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Indonesian Religious Teacher Denies Links to al-Qaida - 2002-09-21

Authorities in Singapore and the Philippines have arrested more than two dozen people, saying they are linked to a suspected terrorist group called Jemaah Islamiyah and the al-Qaida network. Indonesian police say they are monitoring the reported leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, who heads a religious school in the heart of the island of Java.

The day's classes have started at the Al-Mu'min religious school, a group of cement buildings built close together at the end of a small street in a leafy suburb of the city Solo.

The students give their teacher a hearty greeting and settle down to their work. Eighteen hundred teenage boys and girls study subjects leading to the equivalent of a high school diploma. The student body is almost equally divided between boys and girls, but they live and study in separate facilities and have little contact with each other.

In the boys' classrooms, 10th graders are studying Arabic. It and English are the foreign languages taught here. On the other side of the campus, girls wearing the jilbab, or white shawl that covers all but their faces, are studying.

These 8th graders are studying the Hadith, the second authority of Islam after the Koran. In the next room, 11th grade girls study astronomy.

The founder of the al-Mu'min religious school, or pesantren as it is called, is an austere preacher with large glasses and a small white beard. Abu Bakar Bashir says he started the school 30 years ago to develop leaders with good character.

"This pesantren has produced teachers and preachers also," he explained. "In science matters, this pesantren produced a number of alumni, students who reach high degree, doctoral and PHD also."

However, the United States and Indonesia's neighbors believe some of the school's graduates may be pursuing something far more sinister - international terrorism. The International Crisis research group last month issued a report identifying nearly a dozen graduates and teachers of the school as having ties to the al-Qaida terror network or the Jemaah Islamiyah group that is accused of terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia.

A well-informed Western source in Jakarta says individuals in custody in many countries are revealing that Jemaah Islamiyah has links to al-Qaida, and that it has carried out terrorist operations in the past and is capable of doing so again. They say Mr. Bashir is Jemaah Islamiyah's leader.

Government officials will not speak on the record. But David Wiencek, the head of the International Security Group, a private security firm thinks the allegations about Jemaah Islamiyah are true.

"I think the evidence increasingly points to a connection to al-Qaida. And they are involved in these various terrorist networks throughout Southeast Asia," he said. " JI members have been connected with plots in Singapore and in Malaysia and have been connected with terrorist activities in the Philippines, as well as various violent groups in Indonesia, as well as terrorist training cells in Indonesia."

Mr. Bashir calls the accusations lies. He says he has no contact with al-Qaida, and that Jemaah Islamiyah is not a terrorist group but merely a community of devout Muslims. He says if graduates of his school have links to extremist groups, that is their business.

In the school, classes have ended and the students chat in the courtyard. One of the older boys says he wants to become a teacher and bring people to Islam.

Another lad is wearing a T-shirt with the picture of al-Qaida leader Osama bin-Laden on it.

"I'm a big fan of Osama bin-Laden because I sympathize with the struggle he has done, especially for [against] all those infidels who have been killing people in Afghanistan and Palestine," he said.

Authorities in Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and the United States want the Indonesian government to arrest Mr. Bashir. Foreign ministry official Wahid Supriadi says the Indonesian government is keeping a close watch on Mr. Bashir and his school.

"Any suspicion an organization has been involved with al-Qaida needs to be proved. But the government, but the fact [is] that the security apparatus has been working hard and we have good cooperation with partners in Asian countries and even with the U.S.," he said.

The investigation into Mr. Bashir and his activities continues.