Today, Indonesian firebrand cleric Abu Bakar Bashir will walk free from prison. The 82-year-old, who earned infamy in Australia for his role in the 2002 Bali bombings, has served as a bellwether for the Indonesian extremist community: never far from centre frame of its terrifying successes or its abject failures. His release from prison could provide a window into what is next for Indonesia’s floundering terrorist networks.
Bashir has been an ever-present feature of Indonesia’s extremist movement at every key juncture in its rise to international notoriety. In 1993, he helped set up the first regional terrorist network, Jemaah Islamiyah and forge ties with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, which attracted funding for the 2002 Bali attacks. His 2014 pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State brought a large chunk of local extremists into the group’s fold.
But time in prison has curbed his ability to shape the extremist community. Indonesian prisons’ management of convicted terrorists, while still patchy, has vastly improved over the past decade. During previous prison stints, Bashir was able to publish books promoting his extremist views, address his supporters via mobile phone and hold court with dozens of fawning visitors. But in recent years, authorities have effectively isolated Bashir and other high-profile extremists from everyone on the outside except their close family.
After his release Bashir will also find that the terrorist networks he nurtured are shadows of their former selves. Police counterterrorism unit, Special Detachment 88, largely snuffed out the ability of Islamic State, or IS, supporters to mount mass-casualty terrorist attacks (as in Europe), let alone an insurgency (as in the Middle East or West Africa). The tiny band of militants in Poso, Central Sulawesi doesn’t count – it has never been a threat to the Indonesian state.