Osama is Dead, But ‘Bin Ladenism’ Endures in Southeast Asia

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Terror suspect Abu Bakar Bashir is escorted to court in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

Just over a week after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, pundits seem keen to tout the end of “Bin Ladenism,” too. The mastermind of the 9/11 attacks “lived long enough to see so many young Arabs repudiate his ideology,” observed the Times‘ Thomas Friedman. Although he and others are right to celebrate the ‘Arab Spring,’ it seems early to discount Bin Laden’s enduring influence. Will his death, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, stop the spread of his ideas in, say, the Philippines or Indonesia?

I asked Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, an expert on radical Islam in Southeast Asia, about Bin Laden’s legacy in Southeast Asia. She is the author of Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and a senior fellow at the International Center for Political Violence & Terrorism Research in Singapore. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

How and when did Bin Laden and Al Qaeda become influential in Southeast Asia?

For a period of time in the 1990s, the Philippines was a place where people who went on to become very influential in Al Qaeda tried out ideas — how to get through security, how to create bombs and to develop the types of plots that we saw play out right through to 9/11.

We know that Bin Laden sent his brother to the Philippines in 1988. He created many charities and funneled money to Filipino Muslims. Several of these charities were later found to be affiliated with Al Qaeda. Soon after, in 1991, Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [KSM] came to the Philippines and taught bomb-making. And in 1994 his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had an apartment in the Philippines.  The first pilot that KSM worked with a man named Abdul Hakim Murad, who was arrested in Manila in 1995.

They practiced things like getting through airport security. Part of the reason we now have to take our shoes off is that in 1994, KSM and Ramzi Yousef figured out that they could get through airport security by putting something in the soles of their shoes, because there was a part of the scanner, the part closest to the ground, that didn’t pick up metals or explosives. You could see the evolution of their plots.  You could also see that this is a learning organization that depended on institutional knowledge from the individual people, the planners.

You’ve called Bin Laden’s death a “moral victory.”  Will his death actually curb terror in Southeast Asia?

Law enforcement, globally, has really gouged out the top and middle-rank leadership of terror networks in the region. In Indonesia alone there have been 600 members of Jemaah Islamiah [JI] and its affiliated groups arrested since 2002 and the Bali bombing. Five hundred have already been prosecuted.

But, you still have those cells that used to carry out the attacks and they continue to spread the ideology. For example, Abu Bakar Bashir continues to spread this virulent ideology and has made greater headway into a mainstream audience. Bin Laden, as an inspiration, is dead, but in some ways it could be a pyrrhic victory of sorts because the ideas he stands for and the violent ideology that he stands for continues to spread.

You’ve compared al Qaeda and its Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah to a ‘virus.’ What do you mean by that?

If you look at the away the attacks have been carried out in Southeast Asia and the way the Southeast Asian groups are connected to Al Qaeda, it’s really like they are spreading a virus, a Jihadi virus.

It grew out of the crucible of Afghanistan. The Bali bombers were carried out by primarily Afghan veterans. Training in the southern in the Philippines was carried out by veterans.  Now their ideology is seeping into a mainstream Muslim constituency. The virus is resilient because it spreads among family and friends.

JI acted like an umbrella organization that organized homegrown groups that already existed in the region. It did what AQ did on a global scale: it hijacked homegrown groups and co-opted them into their own agenda. The ‘near enemy’ of those groups were their home governments. What Al Qaeda was able to do was get them to consider the United States the ‘far enemy.’ And in 2002, they began targeting the far enemy ahead of the near enemy.

As you said, since the Bali bombings, there has been a regional crackdown. So why does the danger persist? Why does the virus keep spreading?

The success of law enforcement breeds new problems. Now that they are cells that are operating without central leadership or any kind of central coordination it also becomes much harder for authorities to track them down and they can evade authorities for a longer time.

Homegrown groups in the region have been taught to make bombs, to carry out plots in far more sophisticated ways than ever before. Those skills are being used now for different purposes. It’s evolved differently in every country.

Indeed, disparate groups in the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere were drawn to Bin Laden and the Jihadi cause. Is there an ideology that unites them?

Well, it’s Different for every group, but in the end, the motivation for a lot of the Jihadis stems from injustice, the feeling that they haven’t been treated well and that this something against Islam.

What we can see is that long-running conflicts that involve Muslims are, to some degree, fodder for this radical ideology and, to some degree it is used by the radicals. It becomes the seed to turn moderate Muslims into radicals, into suicide bombers.

If Bin Laden’s ideology is a virus, what’s the vaccine?

You have to counter the radical ideology with a different message. When the Bali Bombers wrote a best-selling book about why they attacked, the research center that I’m part of came out with another book written by Muslim clerics to rebut the parts of the Koran used as justification by the Bali bombers. This is a battle within the Muslim world, between the radicals and the moderates.

The way to actually stop the spread of the virus is to inoculate moderate Muslims against this virulent ideology. Counter extremist ideology with a rebuttal: If it is the only message in that space -nobody is responding — it becomes fact.

Another thing that Singapore is doing is going back to members of JI that were arrested and doing counseling of sorts, both with those arrested and their families. It’s not just the JI member because he’s already spread it to his family. It’s not as easy as an air-strike or as killing Bin Laden. This is something that is already out there and it mutates, it adapts.

In January, police arrested Umar Patek in Pakistan. What do you make of his presence in Abottabad? How close are links between JI and Al Qaeda?

The funding is coming from the Middle East. There is funding still coming from Saudi Arabia. Exactly where? I’m still trying to figure that out.

Umar Patek is the perfect example. It shows that there is a link with AQ and it’s a little scary. It’s a little scary to think that he was looking to meet Bin Laden around the same time as the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Are Southeast Asian governments doing enough to prevent more attacks and stop the spread of the ideology?

What we’ve seen in Southeast Asia is greater cooperation between the governments. When the network was discovered they operated in vertical silos and rarely exchanged information. This has been successful. I see, particularly in Singapore, a single-minded determination and they see this as a virus and they are attacking it.

The vulnerable point is Indonesia. It’s a vulnerable point because, first, JI has never been declared illegal. Radical groups operate at overt and covert levels. ABB, although he’s in prison, has started a group, JAT – that is continuing to recruit people. The boundaries are fuzzy between radical and moderates. The radicals are still trying to spread the ideology into the moderate mainstream.

These governments have got to tell people what the danger is. If they don’t tell them they are vulnerable.

More from TIME.com: Read about the rise of ‘DIY’ Jihad in Indonesia.

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