JAKARTA, Indonesia, (AP) – Indonesia’s anti-terrorism unit arrested a radical Islamist cleric Monday for alleged ties to an al-Qaeda-affiliated cell accused of plotting high-profile assassinations and Mumbai-style attacks targeting foreigners in Jakarta.
Abu Bakar Bashir, who has been arrested twice before and spent several years in jail, arrived at the national police headquarters under tight security.
“The United States is behind this!” shouted the white-bearded cleric, who was wearing his traditional flowing white robe. “This arrest is a blessing … I will be rewarded by Allah!”
The fiery 72-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 has long denied links to terrorism. He was 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.
Monday’s arrest was the first time Bashir was directly linked to planning terrorist attacks instead of merely inspiring them with his anti-Western rhetoric calling for Islamic theocracy, said police spokesman Maj. Gen. Edward Aritonang. He accused the preacher of helping set up and fund a new terror cell in westernmost Aceh province.
Bashir’s arrest in Ciamis, a district in West Java province, is the latest in a series of raids targeting al-Qaeda in Aceh since authorities discovered the cell’s jihadi training camp in February. More than 60 suspects have been arrested — including five on Sunday — and several large caches of assault weapons, ammunition and explosives have been seized.
Aritonang, the police spokesman, said Bashir was heavily involved with the group.
“He routinely received reports from their field coordinator,” he said. “He also played an active role in preparing the initial plans for their military struggle.”
The spokesman said that police have one week to file official charges.
The overwhelming majority of Indonesians are moderate Muslims who reject violence, but a small extremist fringe has gained strength in recent years. Bashir is considered by many to be a driving force for radical movements.
He served 2 1/2 years in jail for allegedly giving his blessing to the Bali bombers, but his conviction was later overturned. After his release in 2006, he started holding sermons nationwide 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.
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,” said Conboy, adding this was another big step 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, who went to Ciamis for a preaching engagement, 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 J.W. 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.