BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — An Islamic group with suspected links to al-Qaida is on a dual mission across this devastated corner of Indonesia: collecting the dead and seeking new followers among the survivors.
The two-tier outreach of the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, or Indonesia Holy Warrior Assembly, is an example of how the relief response to the tsunami tragedy can serve as an opportunity to widen support in a country under international pressure to closely watch radical Islamic activities.
As the region slowly claws back from epic destruction, the Mujahidin has also started to blur the lines between offering assistance and polishing its image. Collecting bodies is a pressing service here, as thousands of corpses rot in the tropical heat.
“It would be a lie to say that we are not trying to win over people’s hearts to our side,” said Jamal Aldin, a volunteer from Jakarta who led one of the body-collection brigades Tuesday. “The survivors will see the work we are doing and maybe they will follow us.”
The group — whose leaders wear black vests with “Mujahidin” written on the back — has distributed Qurans and information about its views on correct Islamic principles, such as head scarves and avoidance of Western culture. It also keeps a detailed log of local volunteers to call on later.
Another radical group, the Islamic Defenders Front, has set up a camp for survivors in a cemetery in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. But its agenda is mostly confined to opposing perceived un-Islamic activities such as bars and nightclubs. The Mujahidin’s background is considered more worrisome.
The group takes its cues from Abu Bakar Bashir, the cleric now on trial as the alleged leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaida-linked terror cell accused in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people and the 2003 attack on the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta that claimed 12 lives.
Mujahidin members also took part in Christian-Muslim fighting in eastern Indonesia in recent years that claimed thousands of lives. Many of the anti-Christian fighters were members of violent Majelis Mujahidin subgroups, including Laskar Mujahidin, which has also set up a tsunami relief operation in Aceh.
“There’s certainly been some overlap between Jemaah Islamiyah and the (Mujahidin),” said Sydney Jones, an expert on Indonesia’s Islamic radical organizations for the International Crisis Group.