Al-Qaeda's first venture in SE Asia was a 1995 plot to simultaneously detonatbombs on 11 U.S. jetliners over the Pacific. The operation was thwarted, and several of the participants arrested, including Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the February 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. At the time, both Western and Asian security agencies did not understand that the Ramzi Yousef cell was part of a wider, regional network; they believed he had gone to the Philippines for this one operation. As a result, no serious attempt was made to unravel the front companies and detect the militants buttressing the al-Qaeda grid in Asia, one already well entrenched.
As more JI operatives were recruited and trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and the southern Philippines, the network of affiliates grew, allowing the terrorists to plot more ambitious attacks. When the first JI cell was broken up in December 2001 by Singaporean and Malaysian officials, it was alarmingly close to executing a major strike on U.S. and other Western embassies in Singapore and Jakarta, as well as launching a U.S.S. Cole-style attack against U.S. naval vessels making port calls. JI hooked up with the MILF and other regional militant groups, and with al-Qaeda funding established its own franchises, such as Laskar Jundullah headed by Agus Dwikarna, now in jail in Manila after being caught with explosives, to wage sectarian conflicts in Indonesia's Sulawesi and Maluku regions. But as increasing numbers of JI personnel are picked up, the group, like its patron al-Qaeda, is changing strategies. Last week the Canadian and Australian embassies in Manila received explicit and credible threats of terrorist attacks. Though not soft targets, these embassies are located in commercial office towers, not easily protected compounds like the U.S. embassy.
The fact that JI is choosing easier strikes shows it's hurting from the crackdown by regional security agencies. But it would be foolish to underestimate JI's capabilities or goals. Although senior organizers and foot soldiers have been arrested, very few "colonels" have been captured. JI is becoming more dependent on al-Qaeda operatives from the Middle East (Saudi al-Qaeda lieutenant Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was en route to Malaysia when he was recently nabbed in Yemen, and Yemeni national Syafullah, a senior al-Qaeda officer, is wanted for participating in the Bali bombings), which could lead to a significant escalation in violence in SE Asia and possibly to suicide attacks, hitherto almost unknown in the region. JI and al-Qaeda are also working hard to rebuild their network. When they do, they will refocus their efforts on large-scale strikes. The objective of al-Qaeda and its affiliates is to spread terrorism worldwide, and in the process spread U.S., Western and Asian counter-terrorism resources too thin. The danger from them is greater than ever.