JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesia's spy chief said he hoped militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir will cooperate with terrorism investigators when he is released from prison on Wednesday, as hundreds of his supporters prepared to give the aging cleric a hero's welcome.
The stick-thin 68-year-old cleric will walk from Jakarta's Cipinang prison Wednesday after serving 26 months for giving his blessing to the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, which killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists.
Bashir, who has always maintained his innocence, plans to return to the Islamic boarding school he founded, and which was attended by many convicted terrorists, and retake his position at the head of his legal hardline Islamic organization.
Indonesia's State Intelligence Agency chief Syamsir Siregar said the organization, the Council of Mujahidin for Islamic Law Enforcement, was used by Jemaah Islamiyah-linked militants as a "place for their struggle."
"We hope Bashir, after he has been jailed, will regain his self-awareness and be willing to cooperate with us," Siregar told lawmakers late Monday.
Jemaah Islamiyah is accused of carrying out church bombings across Indonesia in 2000, the 2002 Bali bombings, attacks in the Indonesian capital in 2003 and 2004, and a triple suicide bombing on Bali last October. The attacks together killed more than 260 people.
Several hundred of his supporters, mostly students bussed in from Bashir's school, are expected at the prison gates to welcome, said his close aide, Fauzan Al-Ansauri.
"Let's welcome him together with gratitude to Allah," he said in a cell-phone text message to supporters and journalists.
Bashir has little active support in Indonesia, where most people follow a moderate form of Islam.
But some mainstream clerics and government officials have expressed sympathy for him, saying he is a victim of foreign meddling, and the media rarely dwell on his alleged links to Jemaah Islamiyah.
No evidence has ever been presented linking him to the execution, preparation or commission of terrorist attacks, and most analysts agree he had little operational role within Jemaah Islamiyah.
"He did not detonate anything or handpick [operatives]," said Ken Conboy, a security consultant who has written a book on Jemaah Islamiyah. "But if he is not repentant, and is as fiery as before, then that cannot be a good thing."
Bashir was arrested amid intense international pressure on Indonesia to crack down on militants. Since then, it has arrested and convicted more than 150 terrorists, three of whom received death sentences.
He rose to prominence in the 1970s as a preacher opposed to the rule of then-dictator Gen. Suharto. In 1982 he fled to neighboring Malaysia, seeking to avoid a crackdown by Suharto, who feared Islamist movements as potential challenges to his rule.
In Malaysia, he allegedly began building a regional network of Islamic radicals that would later form the nucleus of Jemaah Islamiyah — an organization that Bashir claims does not exist.