SOLO, Indonesia (AP) — A militant cleric who served two years in prison for conspiracy in the 2002 Bali bombings described the blasts Thursday as “God’s will” and called those who carried out terrorist attacks across Indonesia holy warriors.
Abu Bakar Bashir also accused President Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard of waging wars against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan and called on them to “convert to Islam.”
“This is the only way for them to save their souls,” Bashir told reporters a day after he was released from prison after serving his 26-month sentence.
Bashir said the Bali bombings that killed 202 people “were God’s will” and the survivors should also convert to Islam to ease their pain.
The cleric, who has maintained his innocence, was convicted of conspiracy in the bombings but cleared of more serious terrorism charges, including being the key leader of the al-Qaida-linked militant group Jemaah Islamiyah.
Bashir said young men who carry out suicide attacks in the name of Islam were “holy warriors” because they believed they were defending the oppressed. But he said they were wrong to use bombs in a country at peace like Indonesia.
“Why use bombs in a non-conflict zone? Preaching is enough,” he said.
Jemaah Islamiyah has been blamed for church bombings across Indonesia in 2000, the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings and attacks in the capital, Jakarta, in 2003 and 2004. The attacks together killed more than 260 people, many of them foreigners, and have thrust the world’s most populous Muslim nation onto the front line of the global war on terror.
The Indonesian government, fearful of militant Islam gaining a foothold in a nation that prides itself on diversity and moderation, launched its first campaign against hardline interpretations of Islam several months ago.
The campaign has won support from many religious leaders, who have agreed to do what they can to convince followers they will not be rewarded in heaven for staging suicide attacks.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla told reporters in Jakarta that authorities could not arrest Bashir for “his thinking and opinions,” but said they would act if he broke the law.
The United States and Australia said Wednesday they were disappointed at Bashir’s release.
His supporters gave him a hero’s welcome, shouting “God is great!” as he walked out of jail surrounded by personal security guards. He headed immediately to his home town of Solo.
Bashir said he was happy that American support for the Iraq war seems to have fallen.
“I feel sorry for the American people, but it seems now they realize he (Bush) was wrong,” Bashir told reporters invited to his home inside the al-Mukmin boarding school complex, which he founded in 1972. Several graduates of the school are in prison for involvement in terrorism and at least two became suicide attackers.
Bashir told Australia, which urged Indonesian authorities Thursday to keep a close eye on the cleric’s activities, not to intervene in his nation’s affairs.
“I don’t interfere in Australian affairs, and you should not intervene in ours,” he said.
Bashir’s freedom has raised concerns that he will energize Indonesia’s small, Islamic radical fringe by making impassioned speeches at rallies and mosques. Few, however, believe the cleric will play any direct role in terrorism.
Before the Bali blasts, Bashir was chiefly known for his criticism of the West and his campaign to make his secular nation an Islamic state, a goal he said he would keep pursuing.
Sidney Jones, the Jakarta-based director of the International Crisis Group and a leading expert on Jemaah Islamiyah, said she did not think Bashir’s freedom increased the threat of terror attacks in Indonesia.
But “there is no question that his stature has grown in prison and that he’s now seen as a symbol of defying the West and the United States in particular,” she said.
“For that reason, he will be a very popular speaker among many young Muslim crowds in many parts to Indonesia, including many people who have no interest in violence whatsoever.”
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