How the al-Qaeda Threat Lingers
Image Credit: Marion Doss

How the al-Qaeda Threat Lingers


Osama bin Laden is dead, but in Southeast Asia, nagging problems persist for law enforcement officials seeking to stamp out al-Qaeda’s influence in the region.

Most of the focus is on Mindanao, where the Philippines military has drawn up a list five foreigners who had established links to bin Laden, and who are believed to be currently hiding out in the country’s south.

Most wanted is the Malaysian-born, US-trained engineer Zulkifli bin Hir, aka Marwan, who has made it his business to train aspiring members of the Abu Sayyaf Group in bomb making.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Commander of the Philippine Navy, Vice Adm. Alexander Pama, says bin Hir had lived in Tipo-tipo in Basilan, working with Abu Sayyaf leader Khair Mundos before moving to Sulu, adding the Armed Forces of the Philippines had intensified its intelligence operations in a bid to locate ‘these terrorists.’

Bin Hir fought alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan, and is on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists for his activities in Indonesia and the Philippines and was head of Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) as well as a member of Jemaah Islamiyah's (JI) central command.

Parma also named a Singaporean known as Mauwiyah as significant. Authorities believe Mauwiyah, a seaweed farmer, is hiding in Sulu along with two Indonesians, Saad and Qayyim, and a Malaysian suspect Amin Baco.

The five are the most prominent remains of al-Qaeda’s heyday, when they could count on JI to go on the rampage with some support from Abu Sayyaf. JI was responsible for many of the region’s worst attacks and much of the carnage over the past 12years, including the 2002 Bali bombings, which left 202 dead. But the group seems all but extinct now, with its co-founding cleric and last standing senior figure Abu Bakar Bashir now before the Indonesian courts, where he claims the United States, along with liberal Muslims, are trying to frame him.

The 72 year-old is accused of funding Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), which was born lout of JI. JAT was dubbed ‘al-Qaeda in Aceh,’ and was allegedly plotting attacks and the assassination of senior politicians in Indonesia. Prosecutors have demanded the maximum life sentence for Bashir.

Since bin Laden’s death at the hands of US special forces last month, counter terrorism experts, military analysts, politicians and commentators have gone into overdrive warning that the Saudi militant could still pose a threat, perhaps more so in death than in life, as a symbolic figure for wannabe jihadists.

In Africa, this argument certainly has some merit. Somalia and Yemen provided a fertile breeding ground for like-minded affiliates that established strong relations with al-Qaeda. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, where the presence of US-led troops serve as a magnet for bin Laden acolytes, also figure prominently. In Southeast Asia, however, not everyone is so sure, and some analysts are sceptical about claims that bin Laden remains a threat from beyond the grave.

Pivotal to this argument is Mindanao, says Jakarta-based security analyst Keith Loveard of Concord Consulting. ‘You have to ask how relevant the Mindanao factions are to the global jihad process, given the extreme pressure they are under from the Philippines military and the US advisers,’ he says. ‘There’s a sense that they are so tied down in their local area that it’s very difficult for them to operate beyond the southern Philippines, with even attacks in Manila now rare. That doesn't mean jihad will go away as a threat, but it can be contained.’

Gavin Greenwood, a regional security analyst with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates, says alleged links between bin Laden through JI and Abu Sayyaf were anyway always minimal ‘at best.’

‘Rather, they have served on both sides as a useful narrative to bolster JI's credibility while also internationalising local insurgent groups as a means to dispense resources and gain assets (from the United States and Australia) for the Armed Forces of the Philippines,’ Greenwood says. ‘Abu Sayyaf has always been intensely local and restricted to a small number of interconnected clans and families, carrying on and updating traditional piracy activities.’

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief