Q+A: Southeast Asia insurgency links weakened over years

SINGAPORE Thu Sep 24, 2009 7:42am EDT

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Last week's killing of one of Asia's most wanted men, Noordin Top, was a coup in the decade-old battle against Southeast Asia's violent Islamist movements.

Top, leader of a splinter group of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) militant network, was killed in a hail of gunfire when Indonesian forces raided one of his safe houses in Solo, Central Java.

Top and JI have had links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, responsible for the 9/11 attacks in the United States, and with other groups in the region.

Some leaders of regional militant groups fought with the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan, forging personal links. They returned home to set up their own outfits to wage jihad, create an Islamic state or fight ethno-nationalist rebellions. However, their varying agendas kept them from coming under one umbrella.

But experts say a super-structure of terrorism -- exchanges of money and technology across the region, distribution of hate material, recruitment at Islamic schools -- remains intact.

Here are some questions and answers about those links.

WHAT LINKS DO REGIONAL GROUPS HAVE TO AL QAEDA?

JI, blamed for a string of attacks in 2000-2005, once had strong links to al Qaeda, but has since adopted a more political agenda in Indonesia, where it campaigns for an Islamic state.

Top declared his "Organization of the Base" was al Qaeda's franchise in Indonesia. He may have intended the July 17 bombings of Jakarta hotels to advertise that -- and reap the benefits in recruiting, funding and "technology transfer" that come with the al Qaeda brand. Police found documents in last week's raid regarding an "al Qaeda Southeast Asia," but analysts say it was little more than his network of contacts and safe houses.

Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines received funds from al Qaeda. MILF no longer does, but Abu Sayyaf has a connection through its JI partnership. Thailand's separatists have no known connection to al Qaeda.

WHAT LINKS DO THEY HAVE WITH EACH OTHER?

JI's former military commander, Indonesian Riduan Isamuddin or "Hambali," tried to pull together various insurgencies in the region under an al Qaeda umbrella before he was captured in Thailand in 2003. He even helped sponsor an "al Qaeda summit" with bin Laden's lieutenants in Kuala Lumpur in 2000.

He failed mostly because the groups had different agendas and fragmented leadership. What links did exist were disrupted after governments began cooperating with each other and with the United States and Australia after the 2002 Bali bombings.

Regional terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said JI is trying to hook up with Thai separatists -- three JI members have been arrested in the kingdom over the past year. Thailand's ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents are wary as they do not want to internationalise their conflict with Bangkok.

Abu Sayyaf and JI have basically merged in the Philippines, Gunaratna said. Indonesian militants seeking safe havens have no trouble island-hopping into neighbouring Philippines, including Umar Patek, said to be JI's leader in the Philippines, and Dulmatin, a JI bomb-maker with a $10 million reward on his head.

"Their agendas do vary, but terrorists do cooperate and collaborate in the region. There is sharing of technology and finance," Gunaratna said.

WHAT ABOUT LINKS TO AFGHANISTAN?

Some JI military leaders trained in Afghanistan, including Hambali, master bomb-maker Malaysian Azahari Husin (who died in a November 2005 police raid in East Java) and Dulmatin.

Leaders and members of Abu Sayyaf and the MILF were involved in the Afghan conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Afghan veterans took control of one Thai separatist group, Gerakan Mujahideen Islami Patani (GMIP), in the mid-1990s. Leaders of Malaysia's now-defunct Kumpular Mujahidin Malaysia were also veterans of the Afghan conflict.

Personal links forged in al Qaeda and JI training camps in Afghanistan and Mindanao created a band of brothers in the region. But many in a generation of Southeast Asian militants that fought with the mujahideen have been killed or captured.

Some are being released from detention, and experts see evidence of them returning to the fray.

HOW DO INSURGENT GROUPS FINANCE THEIR ACTIVITIES?

A few Indonesian charities may knowingly or otherwise have given money to militants, including JI, which is not an outlawed organization in Indonesia. Books, magazines and videos espousing jihad have been linked to JI and other legal fronts.

Al Qaeda used to give JI cash using overseas migrant workers as couriers. JI Members pay zakat, a religious tax, to the group. Abu Sayyaf raises money from kidnap ransoms, protection rackets, smuggling and marijuana cultivation. Much of MILF's money comes from over a million Filipino Muslims working in the Middle East who contribute "zakat" to militant charitable fronts.

In Thailand, a relatively inexpensive insurgency is built on simple homemade bombs, drive-by shootings and ambushes. Rebels looted more than 400 assault files from an army base and 1.5 tonnes of ammonium nitrate for explosives from a quarry. Like Abu Sayyaf, some warlord-like figures in the movement run protection rackets and smuggling rings in many villages they control.

(Additional reporting by Manny Mogato in Manila, Martin Petty in Bangkok, Ahmad Razak in Kuala Lumpur and Olivia Rondouwu in Jakarta; Editing by John Chalmers)