Nava Nuraniyah and Jordan Newton – 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.
This counterterrorism pressure has forced pro-IS networks to increasingly prioritise survival and consolidation over attacks. Although small cells of young hotheads in online chat groups continue to attempt poorly planned attacks, the bulk of the pro-IS community is focusing on developing charities and schools to support the families of the hundreds of the group's members currently in prison.
Authorities are also heading off an attempted Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, revival. Once Indonesia's premier terrorist organisation, JI was battered by counterterrorism forces in the aftermath of the Bali bombings. Since then, JI sought to gradually rebuild by postponing violence at home and focusing on recruitment and building up its financial resources. When the Syrian conflict erupted, the organisation saw an opportunity to rebuild its capability by sending young militants to train with al-Qaeda-aligned groups. A training video seized in a recent police raid showed that JI still had dreams of developing its own military for a distant revolution.
Although JI did not pose any imminent violent threat, police grew concerned with its longer-term plans and decided to act. So since 2019, many of JI's new leaders have found themselves either on trial or behind bars. More arrests are likely in the coming months as investigators pour over contact lists and organisational charts seized during raids.
In addition, Bashir will face an increasingly hostile political environment, leaving him with little room to criticise the government, much less call for its violent overthrow. President Joko Widodo's administration is in the midst of an aggressive crackdown on "radicalism" – a broad label covering much of the right-wing Islamic opposition, often by conflating these groups with terrorists. Most spectacularly, this culminated last month in the banning of one such group, the Islamic Defenders Front, over its alleged support for terrorism, despite there being little evidence of Front's links to IS.
Police have already put Bashir on notice that they will be closely monitoring his activities. Despite this, concerns remain – including from the Australian government – that Bashir will once again return to inciting violence. Indeed, there is little to suggest that he feels any remorse over his career in terrorism to date. He has consistently refused to take part in deradicalisation programs because they require him to pledge allegiance to the Indonesian government, which he still considers illegitimate.
Bashir remains one of Indonesia's most seasoned extremists and still commands respect across the right-wing spectrum of Indonesia's Muslim community. His old speeches continue to be regularly shared in IS and JI online chat groups, attesting to his enduring appeal. Even some conservative Muslims who reject Bashir's support for violence still place him in an eminent pantheon of preachers seen as standing up against "oppressive secular" rule and Western influence. Some Islamic politicians seeking to bolster their opposition credentials may publicly welcome his release, even if they do not necessarily condone his views.
Bashir is unlikely to return to being a key player in terrorist plotting but his status as an extremist icon will endure. Younger extremists will set the tone of the movement but many will still see Bashir's blessing as a boost for their own credentials. Whatever the next trend in extremism is, he won't be far behind.
[Nava Nuraniyah is a PhD scholar at the Australian National University and former analyst with the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Jakarta. Jordan Newton is a consultant in countering violent extremism and former Australian government counterterrorism analyst.]