SINGAPORE: Some of the most dramatic and devastating attacks by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network were born in Asia, home to the world's biggest Muslim population.
It is the region most likely to be the target of extremist attacks if the United States invades Iraq, analysts say.
If the US gets bogged down and we see civilian casualties, then there will be worldwide anger in the Muslim ummah (community), said Andrew Tan of this republic's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. There could be a quantum leap in terrorism.
The region is vulnerable and volatile.
Suspected to be on the run somewhere in South-East Asia is Hambali, the nom-de-guerre of Indonesian-born Riduan Isamuddin, the main go-between for the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) group of south-eastern Asia and Osama's al-Qaeda. Terror experts say he is the only man from the region to win a place at al-Qaeda's top table.
He is suspected to have been a moving force behind the Bali bombing, and to have been present when al-Qaeda operations' leaders met in Malaysia to plot the strike against the USS Cole in Yemen and the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Hambali may not take over al-Qaeda's military operations after the arrest in Pakistan this month of al-Qaeda's chief of military operations, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
However, he will maintain close contacts with the man most likely to replace Mohammed, Tawfiq Attash, a Yemeni suspected of masterminding the USS Cole attack in October 2000, said Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror.
A forward operations planner, such as Mohammed or Attash, will keep moving outside Afghanistan to ensure their ability to communicate with their men in the field.
The field in which they might find conditions most conducive to a new attack could well be in South-East Asia, say analysts.
We are seeing the size and strength of terrorist groups growing in the region, and the US threat to intervene in Iraq is having an impact, said Gunaratna.
And the infrastructure of Jemaah Islamiah, with its goal of creating a Muslim state encompassing much of South-East Asia, remains nearly intact after the arrest of most members of the cell that carried out last October's Bali bombing.
You have about 2,000 JI members, about 400 who are believed to have had training in Afghan camps, and only 12 have been arrested, said one expert on terror activities.
In terms of infrastructure, JI is still very much intact, said Gunaratna.
Australia lacks the legislation to mop up JI cells, he said. Indonesia lacks the political will even though it arrested the suspected perpetrators of the Bali bombing.
Many activists have gone underground in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. Reuters
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