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Latest update : 2011-06-20

Exclusive: On the trail of al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian soldiers

In parts of Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, Osama Bin Laden is being mourned by young Islamist activists who are swearing to avenge him. From the jungles of the Philippines to the jails of Indonesia, FRANCE 24 reporters went on the trail of al Qaeda's Asian network for this exclusive report.

On May 2 2011, history was made in Abbottabad in northern Pakistan. It was there in the Himalayan foothills, that Osama Bin Laden, the West’s most wanted man, was shot dead in a commando raid by US special forces.

A few weeks earlier, it was Umar Patek, the most wanted man in Asia, who was arrested in Abbottabad under the greatest secrecy. This Indonesian activist is suspected of being involved in the Bali nightclub bombings of 2002 that killed 202 people. Patek is said to be a leading member of the terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah.

Was the Abbottabad connection a coincidence? With this in mind, we decided to continue to Pakistan for an investigation we began several years ago that took us across the whole of Southeast Asia on the trail of al Qaeda’s Asian soldiers. We also tried to understand something that is evident from the determination of hundreds of jihadists -- the feelings of injustice and discrimination that are so widespread from Afghanistan to Indonesia, and in a large part of the Muslim world.

To follow the trail we had to gain the confidence of guerrillas in the jungle of Jolo, in the southern Philippines. The same went for Islamist fighters in Aceh, in Indonesia, and for networks of repented terrorists, convicted terrorists in jail, fugitives’ families, terrorism experts and sympathisers.

We tried to find the heart of the terrorist labyrinth, often without being able to film, simply going where meetings and chance took us. There were many undercover interviews, and many no-shows at appointments. We were sometimes forced to bend the rules, for example, to speak to terrorists sentenced to life in a high-security prison. It was not easy to gain access to some key figures of these underground networks. Above all, we had to remain impartial to convince the repented terrorists to give details -- often for the first time on camera -- of the internal workings of secret organisations, and to lift the veil on their own past actions.

We also had to break into the very closed circle of the "new generation" of terrorists, these heirs of jihad who grew up nurtured by the tales of war and adventures of their elders, the veteran mujahideen of Afghanistan. Many of the latter left their villages in Indonesia or the Philippines to fight against infidels for their Muslim brothers. Many in the region are still willing to carry that torch.

On May 2 2011, when US President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, one part of the world welcomed the news with relief. But another, underground world -- the one that we encountered -- began mourning for a lost hero, and swore to avenge him.

By Vivienne Montgomery , Vincent LEJEUNE , Sylvain ROUSSEAU , Régis DESCONCLOIS , Matthieu MABIN , Cyril PAYEN

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