Features | Security | Southeast Asia

Osama Bin Laden’s Second Front

The killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden may be a blow to militants. But in Southeast Asia as elsewhere, terrorism still looms large.

Luke Hunt

The killing of Osama bin Laden in a plush mansion northeast of Islamabad by US special forces should be greeted with the cheers it deserves. His face was one of the most recognizable on Earth, and the idea that one man could have had such a profound impact on foreign policy everywhere would have been incomprehensible just a decade ago.

In Southeast Asia, Bin Laden’s presence was felt and feared as much as anywhere else. His ties with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) shouldn’t be underestimated, nor should the slaughter that accompanied that terrorist outfit. Together, bin Laden and JI have been rightly pilloried for bastardizing their own faith and using it as an excuse to murder and maim innocent civilians.

JI with Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar at the helm bowed to bin Laden as they preached an Islamic Caliphate for Southeast Asia, which they divided into four groups, or mantikis.

Mantiki One covered Peninsula Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, extending to Cambodia and southern Vietnam. Mantiki Two represented most of Indonesia, Mantiki Three incorporated the southern Philippines, Borneo,and eastern Indonesia, and Mantiki Four—although never fully developed—was responsible for the Indonesian state of Papua, Papua New Guinea, and Australia.

At an operational level, each mantiki leader would eventually report to Hambali, whose biggest boast was claiming 202 lives on Bali in the 2002 bombing of the island. Hundreds of deaths through terrorist strikes on embassies, hotels, resorts, and churches, have been documented, but the real number is much higher because of the bloody insurgencies in places like Poso and Maluku that JI initiated in the 1990s—with support from al-Qaeda and bin Laden.

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In fact, the relationship went back much further.

Sungkar and Bashir fled Indonesia in 1985 after pushing their Islamic agenda and running afoul of the authorities, shifting their operations to Kuala Pilah in Malaysia, where the Islamic congregation was led by a puritanical Wahabi preacher. From here, an initial group of 12 young men was assembled for jihad in Afghanistan and the fight against occupation by the Soviet Union.

It was here that the initial relationship with bin Laden began. Hambali arrived in early 1987 and, along with Aris Sumarsono or Zulkarnaen, served as reinforcements during a battle at Jaji, when bin Laden led an Arab brigade against the Soviets. It was bin Laden’s first time in battle.

Later, contacts in the Southern Philippines provided a handy hideout after the initial bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 by al-Qaeda acolytes, while Zulkarnaen would become a key paramilitary instructor in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border. Relations blossomed as JI evolved into a carbon copy of al-Qaeda and began its rampage in the late 1990s, mainly across Indonesia.

But the situation moved to a newlevel when bin Laden declared war on the United States in early 1997 and Sungkar travelled to Afghanistan for a meeting with the Saudi dissident where, according to Ken Conboy, author of The Second Front: ‘During their pleasantries, the pair discussed working together and perhaps joining forces. While Sungkar stopped short of confirming any formal merger, al-Qaeda had already found a greater ally in Southeast Asia: Hambali. Just as Sungkar had been won over by Hambali’s perseverance, al-Qaeda had grown to see him as a dependable proxy.’

The Christmas bombings of churches across Indonesia in 2000 made Hambali a marked man and authorities in Indonesia sought his arrest by Malaysia, only to be told that Hambali was a senior religious figure deserving of protection.

Realizing the risks, he fled to Pakistan and then across the border to Kandahar, spiritual home of the Taliban and now headquarters for al-Qaeda. He spent several months in early 2001 solidifying JI’s relations with bin Laden and al-Qaeda, staying at the ‘Philippines House’—a hub for Indonesian and Malaysian students transiting into al-Qaeda’s and JI’s ranks. He then travelled to Kabul with a delegation of foreign jihadists where bin Laden announced that the famous giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan were to be blown to bits.

With bin Laden sitting on top of the jihad totem pole, Hambali won himself a seat on al-Qaeda’s leadership council. There they plotted jihad against the West and organised funding before returning to Southeast Asia.

While Hambali was hiding in Phnom Penh in the aftermath of the first Bali bombing, it was bin Laden who issued the edict claiming responsibility for the attacks on the Denpasar nightclubs. He saidit was retaliation aimed at Australia for its leading role in winning independence for East Timor.

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Inspired, funded,and nurtured, JI was every bit the al-Qaeda affiliate with bin Laden as chairman of the board. A relentless pursuit by the Indonesian, Australian,and American authorities has resulted in all the prominent members of the Southeast Asian terrorist network being captured or killed. The last of the Bali bombers—Omar Patek—was nabbed in Pakistan just three months ago.

Not surprisingly, bin Laden was also in Pakistan when he was killed. His death has enormous ramifications, primarily signalling the end of an era that was defined by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

His tentacles spanned the world—from the London and Madrid transport bombings to simultaneous attacks on US embassies in Africa and on the USS Cole. Within intelligence circles, however, it was Southeast Asia that became notorious as the Second Front, primarily because of bin Laden’s relationship with JI and also other insurgent groups like the Abu Sayyaf, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Raja Sulamain Movement.

Nobody within those circles believes Islamic militancy will die with bin Laden, or that the threat of future terrorist attacks has ended. But in Southeast Asia, as much as anywhere else, a very nasty and difficult era in human history is over.