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Terrorism: Think Local

By Bertil Lintner

Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, by Rohan Gunaratna. Columbia University Press, New York. $32.95

THERE ARE two main ways of looking at Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terror network.

In the first, bin Laden is the dean of a university of terror, once located in Afghanistan, to which extremists from all over the world go for weapons training and to study his extreme interpretation of Islam. As alumni often do, they maintain links after graduation, calling on their old friends for encouragement and sometimes real help. Ultimately, though, they see themselves as members of a global movement rather than a single organization.

In the other view, bin Laden is CEO of Terror International Inc., a highly centralized outfit with well-organized cells all over the world. Bin Laden and his associates personally control and plan its nefarious activities everywhere.

In Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, Rohan Gunaratna, a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland, falls into the bin-Laden-as-CEO camp. Drawing on his encyclopaedic knowledge of international terrorism, Gunaratna lists the network's cells and operatives in Europe, North America, Australia, Asia and Africa. The author's knowledge--undoubtedly the result of years of meticulous research--is the strength of a book that will surely serve as an essential reference work for anyone interested in the issue.

Where the book falls down, though, is in Gunaratna's tendency to assume that every Islamist terrorist group is controlled from above by bin Laden and his cronies. The danger in this view is that it ignores the specific conditions in countries where terrorists have launched their murderous attacks. That's a serious shortcoming in approaching what is one of the most serious problems facing the world today.

Take the rise of Islamic terror in Indonesia: Significantly, all the suspects who have been named so far in connection with the October attack in Bali are Indonesians whose links to Al Qaeda are tenuous at best. Gunaratna's book was published before the Bali attack, but the author does examine earlier incidents of terror in Indonesia. He asserts, for instance, that a string of bombings of churches on Christmas Eve 2000 were "conducted by Al Qaeda in Indonesia." Other analysts would argue that those who launched the attacks were reacting purely to local problems and were not pawns in some conspiracy hatched by bin Laden in a cave in Afghanistan. More broadly, Gunaratna makes no attempt to analyse the impact of Indonesia's economic crisis of the late 1990s, and the ensuing collapse of the old social and political order, on the resurgence of Islamic extremists.

Gunaratna's account of Laskar Jihad, one of Indonesia's most radical Islamic groups, is equally misleading. True, its leader, Ja'far Umar Thalib, has said he is "prepared to send Indonesians to fight for Al Qaeda." But the group owes its existence to manipulation by rogue military elements in Indonesia as well as support from certain political quarters, not to some international terrorist network.

Many would also question the importance of the fact that Abdurajak Janjalani, the founder of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in southern Philippines, once went to Afghanistan, where he perhaps met bin Laden. Philippine journalists who have covered the conflict tend to view Abu Sayyaf as a gang of juvenile delinquents using Islam as a pretext for kidnappings for ransom. Some of them may admire bin Laden, but they are hardly receiving their daily marching orders from him.

The importance of links between local terrorists and people such as bin Laden should not be underestimated. But to overlook social, political and economic flaws in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines and to blame the violence there on brains conducting it by remote control will not help us make any headway in the war on terror.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, December 5, 2002

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