Admitting they were part of an Islamic terrorist group, four jailed Malaysians said Friday that a string of attacks against churches and other targets in Southeast Asia — including bombings in Bali that killed 202 people — was inspired by Usama bin Laden (search).
The claims, made in televised interviews, supported assertions that the Jemaah Islamiyah group is tied into Al Qaeda (search). But comments by the suspects were denied by the accused leader of Jemaah Islamiyah and drew fire from human rights groups that warned the confessions may have been coerced.
Jemaah Islamiyah (search) is thought to have been behind Christmas Eve church bombings in nine Indonesian cities in 2000 that killed 19 people, the nightclub blasts on the resort island of Bali and an August 2003 car bomb at a Jakarta hotel that killed 12 people.
Mohamed Nasir Abbas, one of the four men interviewed by Malaysia's TV3, said the bombings were inspired by religious edicts, known as fatwas, attributed to bin Laden.
"People who believed in the fatwa carried out bombings," Nasir said. "Therefore they bombed churches. The bombing in Bali was based on a policy to take revenge against America."
According to the edict, Muslims were told to kill "Americans wherever they are, irrespective of whether they are armed or not, whether they are soldiers or civilians or women, elderly people or children," Nasir said.
Another detainee, Amran Mansor, identified himself as a Jemaah Islamiyah fund-raiser and said he had transported explosives to Pekan Baru, the site of one of the church bombings.
Nasir and the other three men interviewed said they received military training in Afghanistan. They now renounce Jemaah Islamiyah, they said, because it killed Muslims and other innocent people.
They are being held in Indonesia on terror-related suspicions but it remains unclear whether authorities will press charges and how long they will be held.
"The likelihood that they may have been tortured and coerced into making false statements or confessions under interrogation is high," said Syed Ibrahim, head of a Malaysian human rights group devoted to improving prisoner conditions.
In the interview, Nasir identified Abu Bakar Bashir (search), an Indonesian Muslim cleric, as Jemaah Islamiyah's spiritual leader and said that Bashir and a man known as Hambali passed along bin Laden's wishes.
Bashir, who is being held in a Jakarta jail but is set to be released at the end of the month, despite U.S. pressure to keep him in custody, denies being the group's leader.
In a telephone interview from jail, Bashir told The Associated Press he suspected the latest claims against him were coerced by Indonesian and Malaysian officials eager to please the United States.
"Both the Indonesian and Malaysian police are working for American interests," Bashir said. "Now the United States is trying to arrange for my arrest to be extended."
Indonesian police chief Gen. Da'i Bachtiar said authorities were gathering evidence to determine whether charges could be filed against Bashir.
Nasir said he took orders from Bashir as head of Jemaah Islamiyah's cell covering the islands of Borneo, Mindanao and parts of Sulawesi.
He said he smuggled explosives to Indonesia for the 2000 church bombings and ran several Jemaah Islamiyah training camps in the southern Philippines.
The Jemaah Islamiyah leader known as Hambali, who is now in U.S. custody, was thought "to be in communication with Usama bin Laden," Nasir said. "Whether this meant there was an official link between Jemaah Islamiyah and Al Qaeda, or it was just a personal relationship, I did not understand."
Mansor said during the interview that Hambali had picked some of Jemaah Islamiyah's targets.