Governments around Asia have been on heightened alert since Monday in case local Islamist terror cells try to retaliate for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Those fears are certainly justified. Yet the region’s counterterrorism front has also changed dramatically for the better in recent years, and it behoves us to understand why.
Indonesia offers a telling case study. The world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy has also long been home to a violent radical fringe. Terror groups there were quick to hail Osama as a martyr. “He fought for Islam and he fought for the lands colonized by America,” Son Hadi, a spokesman for the terrorist group Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) told an AFP reporter. “Al Qaeda didn’t die with him. Jihad will not be dampened just because he’s dead.”
Ties between Al Qaeda in the Middle East and groups in South-East Asia have always been hard to pin down, and financial and logistical support has flowed in both directions at various times. Umar Patek, a senior member of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and one of the last alleged perpetrators of the 2002 Bali bombing to elude capture, was arrested in January in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which we now know was the location of Osama’s villa.
Yet the groups making Monday’s veiled threats are very different from what the government in Jakarta would have confronted only a few years ago. JI, one of the largest threats from that era, has been dramatically curtailed as a fighting force despite its ongoing propagation of extremist rhetoric.
The group was linked to the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, among many other attacks of the time. But after that, Jakarta racked up one victory over JI after another. A steady succession of leaders were killed or arrested.
None of this is to say that progress has been linear: Successes were accompanied by a string of terrorist attacks throughout the decade. But Indonesia has become a much more difficult environment for groups aspiring to perpetrate attacks requiring large-scale preparation. Analysts have noted that the model is shifting away from JI-type organizations to stand-alone cells attempting smaller-scale attacks.
Indeed, terror groups have been so degraded in their capabilities that the most recent attacks claimed only one life: the suicide bomber himself.
As in Indonesia, so too in many other places. Osama’s death finds Asia on the whole a much less hospitable place for terrorists than it once was.
Following the November 2008 Mumbai hotel attack, the Indian government has stepped up anti-terror enforcement. The home minister installed after Mumbai, P. Chidambaram, has injected new energy and accountability into counterterrorism agencies, and boosted intelligence sharing among different branches. In the year leading up to Mumbai, India suffered at least four major terror attacks and many smaller ones. In the two and a half years since, it has suffered four, only one of which claimed more than 10 victims.
A “long war” such as this demands more than one victory. Osama bin Laden’s death is an important win for America and its allies. It’s also an opportunity to remark on the other victories that have been won over the past decade.
Such victories are interrelated. Earlier counterterror progress in Asia could help deprive terrorists here of an opportunity to exploit Osama’s demise for their own ends by staging retaliatory attacks. By the same token, the Umar Patek case suggests that keeping pressure on Al Qaeda in Pakistan can be good for Asia. The obverse is true, too: Pakistan’s ambivalence to terror fighting has made it a safe haven from which jihadists can threaten India and Afghanistan.
Asia must still confront heightened danger of an attack in the immediate future. It’s worth reflecting, however, on the progress that Asian governments have made in protecting themselves from this existential threat. This is how the long war will be won in the end.
—The Wall Street Journal
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