Thu, May 22, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Fresh wave of attacks may hit Asia

After the Bali attacks were tied to Osama bin Laden's organization, the region has good reason to be nervous

AFP , HONG KONG

ILLUSTATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

A new terrorist attack in Southeast Asia in the coming months is a real possibility, analysts warn, as a fresh worldwide campaign by militant Islamic groups appears to be underway.

Bouyed by a resurgent al-Qaeda -- suspected of involvement in the suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco last week -- Asian-based groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) are poised to strike again, the analysts say.

"It is almost certain that there will be more attacks in Asia -- it's happened before, in Bali, so why shouldn't it happen again?" said Andrew Tan of the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore.

The bombings of two Bali nightclubs last October that claimed 202 lives, was seen as a horrifying wake-up call for Asian authorities to the threat of terrorism in the region.

JI, an organization considered by the US as al-Qaeda's de facto Asian wing, has been blamed for the attacks. The first trials of the suspected bombers have just begun in the Balinese capital Denpasar.

But terrorism experts say that even if the suspects are found guilty and executed, it will not spell the end of JI.

"There are hundreds of JI cells in Indonesia and only the one in Bali was dismantled after the October bombs -- its infrastructure remains very much intact," warned Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on the operations of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

Tan agreed: "I think that without question there will be more attacks in Indonesia -- JI is far from hurt by the arrest of the suspected Bali bombers."

Last week's suicide bomb attacks that left dozens dead in Morocco and Saudi Arabia have been characterized by observers as proof that the worldwide war on terrorism has failed to neutralize groups such as al-Qaeda and JI.

Al-Qaeda in particular is believed to have regrouped and even appointed successors to arrested leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Waleed Mohammed bin Attash, the organization's numbers three and four leaders.

The US State Department last week warned the threat of terrorist attacks remained high across Southeast Asia, singling out JI operations in Malaysia's Sabah state and the Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines.

With rampant poverty, fragile economies battered by the effects of SARS, weak governments and rising anti-Western sentiment following the US-led war in Iraq, Asia's Islamic nations offer fertile breeding grounds for radical Islamic groups.

"People in these countries are very responsive to the kinds of twisted messages that Islamic extremists are preaching at the moment," said Dzirhan Mahadzir, a Kuala Lumpur-based freelance security analyst.

Analysts say that with al-Qaeda's capability's hampered by recent arrests, it is unable to pull off strikes as big as those in the US on Sept. 11.

They will concentrate, instead, on easier "soft-targets" like nightclubs, bars and other public gatherings.

Similar to last week's attacks, they are likely to take the form of suicide blasts, car bombs and rocket attacks -- possibly on commercial aircraft.

As for the targets, they are unlikely to be confined to Western facilities.

"There is more than enough hatred towards the moderate Muslim nations who refuse to take a more hardline stance against the West," Tan said. "That became obvious with the blasts in Bali and Cassablanca -- both in moderate Islamic countries."

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