Bashir says the JI doesn't exist, though he acknowledges teaching a number of the detained men about jihad. "Teaching is my only weapon,'' he says. "This is all a slander.''
In fact, Bashir is seeking more than $100 million from Singapore over remarks linking him to terrorism.
"The fact is that some of the detained JI members in Singapore have described Bashir as the overall leader of the JI organization,'' says a Singapore government spokesperson in response to Bashir's denials.
Yet rather than hurt Bashir's image, the alleged link to terrorism has boosted him to national prominence. Millions of Indonesians are angry at the US for the war in Afghanistan and for perceived support of the Israeli offensive on the West Bank. To them, the frail, pious Bashir is more credible than what they see as the American bully.
"Bashir is respected because of his constant opposition to what he believes constitutes oppression,'' says Wisnu Pramudya, editor of Hidayatullah, a Muslim magazine in Jakarta, Indonesia.
"Compared to three years ago the prospects for real Islam look good,'' says Bashir. "We are winning, and we will win. It's only a question of when."
"Real" Islam, as Bashir defines it, is rooted in the puritanical Wahhabi traditions of Saudi Arabia. Like many of Indonesia's militant preachers, he is of Arab descent. His students, from 6-year-olds to young adults, are taught that going to war to defend Muslims is as important as performing the pilgrimage to Mecca or giving alms. The school has grown from a few hundred students at its inception to more than 2,000 today.
Bashir receives visitors in an unadorned room at the boarding- school compound, and wears a simple white skull cap, faded pants, and no shoes.