A new report says only one militant Islamic group in Indonesia has suspected links to the al-Qaida terrorist network. The private, Brussels-based International Crisis Group has traced the origins of the "Ngruki network" and concludes that Indonesia is not a hotbed of terrorist activity.
The Ngruki network began at a religious school near Solo, in Central Java in the late 1970s. The school is built upon the principles of Darul Islam the rebellion movement of the 1940s and '50s aiming to create Indonesia as an Islamic state. The school's founder, cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, rallied conservative Muslims to oppose the authoritarian rule of former Indonesian President Suharto.
The International Crisis Group, a private research foundation, says many members were arrested; others were forced to flee political repression and ended up in neighboring Malaysia. Some returned after Mr. Suharto resigned in 1998.
Most members of the group share the goal of creating an Islamic state that would include Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines. It is this goal that has defined the Jemaah Islamiah, the Southeast Asian network with close links to al-Qaida.
The Jemaah Islamiah only came under the spot light this past year after Malaysian and Singaporean authorities uncovered a plot to bomb U.S. and other Western targets in Singapore. Dozens of suspects were arrested with links to the Jemaah Islamiah and the Ngruki network. This caused alarm in Southeast Asia and the United States.
The problem, according to the ICG, is that the Ngruki network is larger than the individuals accused of having links to al-Qaida terrorists. It also includes what the ICG calls "individuals with well-established political legitimacy for having defied the Suharto government."
The author of the ICG report, Sidney Jones, says the trick to countering the threat of a terror network taking root in Indonesia is not to push too hard. "I do think there are a couple of people linked to this network who have established ties with some leading figures in the al-Qaida organization," she said. "But we're talking about a tiny, tiny handful of people. And I think we also need to be very careful about making the leap from having communication that is, having met with Osama bin Laden on several occasions, to being involved in criminal plotting to bomb U.S. targets in Singapore."
In the report, Ms. Jones traced the backgrounds of four men suspected of involvement in the Singapore plot. Of the three men now in jail in Malaysia and the Philippines, the report says, evidence linking them to the bomb plot is weak in places.
All four, however, have links to the Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who has suspected contacts with al-Qaida and may have conspired to recruit men for terrorist training both in Indonesia and Afghanistan. But Mr. Bashir is considered by many Indonesians to be a resistance leader, after he as forced to flee to Malaysia in 1985 to avoid arrest by the Suharto government, which refused to allow most Islamic political parties to exist.
In addition, the report says, he has gained support from Muslims by criticizing the U.S. war on terrorism as anti-Islamic and by continuing to preach despite being summoned for questioning by Indonesian authorities.
Ms. Jones cautions that if U.S. and Southeast Asian governments go after suspects without hard evidence to link them to specific acts of violence it could backfire and spark a swell of support for Muslim radicals perceived as being victims of authoritarian persecution similar to the Suharto years. "It's very dangerous in this particular climate in Indonesia, when you have such weak law enforcement institutions and such weak courts and such a weak legal system to finger individuals as being perhaps involved in international activities without hard evidence, and go after them in a way that brings back memories of arbitrary arrests during the Suharto era," Ms. Jones said.
Mr. Bashir has denied accusations by the Singaporean government that he was involved in any bomb plot.
As a Muslim, Mr. Bashir says, it is his responsibility to deal with accusations from the Singaporean and U.S. governments that all Muslims are terrorists. He says if they have accused all Muslims of terrorist activities, then that automatically includes the Indonesian Muslim community.
Ms. Jones says the most serious risk to Indonesia in terms of the spread of a terrorist network does not come from the Jemaah Islamiah or the Ngruki network. Rather, she says, Indonesia could be targeted by outside terrorist groups looking for a new base. "The risk to Indonesia, and it's a small risk, I think comes more from the fact that these porous borders and with the kind of corrupt nature of many Indonesian police and immigration officials and so on, it would be probably extremely easy for a couple of people to come into Indonesia and find a safe haven," she said.
The ICG report warns that association with the Ngruki network is not equivalent to terrorism, but it concludes that the possibility remains that some of its members maybe be sources of support for such activities.
The report also warns the international community to tread carefully lest heavy-handed actions strengthen support or sympathy for groups labeled as terrorists.