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Indonesia resists calls for cleric's arrest

Cleric called al Qaeda's spiritual leader in Southeast Asia

Ba'asyir: "I make many knives and I sell many knives, but I'm not responsible for what happens to them."  

From Maria Ressa
CNN Jakarta Bureau Chief

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- Months after authorities in Southeast Asia revealed the existence of a terrorist network operating in several countries, officials in the U.S., Singapore and Malaysia are pressuring Indonesia to arrest the network's alleged leader.

The man is a 64-year-old Muslim cleric named Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, who runs an Islamic boarding school in Indonesia.

Officials in Singapore and Malaysia call Ba'asyir the spiritual leader of al Qaeda in Southeast Asia and say his school is the hub of Jemmah Islamiyah, or JI, the militant network that connects al Qaeda operatives throughout the region. (New Asian terror group?)

Signs posted inside the school refer to Americans and Jews as "terrorists."

Images of machine guns line the corridors.

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Ba'asyir speaks of the U.S.-led war against terror as concealing a hidden agenda of a crusade against Islam.

Hundreds of intelligence documents obtained by CNN from Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia indicate Ba'asyir helped plan attacks on U.S. and Western interests in Singapore, carried out bomb attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines and organized armed Muslim movements in the region to work together on terror plots.

One document says Ba'asyir told a Malaysian man now under arrest in Singapore "to hatch a plan to assassinate" Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri. The plan was later shelved.

Ba'sayir denies the allegations: "These accusations are baseless and unproven. The fact is that the government did not charge me with anything after I was questioned."

And Indonesian authorities say they cannot arrest Ba'asyir without evidence that he actually carried out a terrorist plot.

Since September 11, authorities from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Europe have reported disrupting al Qaeda cells, discovering links to other organizations, and arresting suspects.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently told a Senate committee that al Qaeda had operatives in more than 60 countries, including the United States.

Ba'asyir and his network, authorities say, are more than a small part of the picture.

The cleric was imprisoned by Indonesian authorities in the 1970s and fled to Malaysia in the 1980s after he was released.

He returned to Indonesia after President Suharto was ousted in 1998 and set up the boarding school where authorities say he has passed on his radical ideas to hundreds of young Indonesians.

One Indonesian intelligence official said Ba'asyir compared himself to a craftsman. "I make many knives and I sell many knives, but I'm not responsible for what happens to them," Ba'asyir was quoted as saying.




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