Lifestyle & Belief

Al Qaeda used to have big plans for Asia

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Illustration by Antler; Photo by Majid Saeedi

Editor's note: The killing of Osama bin Laden has changed everything. Or has it? In this ongoing series Al Qaeda: What's Next?, GlobalPost senior correspondents worldwide investigate the uncertain future of global terrorism and religious extremism – from Afghanistan to Egypt and Tunisia, India, China, Africa, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet republics and beyond.

BANGKOK, Thailand — Al-Qaeda masterminds once had big hopes for Asia.

In the 1990s, operatives in the Philippines planned to rig U.S.-bound jetliners with seat bombs. After the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorists criss-crossing Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand hoped to detonate foreign-owned gas pipelines and shoot down planes packed with Israeli tourists using shoulder-fired rockets.

But, in the end, their plans flopped. And organized, radical Islam’s fight against the great imperial infidel, America, is failing to regain lost momentum in Southeast Asia.

Today in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, screeds against the United States or Israel are largely ineffective in recruiting jihadis and provoking hardliners to action, said Cecep Effendi, an analyst with the Indonesia Institute research center.

“Unlike the past, I don’t think this idea of fighting the U.S., fighting for Palestine, is at all appealing to them,” Effendi said.

Targets have shifted away from foreigner hangouts, such as the Bali nightclub bombed in 2002 or Western hotel chains, such as J.W. Marriott, bombed sporadically throughout the last decade in Jakarta.

Radicals have instead focused on local targets: Christians, cops, liberal Muslims and Ahmadiyya, an Islamic sect deemed “heretical” for deigning that Muhammed is not the final prophet.

Since April, an Indonesian suicide bomber self-detonated in a mosque favored by cops, authorities narrowly thwarted an April church bombing and a mob stripped naked and beat to death three Ahmadiyya worshippers.

But, compared to previous years, experts who monitor radicals detect little interest in attacking foreign tourists, embassies or other targets.

“International targets are an abstraction for most Indonesians,” said Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based analyst with International Crisis Group. “If you’re interested in serious recruitment or building community support, you’ve got to take on issues that resonate with the public. Not Palestine.”

This trend is partly the result of Indonesia’s dismantling of networks organized and well-funded enough to take on serious attacks. Al Qaeda’s strongest inroad into the region was through Jemaah Islamiyah, a radical Islamic faction that linked up with Osama bin Laden’s group in the late 1990s.

The bond was strongest in the lead up to the Sept. 11 attacks, when several members swore an in-person allegiance to bin Laden and a roving terror cell plotted attacks on U.S. and Israeli embassies in Asia.

But, today, Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asia point man, Riduan “Hambali” Isamuddin, is imprisoned on Guantanamo Bay with his two Malaysian lieutenants. And Jemaah Islamiyah has been largely crushed by a police crackdowns and infighting.

“It’s not so much that those people have abandoned jihadi ideology,” Jones said. “But they’re saying, for the moment, many attacks are counterproductive and they’re too weak to undertake them.”

Indonesian radicals are largely concerned with ridding their own nation of democracy, not establishing a global caliphate per Al Qaeda’s vision.

The end game — installing Quran-based Shariah law in Indonesia — is harmed when bombings frighten ordinary Indonesian Muslims and stir up sympathy for their victims, Effendi said.

“Once they start bombing places where Indonesians have to earn a living, or even mosques, people become very disappointed,” Effendi said. “They think, ‘What the hell? Even the most dangerous bandit would never consider bombing a mosque.’”

In lieu of openly embracing violent jihad, fundamentalists are soft-selling the rise of an Islamic state through rallies, seminars and outreach groups.

The current most popular radical network, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid or JAT, was founded in 2008 by a man formerly accused of aiding the Bali bombers and currently in detention under allegations of starting terror camps.

The JAT group’s “ultimate objective is the establishment of an Islamic state,” according to defense analysts at Jane’s Information Group. “It rejects democracy and considers Muslim rulers who do not apply its interpretation of Shariah to be apostates and tantamount to infidels.”

On the group’s polished website, leader Abu Bakar Bashir is described in Indonesian as a “true nationalist, not like the pseudo-nationalist officials ... who commit treason by selling the nation’s assets to the West. He really loves this country.”

This sort of anti-West sentiment is still common in radical rhetoric, as are unabashed nods to Al Qaeda. Within 24 hours of bin Laden’s killing by U.S. forces, the group hailed him as a martyr who “fought for Islam” and “fought for the lands colonized by America.”

But the group devotes much more energy to domestic issues, Effendi said. Many teachings appeal to those disillusioned with government corruption — which is endemic in Indonesia — and the decay of social values.

“These groups may still get inspiration from Al Qaeda,” Effendi said. “But they don’t really identify themselves as part of that global network.”

Considered by some experts to be Indonesia’s largest ongoing terror threat, JAT was raided in late 2010 for allegedly starting secret militant cells. Its inner circle likely endorses violence, according to International Crisis Group, but they hide their motives to avoid losing supporters.

“Its real danger comes from the fact that it serves as a recruiting pool for more militant organizations,” Jones said. They probably aren’t receiving any backdoor funding from Al Qaeda, she said, because “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is pretty strapped for cash itself.”

But this targeting of what jihadis call the “near enemy” rather than the “far enemy” means that, for now, Western interests are less threatened by Asian terror cells than 10 years previous, Jones said.

“The one thing everyone has to keep in mind,” she said, “is that these groups are highly adaptive and always evolving. We have hundreds of [radicals] in prison who will be coming out in the next five to seven years ... and a very poor track record of monitoring what they do after their release.”