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Bracing for Osama backlash

 | May 6, 2011

Analysts expect any reprisals from homegrown terrorist cells will take place much later and on a small scale.

PETALING JAYA: Southeast Asia has predictably braced itself for potential reprisals from regional Islamist terrorist groups following the death of Osama bin Laden

But even as security is being heightened in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, terrorism experts believe that a clampdown on travel across the region is still premature.

While they conceded that a backlash is certain, they doubt it will occur in the near future or on a large scale.

“There is a tendency to over-focus on terrorism,” said Professor Adam Dolnik, director of Terrorism Studies at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia.

“Terrorism is about fear and people are buying into that fear more easily today. But the fact is that you’re just as likely to be in a terrorist attack as you are being struck by lightning.”

Adam Dolnik

“And any attack by homegrown terrorist cells will result in low casualties because most of these groups are small with little funding and no access to militant training camps. They don’t have direct links to the Al-Qaeda, which makes them more vulnerable and less capable.”

Links between Al-Qaeda and the larger Southeast Asian militant groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Abu Sayyaf are also said to have weakened over the years. Although JI is among those expected to avenge Osama’s death, analysts have cast doubt over the magnitude of any attack.

“Given that the key leaders of JI and Abu Sayyaf have been killed or captured, it would be difficult for the remnants to carry out spectacular attacks,” said Dr Arabinda Acharya of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR).

“It would be useful to monitor the discussions on militant websites, especially in Indonesia such as Arramah.com, Muslimdaily.net and Voa-Islam.com. This will indicate the extent to which local militants have internalised the news of Osama’s death.”

Homegrown radicalism

Rohan Gunaratna

Professor Rohan Gunaratna, head of the ICPVTR, said that Osama not only spawned the ideology that led to the phenomenon of homegrown radicalism but also inspired the structure of these groups.

“No terrorist leader has influenced the contemporary wave of terrorism more than Osama,” he said. “He has been the most seminal influence on the landscape of terrorism in Southeast Asia today.”

Yet that influence appeared to be the only link between Osama and most local terrorist groups. Apart from the loss of a terrorism symbol, his death isn’t expected to have a real impact on these groups.

Dolnik even went as far as to say that Osama’s influence had declined over the past eight years and relegated him to a mere “T-shirt presence” for homegrown terrorist cells.

“He no longer had a direct hand in terrorist attacks,” he pointed out. “He was on the run and wasn’t vocal in terms of releasing video messages. Osama remained very much on the sidelines.”

“Local terror groups launched attacks on behalf of him and Al-Qaeda despite not having any operational links to the group. It was more for the sake of propaganda.”

Dr Arabinda Acharya

Arabinda agreed and described Al-Qaeda as “just a brand” and Osama as “only a source of inspiration”.

“From an operational and logistical perspective, there was almost no coordination within Al-Qaeda central command,” he said. “That said, Osama will remain in the hearts and minds of local militants. His speeches and statements will continue to influence and radicalise.”

But, according to Dolnik, there is an even stronger force than radicalism that is propelling followers towards militancy, particularly among the younger generation. And that force is the social network.

“A distinct pattern in the emergence of small militant groups is that they are formed around religious schools,” he said. “These are schools that the militants have set up and remained involved in.”

“The social network that exists within these schools is more powerful than radicalism and religious beliefs. A bond of friendship will very easily compel a person to join a militant group.”


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