What Bin Laden’s Death Means for Counterterrorism Efforts in Southeast Asia

By Zachary Abuza, Professor of Political Science, Simmons College

Last Sunday’s spectacular raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed will have important implications for the future of al Qaeda. It will also have modest implications for regional affiliates, aspirants and other violent groups in Southeast Asia.

Jemaah Islamiyah, the terrorist organization responsible for a string of bombings in Indonesia since 2002, is reeling. For the past few years, the group has been divided over strategy, between the pro-al Qaeda wing under Noordin Mohammed Top, who was killed in 2009, and those who saw the targeting of Western interests as being purely symbolic and counter-productive and advocated fomenting sectarian violence. An attempt to re-group under the moniker “Al Qaeda in Aceh” was thwarted in February 2010 when counter-terrorism police raided a remote training camp in Aceh, and subsequently arrested or killed more than 120 militants, including some of their top leaders. Interestingly, one of the last leaders at large, Umar Patek, was arrested in January 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the city where bin Laden was living. Although Patek was captured in the same manner, by tracking known al Qaeda couriers, to date it is not known why he was in Pakistan: seeking refuge, re-constituting ties with al Qaeda or trying to establish training camps for Southeast Asian militants.

A spokesman for Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid, the organization established in 2008 by JI co-founder Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, stated, “If it’s true Osama bin Laden is dead, then he died a martyr. He fought for Islam and he fought for the lands colonized by America… Al-Qaeda didn’t die with him. Jihad will not be dampened just because he’s dead because jihad is a command of the religion, not of individuals.” Ba’asyir is currently on trial for financing the Acehnese training camp.

As JI is in throes, the past few months have seen a proliferation of small groups that have engaged in low-level terrorist activities, including an attempted bombing of a church, and 4 parcel bombs sent to legislators, entertainers, NGO activists all known for their outspoken defense of secularism. In many ways this is a manifestation of a debate within al Qaeda itself, between bin Laden’s supporters and Abu Musab al Suri, who argued that al Qaeda should not be a centralized organization, but a motivating ideology, for self-financed, self-generating cells around the world. This seems to be what we are seeing in Indonesia. While the cells are smaller, less resourced and capable, they also tend to be off law-enforcement’s radar.

In southern Thailand, where an ethno-religious based insurgency has raged since January 2004, claiming the lives of over 4,500 people and wounding over 9,000, bin Laden’s death will have little impact. Although the militants have an Islamist component to their agenda and have no qualms about mass casualty and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, they have never done so in al Qaeda’s name. Though there were some ties between JI and some of the insurgents in the past, there are few if any today. There is no known al Qaeda funding or support for the insurgents, although al Qaeda propaganda, video and bomb-making materials have been found on the computers of detained suspects.

In the southern Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation front has publicly distanced themselves from al Qaeda, as part of their overall search for a negotiated settlement with the Philippine government. (They opened their camps to al Qaeda trainers and operatives in the late-1990s and have received al Qaeda funding in the past).

The potential for retaliatory attacks is there. While all of these conflicts are ongoing, they are low-level and in no way threaten the governments of the region. But then again, traditionally, that’s what Al Qaeda has always looked for, low-level festering conflicts to inject itself into. Whether al Qaeda can weather the post-bin Laden era will factor into Southeast Asian security.

2 comments for “What Bin Laden’s Death Means for Counterterrorism Efforts in Southeast Asia

  1. Jeremy E. Plotnick PhD
    May 4, 2011 at 20:40

    Dear Professor Abuza,
    Thank you for your excellent post. While I am not qualified to comment on the full scope of your observations and analysis, I can say that I fully concur with your assessment of the impact (or lack thereof) on the situation in the south of Thailand. That said, I believe there is a real possibility that the state security forces may try to use Bin Laden’s death in their communications with local people in a way that infers that ‘the global leader of terrorism is dead, and thus you should not join/support the insurgency.’ Unfortunately, this would simply show to the local Muslim community, again, that the government does not truly understand or accept the nature of the situation in the three border provinces.

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