No Respite in Terror Fight

In Southeast Asia, groups outside the Al-Qaeda network may pose a bigger threat.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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A biography of Osama bin Laden is among religious books at a store in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, May 2, 2011.

Osama bin Laden's death is giving little relief to the battle against terrorism in Southeast Asia, the "second front" in the much-touted U.S. “war on terror” after the Afghanistan/Pakistan region.

Still, according to a report, the U.S. may take a page from its Southeast Asian counterrorism book to launch a new special-operations-led model to keep hunting Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan.

Last week's killing of bin Laden by U.S. Special Forces in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad has raised fears of more substantial links between the terrorist mastermind's Al-Qaeda network and the Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for some of the deadliest suicide bombings in Indonesia, analysts say.

It has also led to concerns of a renewed push or stepped up propaganda campaign by Al-Qaeda in the region, where Jemaah Islamiyah had long wanted to create an Islamic State spanning from southern Thailand across Malaysia and Singapore to Indonesia and the southern Philippines.

But some analysts warn that non-Al-Qaeda militant groups could wreak even greater havoc in the region.

"The bigger concerns to me are southern Thailand and southern Philippines as none of the groups operating there have had much in the way of Al-Qaeda support or funding in that we know of," Zachary Abuza, an expert on terrorism issues at the U.S. National War College, said in an interview. "Certainly not in recent years."

More than 4,500 people have been killed in almost daily attacks since shadowy insurgents launched an uprising in Thailand's Muslim-dominated southernmost region in early 2004. The attacks have become more brazen in recent months, including car bombs and raids on military bases or outposts.

In the southern Philippines, there are several militant groups that are fighting the government, including the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf, a mostly kidnapping group with links previously to the Al-Qaeda. 

"It's a real problem in southern Thailand," said Abuza. "Insurgents are Islamists and while they are engaged in mass casualty attacks on civilians on a daily basis, they have never done so in Al-Qaeda's name and they have not known to have taken Al-Qaeda funding.

“So, we don't know what the implications of all this (casualty) figures."


He said the Thai military "has been too involved in politics and not concerned enough with the security threat" while in the Philippines, the military too had not effectively tackled the domestic security problem and dragged its feet in forging peace with the MILF.

The government and the MILF have been holding talks for more than a decade in a bid to end fighting that has killed 120,000 people and displaced 2 million others and hobbled development in the poor but resource-rich region.

"While we often want to blame insurgent groups, governments can stall on this too just as much, and in the Philippines, they certainly have," said Abuza, who specializes in Southeast Asian politics and security issues.
While he believed the Jemaah Islamiyah has weakened in the last couple of years due to factional disputes and government crackdowns, other analysts warned the group remained a force to be reckoned with.

They point to Pakistan's January arrest of Umar Patek, an Indonesian militant and suspected mastermind of Jemaah Islamiyah's 2002 bombings in Indonesia's Bali island tourist resort that killed more than 200 people.

Patek was shot and captured in Abbottabad city, the same place where bin Laden was found.

No coincidence

While U.S. counterterrorism officials said Patek's arrest in Abbottabad appeared to be a coincidence, Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro cited information which he said showed the militant "was in Pakistan with his Filipino wife trying to meet Osama Bin Laden."

Islamiyah Map

"It was probably not a coincidence—indeed, may have been part of the same operation," said Sidney Jones, senior adviser to the Asia program of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). 

"Indonesian authorities need to be asking Patek exactly what the nature of his communication was with the (Al-Qaeda) organization and who else from Southeast Asia is actively working with (Al-Qaeda) in propaganda, training, or even operations," she said in a recent report.

Patek, a veteran Jemaah Islamiah operative who trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1990s, could be extradited to Indonesia soon.

"Umar Patek is the perfect example. It shows that there is a link with Al-Qaeda and it's a little scary," said Maria Ressa, an expert on radical Islam at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore

"It's a little scary to think that he was looking to meet bin Laden around the same time as the 10th anniversary of 9/11," she said in a Time magazine blog, referring to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. which left nearly 3,000 people dead.

Cambodia haunt

Patek is among a growing list of Jemaah Islamiyah leaders who had been linked to the Al-Qaeda network.

Another leader, Hambali, who is currently in Guantanamo prison, was closely linked to bin Laden until his arrest in 2003. It was revealed that he had spent months living clandestinely in Cambodia before being found in Thailand.

Bin Laden's death "could lead to a renewed push to bolster these ties or to an intensified propaganda campaign" based on Al-Qaeda materials translated into Indonesian, Jones warned.

The United States has sent intelligence extracted from material seized in bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan to several foreign governments, according to officials.

Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asian expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the threat from radicals in the region following bin Laden's death remained "very real and there is hard-core, near-term vigilance aimed at preventing or foiling retribution attacks by these radicalized groups"

He said U.S. President Barack Obama was well aware of efforts that had been made, starting under his predecessor George W. Bush's administration, to expand cooperation with regional militaries and counterterrorism colleagues ranging from the courts to civil society.

"It is time to fight terrorism in Asia locally and with community awareness and economic development. This new approach will complement American soft power and support an enduring renewal of U.S. engagement in the region," Bower said.

Barred from combat

In the southern Philippines, about 500 American troops have been providing training, weapons and intelligence since 2002 to Filipino troops battling militants but they are barred from combat by the Philippine Constitution.

The Filipino model could be emulated in Afghanistan.

Senior officials at the White House and in Congress said there were plans for a new special-operations-led model in Afghanistan as U.S. conventional troops wind down their stint there, the Associated Press reported.

Under the proposed scenario, special operations troops would keep hunting Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but most would mentor and fight alongside Afghans for possibly a decade to come.

There is precedent for that kind of train-and-fight force, like the U.S. military mission that started in the Philippines in 2001, the AP said.


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May 13, 2011 04:09 AM

Very interesting story.

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