Southeast Asian terrorism networks appear to believe the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces in Pakistan is the equivalent of a bloody nose, rather than a body blow, to their jihadist cause.
“If the news is true, we should all be happy,” read the reaction to the news on an Indonesian Web site run by a convicted terrorist accomplice known as the “Prince of Jihad.”
“It was his dream to die as a martyr in the way of Allah,” it continued. “Muslims need not worry. With or without Sheikh Osama, jihad will continue and, God willing, other Sheikh Osamas will emerge to replace him.”
Southeast Asian jihadist movements such as Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines have cooperated with and been inspired by Al Qaeda, but their aims and means are independent, experts said.
“We have to be continuously vigilant as radicalism has existed for a long time and it will always remain. Our consistent commitment to act against radicalism must not fade,” said Aqil Siradj, chairman of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama.
The region’s best-known Al Qaeda-linked groups, Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf, have murdered hundreds of people across Southeast Asia since well before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
In the worst atrocity, more than 200 people, mainly Westerners, were killed in 2002 when JI bombers set off homemade devices at packed tourist nightspots on the resort island of Bali.
Classified US documents recently released by the whistleblowing Web site WikiLeaks reveal that JI militant Hambali, now imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, “facilitated money, personnel and supplies to Al Qaeda and JI terrorist operations.”
The documents said he spent three days with Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1996, was involved in Al Qaeda’s anthrax program and facilitated plots and attacks in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia.
Another top JI militant who was accused of masterminding the Bali bombings, Umar Patek, was arrested last month in Abbottabad, the same Pakistani town where Bin Laden was found hiding in a massive walled compound.
While some of Al Qaeda’s links to Southeast Asia were deep and long-lasting, though, analysts say Bin Laden’s global network never controlled regional outfits and his death would not hamper their operations.
“I think there are limited implications for Indonesia because Al Qaeda has lost its foothold in Southeast Asia,” said regional security analyst Adam Dolnik of the University of Wollongong in Australia.
“Bin Laden himself hasn’t played much of a role for a number of years. Al Qaeda has separated from Jemaah Islamiyah, which has separated from the actual people who go about the terrorist attacks on the ground.”
An April report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said the terror threat facing Indonesia was no longer in the form of large, Al Qaeda-linked networks such as JI but small, independent groups.
A suicide attack at a police station mosque in Cirebon, West Java, last month fits a pattern of “individual jihad” aimed at local targets by small groups of extremists, it said.
An emerging trend favors targeted killings — particularly police and religious minorities — over indiscriminate bombings, local over foreign targets and small group action over more hierarchical organizations.
“Information about these groups is only available because their members were caught. This raises the question of how many similar small groups exist across Indonesia,” the report said.
University of Indonesia security analyst Andi Widjajanto said Bin Laden’s death could possibly galvanize Southeast Asian militants into action.
“Osama’s death doesn’t mean their struggle will end because Al Qaeda’s power is not centralized on its leader but on its jihadist ideology,” he said.
Sri Yunanto, a fellow University of Indonesia analyst, said Southeast Asian militants did not even need Al Qaeda to serve as an ideological inspiration.
“In terms of ideology, many independent extremist movements existed here well before Bin Laden,” he said. “Terrorism and religious extremism will continue to thrive here.”
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