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.
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.’
Bin Laden’s death has also provided a timely opportunity to examine the role of the Philippines’ armed forces, their foreign allies and claims that foreigners were persistently involved in the seemingly perpetual conflicts that plague Mindanao.
‘The suggestion that only wicked Malaysians, Singaporeans and Indonesians — led from afar by a Saudi/Yemeni or Egyptian — play a significant part in an insurgency that has barely paused for breath since Magellan was killed by Lapu-Lapu on Mactan island in April 1521 is patronising and manifestly nonsense,’ Greenwood says.
However, he also said there was little doubt that fugitive Muslims have sought sanctuary in the areas controlled by various native Moro groups, where even the military concede that their priorities now are to settle down and make a modest living in professions like seaweed farming.
That’s if they can evade the authorities, who last week arrested a notorious Abu Sayyaf bandit blamed for a series of kidnappings in Western Mindanao and the beheading of coconut plantation workers.
Andurahman Luy Andang, alias Abu Nas, was reportedly captured while riding his tricycle in Isabela City. His arrest followed the capture of the last senior JI figure at large, Omar Patek, who was arrested in Pakistan in January.
The authorities had thought Patek was still hiding out in the Southern Philippines, where he had forged a close friendship with Abu Sayyaf. His arrest raised questions about his presence in Pakistan, in particular Islamabad’s relationship with the West and its role in the war against Islamic militants. Patek was nabbed just a short distance from the luxury mansion in Abbottabad, about 60 kilometres northeast of Islamabad, where bin Laden was killed.
Patek was apparently being protected by an al-Qaeda cell, which among other tasks ran the local post office. Seasoned counter-terrorism observers suggested Patek had transited from Tawi Tawi in the Southern Philippines through East Malaysia onto Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and then Karachi.
They also said information obtained following his seizure was traced back to Malaysia, where Singaporean businessman Abdul Majid was arrested on May 6. He’s suspected of channelling funds to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has spent decades fighting for an independent homeland in the Southern Philippines.
Most pointers indicate that the threats posed by Islamic militants who use terrorism as a strategic weapon has now largely diminished. Still, this is cold comfort for governments and intelligence networks that must still deal with the issue on a daily basis.
‘At the moment it would appear that the Southern Philippines isn’t such a threat, but if the heat was lightened, there’s the chance that attacks beyond the immediate area would start again,’ Loveard says. ‘This carries with it a depressing message for governments faced with budgeting large amounts of revenue for "what if" threats.’