Southeast Asia's Post-Osama Security Concerns
The death of Osama bin Laden may have brought a degree of closure to the many thousands of people that his actions have harmed and helped restore the United States' bruised amore propre, but it also raises the obvious question of how it will be received by those he sought to imbue with his jihadist philosophies.
Southeast Asia is widely seen as being at high risk from any backlash – a reasonable and responsible response to uncertainty and the region's past record of violence associated with Islamic extremism. There are a multitude of soft targets for those seeking to mark bin Laden's death with a mass casualty attack, just as there are an infinite number of more selective targets among elite national or foreign groups.
The obvious immediate concern of many security services is the timing and location of such a response. Operation Geronimo, the code name for the Abbottabad raid, must have taken months, if not years, of planning and training. It is extremely unlikely that few outside the immediate planning and operational teams that conceived and conducted the raid had any inkling of the target of timing of the operation. This absence of knowledge would, of course, also apply to Al Qaida and its supporters. However, it must also be presumed that the group has developed contingency plans for the eventuality of bin Laden's death or capture by the US or its allies.
This factor is crucial in near-term security concerns as it contains the possibility – even probability – that bin Laden's death or capture could automatically trigger a pre-planned response by 'sleeper' or 'clean-skin' cells specifically raised, equipped and trained for this role. Just as the bin Laden bunker appears to have had no electronic means of communicating with the outside world to preserve it from interception, such groups would also require neither orders, supplies nor additional funds to carry out what should be assumed to be a suitably devastating attack against their dead leader's executioners.
Further, any such pre-planned attack would have to involve a 'worthy' target in order to demonstrate the value placed on bin Laden by his supporters, exact an appropriate revenge among his enemies and help transfer authority to his successors. There are few, if any, targets in Southeast Asia that meet such a criterion.
A more credible terrorist threat in the region will come from either existing jihadist groups, newly formed cells raised in response to bin Laden's death or 'self-radicalised' loners. The extent and scope of such threats vary in terms of their capability to create mass casualties or cause other forms of disruption.
The region's security forces responded quickly to the news of bin Laden's death by increasing their alert status and strengthening – where required – their defensive and offensive postures against known and assumed threats. This entailed an even greater concentration of resources against suspect individuals or groups, all of whom would have been taken as unawares as the intelligence and security apparatus in their respective countries. The security forces may well have already detained known dissidents and activists as a precautionary measure, as well as demonstrating their resolve and support to allies such as the US.
The threat from such groups is most credible in Indonesia, where radical Islamic groups have served both as a source of concern to and support for the various and often conflicted elites that permanently vie for advantage or resources. Efforts by the security services to suppress or deter such groups have disrupted a cycle of bombings that began in Bali in 2002, but there is no doubt that at least some retain the capability to strike at iconic or sensitive targets.
Islamic extremists in the Philippines have shown a capability of operating beyond their political and ancestral heartlands in Mindanao, but in general they direct their efforts against the Philippine state on more familiar territory. Similarly, the insurgency in southern Thailand's Muslim majority provinces has remained an exclusively parochial conflict. There have been no credible examples of attacks beyond the four southernmost provinces, despite the proximity of such resorts as Phuket and Ko Samui and their huge populations of western tourists. Whatever the motivation for such reticence, there is no indication Philippine or Thai Islamic insurgents will seek softer targets in response to bin Laden's death
The self-radicalised, either operating alone or in small groups, are harder to detect but generally less able to mount a major operation. While explosives and firearms may be relatively easily obtained in some regional countries, it is often extremely difficult to deploy them in prime target locations. For example, moving weapons and munitions readily available in Cambodia to Singapore would prove a huge challenge for experienced and highly trained terrorists and realistically beyond the capabilities of 'amateurs.'
Nevertheless, the 'loners' may prove a greater threat at an individual level than the more organised groups. Lacking any command or leadership structure such individuals or small groups are more likely to act impulsively at random targets broadly identified with their opponents. These could range from an individual and obvious foreign national to global brand fast food or beverage outlets.
The manner of bin Laden's death and the US reaction to his demise among otherwise observant but non-radical Muslims may create another level of threat. If the perception grows among the region's Muslim community that bin Laden, a follower of the Sunni strand of Islam prevalent across Southeast Asia, did indeed die a martyr's death there is a risk that loyalties between religious faith and temporal duty may be strained.
This could have implications, for example, within the region's armed forces or police services There are enough cases of those entrusted to protect the public or individuals turning their weapons their charges in response to ideological or theocratic differences to make such a threat credible.
While Southeast Asian countries cannot and should not be discounted as potential targets in any backlash against bin Laden's death, they are unlikely to feature among the most probable areas of interest for those intent on avenging his killing. However, as violence linked to Islamic extremism in the region will not diminish in the foreseeable future it is also likely that many such incidents in the next few months, regardless of their origin or motive, will be linked to bin Laden's death - and in all probability help burnish his status as a betrayed martyr rather than a murderous fanatic.
Gavin M. Greenwood is a security consultant with the Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates firm.