Even in death, Osama bin Laden will continue to haunt Southeast Asia, where he helped forge the backbone of the region’s terrorist outfits, from the Southern Philippines to West Indonesia. The ink on the Saudi’s death certificate was barely dry when the first warnings of pending attacks were issued.
The politicians were correct if predictable in the issue of travel warnings, but more ominous were comments coming from the region’s insiders, people like Nasir Abbas – a reformed jihadist who turned state’s evidence against Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombing.
A veteran of Afghanistan, where he fought the Russians and a former head of Mantiki Three –an area covering the Southern Philippines, east Malaysia and east Indonesia as defined by JI –Abbas told ABC Radio that his former colleagues could try to avenge bin Laden’s death.
He also said that foreign targets could again become fashionable. More recent strikes attributed to Islamic militants in Indonesia have focused on local targets like police stations.
‘They will be more angry about what happened to Osama Bin Laden, especially (as he) was being attacked by American troops,’ he said.
Abbas also established a training base for jihadists in the Southern Philippines where officials said the alert had been raised to red after the Abu Sayyaf Group lost the support of its ‘chief benefactor’.
Lt Gen. Raymundo Ferrier told local media the killing of bin Laden by US Special Forces in Pakistan would dent morale within Abu Sayyaf ranks, while a spokesman for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Eid Kabalu added the death would provide a logistical setback for the Abu Sayyaf.
‘Death comes to everybody, it is normal, how we die is another story,’ he said.
Kabalu also distanced the MILF – which has been fighting for an independent homeland for decades and is currently holding peace talks with Manila – from bin Laden, al-Qaeda and Abu Sayyaf, saying his group had never been involved in terrorist activities.
He added that without bin Laden’s support the Abu Sayyaf could be reduced to little more than a gang of criminals focusing on kidnapping and ransom, a hallmark of their activities for the past 15 years.
All the senior leadership of JI – blamed for more than a decade of bombings and insurgencies that claimed the lives of thousands – have been captured or killed. The last was Omar Patek, a senior figure in the Bali bombing, which claimed 202 lives. He was arrested in Pakistan in January.
Most thought Patek was still hiding out in the Southern Philippines, where he had forged a close alliance with the Abu Sayyaf. News of his arrest – which took three months to leak out – raised questions about his presence in Pakistan.
In fact, Patek was nabbed just a short distance from the luxury mansion in Abbottabad, about 60 kilometres north east of Islamabad, where bin Laden was killed. Some have said this was purely an extraordinary coincidence. Others, myself included, aren’t so sure.