SOLO, Indonesia (Reuters) - Scores of Indonesian men rallied on Friday to publicly vow their readiness to sacrifice their lives to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden, in a sign of the al Qaeda leader’s popularity among hard-core Islamists in the most populous Muslim country.
The group, calling itself Al Kaida Solo, said it would focus attacks on the United States — but there was no indication that it had the capacity to do so, or whether it was just bluster.
Several police kept watch on the rally in the city of Solo in central Java, but no one was detained.
“One hundred youths from Solo are ready to die to take revenge on the death of Osama,” declared Choirul, a cleric in Al Kaida Solo and also a member of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) which has a history of violence including attacks on bars, nightclubs and the offices of Indonesia’s Playboy magazine.
“His fight will not be ending,” Choirul told the assembled group of around 60 men dressed in white Muslim robes with their faces covered to hide their identity.
Several other Indonesian Islamists have hailed bin Laden as a martyr this week, showing the continued militancy of some Southeast Asian groups, one of which predicted a major reprisal attack.
Security experts said the risk of attacks had risen.
“Osama had lived with a principle of living nobly or dying a martyr... But the U.S. said he was a terrorist and we objected to this view. Due to this lie we are committed to avenge his death,” Endro Sudarsono, spokesman of the Solo group, told Reuters by telephone.
Sudarsono said that the group of men aged 20-40 from central Java was still discussing how to avenge the death, but that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq were their main destinations.
In the late 1980s, some Indonesians participated and trained in the Soviet-Afghanistan war.
Links between al Qaeda and domestic militant groups such as Jemaah Islamiah and Abu Sayyaf have weakened in recent years following military crackdowns, and analysts say a quick reprisal attack is unlikely.
However, al Qaeda is believed to have supported some of the Jemaah Islamiah’s attacks, such as the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people.
One Indonesian militant, Umar Patek, who also has links to the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines, was arrested in late January this year in the same town where bin Laden was found, a security source said.
Besides Indonesia, the other key haven for Islamist militants in the region is the Philippines, a mostly Catholic nation with a Muslim minority.
On Friday, about 60 Muslims marched today from a mosque in the old business district in Manila to the U.S. Embassy in a protest against the killing of Osama bin Laden.
There was minor scuffle when the protesters were stopped by anti-riot police guarding the embassy, about 100 meters (yards) from the embassy gates.
“The decades of aggression and decades of oppression against the Muslims are not good, because violence begets violence,” said Nash Pangadapun, secretary-general of Maradeka, a Muslim civil society group. “Force will meet force in the end.”
Reporting by Budi Satriawan in Solo, Olivia Rondonuwu in Jakarta and Manny Mogato in Manila; Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Andrew Marshall