Baasyir denies involvement in violence and, like a successful mafia don, has avoided a proven connection to any attacks. He served two stints in prison—a total of less than four years—on minor charges not directly related to the bombings. But the Islamic boarding school he established clearly was the hub for a network of jihadists set on creating an Islamic state in Southeast Asia; several of Ngruki's graduates have been convicted of involvement in major bombings. There's little question that Baasyir's teachings have been the inspiration for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of killings and for attacks against "deviant" Muslim groups that fall outside mainstream Islam. Still, he opens his own front door. "Come in," he says, speaking Bahasa Indonesia, the country's official language. "Have a glass of juice."
He is wearing a long, loose shirt, a white skullcap, and a large wristwatch. There are no chairs in his living room and no artwork, just clean white walls, a potted plant, and a low table supporting a plastic container of sesame cookies. He sits on the floor, barefoot, on a grass green rug. His adult son, Abdul Rahim, serves melon juice in tall, clear glasses.
"There is no violence in Islam," says Baasyir, in his deep, gravelly voice, waving his left hand like a conductor. "But if there is hindrance by enemies, then we have the right to use violence in response. That's what we call jihad. There is no nobler life than to die as a martyr for jihad." He praises the September 11th and Bali bombings. They were not, he insists, acts of terrorism. They were simply "reactions to what has been done by the enemies of Islam."
Indonesia is tucked away in a far corner of the world map, a rain of islands just north of Australia, yet violence here can have global repercussions. It is the most populous Muslim country in the world, home to 207 million Muslims—36 million more than the next largest Muslim nation, Pakistan, and two-thirds as many as all the countries of the Middle East combined. It is extremely devout; a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey found that Indonesia was one of the world's most religious nations. It's also a thriving democracy, the third largest in the world, after India and the United States.
But it's a new democracy, still finding its legs—little more than a decade has passed since the country's virtual dictator, Suharto, was ousted. The end of his rule granted Indonesians new freedoms of expression, though it also unleashed radicals like Baasyir, who had honed his extremist views during a long exile in Malaysia, where he'd fled after his arrest for opposing Suharto. A year after the 2002 Bali bombings came the first J. W. Marriott hotel bombing in Jakarta, then in 2004 a strike on the Australian Embassy, also in Jakarta, and in 2005 a triple suicide attack, again in Bali. And just a few months ago, after a long gap during which many experts came to believe that the threat of terrorism was greatly reduced, came the bombings at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and, once more, the J. W. Marriott. These are scattered events in a vast nation. But in the words of one Indonesian proverb, roughly translated, "It takes just a little poison to spoil all the milk."