which could quickly turn volatile.
Despite previous arrests, police spokesman Maj. Gen. Edward Aritonang said this was the first time evidence has been presented linking Bashir to the execution, preparation or commission of terrorist attacks.
Bashir was accused of providing funds for a new terror cell in westernmost Aceh province and playing "an active role in preparing the initial plans for their military struggle," he said, without elaborating.
The cleric also allegedly helped appoint its leaders, including Dulmatin, an alleged mastermind of the Bali bombings, who was killed in a March raid, and "routinely received reports from their field coordinator."
Police have one week to file official charges.
More than 100 suspects have been rounded up — including five on Sunday — since authorities discovered al Qaeda in Aceh's jihadi training camp in February. Several large caches of assault weapons, ammunition and explosives also have been seized.
Bashir was arrested almost immediately after the Bali bombings, but prosecutors were unable to prove a string of terror-related allegations and reduced his four-year prison sentence to 18 months for immigration violations.
Soon after his release, he was rearrested and sentenced to 2 1/2 years, this time for inciting the nightclub blasts.
After he was freed in 2006, he started touring the country, making impassioned speeches at rallies and mosques calling for the creation of an Islamic state and spewing hatred toward foreigners.
Recently, Bashir formed a new radical movement, Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid, or JAT, described by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group as an "ostensibly above-ground organization" that embraced individuals with known ties to fugitive extremists.
Bashir came under renewed police scrutiny in May after three JAT members were arrested for allegedly raising funds for al Qaeda in Aceh.
The cell was accused of planning gun attacks on luxury hotels in the capital in an alleged plot reminiscent of the attacks in India's financial center of Mumbai, where 10 gunmen rampaged through the city in 2008 and killed 166 people.
It was planning several high-profile assassinations, including on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who said over the weekend that authorities had discovered yet another plot on his life.
Aritonang, the police spokesman, said the most recent investigations indicated the Aceh cell was also planning bombings against the country's security forces and several embassies in the capital.
A bomb-making laboratory discovered in Cibiru, a village in West Java, indicated militants were experimenting with a new, powerful explosive, he said. When police detonated one device over the weekend, they caused severe damaged to a sturdy, two-story building.
Ken Conboy, an expert on Southeast Asian terror groups, called Bashir's arrest significant.
"Police have made tremendous headway in dismantling what was once JI and its remaining cell structures," he said, adding this was obviously another big push in that direction. "The next step is to take a close look at their rehabilitation efforts, where they've really been stumbling in recent years."
More than a dozen suspected members of al Qaeda in Aceh arrested by police were former convicts.
Bashir's son, Abdul Rohim, insisted his father was innocent.
"He was heading back to Solo when police arrested him together with my mother," he said. "We appeal police to treat my parents well... He was just carrying out his obligations as a Muslim."
Indonesia's last suicide bombing at the JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta ended a four-year lull in attacks blamed on Jemaah Islamiyah and its affiliates. Since 2002, more than 260 people have died in terrorist attacks, many of them foreign tourists.
First Published: Monday, August 09, 2010, 23:12