In the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden's death, most are joyful, some are indifferent, and a few mourn, seeing the former terrorist leader as a martyr. But news organizations can't figure out how to read the response of some key Islamist groups in Southeast Asia; conflicting reports have characterized Bin Laden's death as galvanizing in his martyrdom or disruptive as a loss of a figurehead.
The region is home to some active terrorist groups linked to Al Qaeda, including Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Malaysia, and Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines. In addition, hard-liners such as Indonesia's Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) are known for their support of violence in the name of establishing sharia law, but have not been linked to any terrorist attacks.
In a Reuters article yesterday, Olivia Rondonuwu characterized Indonesian Islamists as devoted to Bin Laden's memory. She noted that in Jakarta, spokesmen for Jema'ah Ansharut Tauhid--the political arm of JI--and the FPI had hailed Bin Laden as a martyr. "The impact of his demise is that Osama will be appreciated with prayers, support and some hateful comments against the U.S.," JAT spokesman Son Hadi said. "I am certain that the U.S. will experience a major disaster." The Global Post's Sara Schonhardt similarly reported that FPI saw Bin Laden as "a big hero to the Muslim world because he fought against communism and imperialism."
But Agence France-Press correspondent Stephen Coates, also based in Indonesia, came to a different conclusion on the same day, characterizing the killing as "a bloody nose" to the groups such as JI and Abu Sayyef. He quoted security analyst Adam Dolnik, of the University of Wollongong in Australia: "I think there are limited implications for Indonesia because Al Qaeda has lost its foothold in Southeast Asia. ... Bin Laden himself hasn't played much of a role for a number of years. Al Qaeda has separated from Jemaah Islamiyah, which has separated from the actual people who go about the terrorist attacks on the ground."
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, MILF officials have distanced themselves from those characterizing bin Laden as a martyr. The local newswire ABS-CBN hammered MILF vice-chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar for calling Bin Laden "a martyr of the cause he is fighting for," in a text message to reporter Jojo Malig. Jaafar denied doing so and called the report "a distortion."
The link between JI and Al Qaeda has been established for years. Most recently, Umar Patek, a JI member suspected of helping carry out the 2002 Bali bombings, was arrested after a visit to Abbottabad--the significance of which is now obvious. As for the significance of Bin Laden's death, that's a much more complicated question.