Protracted Iraq war may boost militancy, terrorist groups: analysts

  Agence France Presse
March 25, 2003

A PROTRACTED war against Iraq by US-led forces is likely to increase support for Islamist parties and terrorist groups in Southeast Asia and around the world, analysts and officials warned.

The security implications of the invasion, especially in countries with large Muslim populations, will be felt for years to come, one expert said.

"The campaign has hurt the sentiment of the Muslim people and as a result of that, the support for Islamist political parties and terrorist organisations will grow with time," said Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on the workings of alleged terror mastermind Osama bin Laden's secretive al-Qaeda organisation.

"We will see from now up to the next five years strong and more robust and more resilient terrorist organisations worldwide, especially in the Middle East and in Asia," said Gunaratna, author of the book "Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror".

He said the strength and size of terrorist groups is "proportionate to the amount of support they receive", with increased backing likely to lead to an escalation of violence.

"The situation will be exploited and wounded sentiments of the Muslim people will be exploited by these terrorist organisations both to recruit and to raise funds," he told AFP.

"If the war protracts, the scale of support will be much more."

Singapore Defence Minister Tony Tan said al-Qaeda "has capitalised on the Iraq issue" to urge Muslims worldwide to strike at American and US-allied targets, and its sympathisers like the Southeast Asia-based Jemaah Islamiyah group may heed such calls.

"Now that the US campaign in Iraq has started, the risk of terrorist attacks has risen all over the world, including here in Singapore," Tan said.

Taufik Abdullah, a political researcher at the state-run Indonesian Science Institute, said "the possibility is there that the attack will bolster radicalism in Islam, both in actions and in thoughts."

He blamed US President George W. Bush for stoking anti-American feeling worldwide, including in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Panitan Wattanayakorn, a political analyst from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, told AFP any radicalisation of moderate Muslims would depend on how the war progresses.

He said that during the 1991 Gulf War radical elements in Southeast Asian countries, including those in Thailand, became more active.

"This time if the war is prolonged it will give a greater chance for these radicals to react," he said.

Opposition to the war has been widespread in Asia, with daily demonstrations across the region since the initial strike on Baghdad on March

Moderate Muslim states have made efforts to convince their people that the war is not an attack on Islam, but analysts say public anger will only ease when the campaign stops.

Syafi'i Ma'arif, who chairs Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second largest Muslim organisation, said governments must press the United Nations to act to halt the war if they want to avoid strengthening the radicals' hand.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretary general Ong Keng Yong has said ASEAN countries must guard against extremists exploiting public anger over the war, and has called on influential moderate Muslims to make their voices heard.