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Experts: Tsunami disaster might ease terrorism

By Henry Schuster
CNN Senior Investigative Producer

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster is senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and has been covering terrorism for more than a decade.

Disasters (General)
Osama Bin Laden
Sri Lanka

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- -- While most of the world's attention was focused on the tsunami last week, Osama bin Laden issued another audiotape. Somehow listening to al Qaeda's leader offer his endorsement of Abu Musab al Zarqawi and his murderous ways in Iraq seemed trivial next to the devastation in places like Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

But bin Laden's message was anything but trivial. And its very presence is a reminder that the tsunami and terrorism are related.


Just ask Rohan Gunaratna, senior research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. You might have seen him on CNN's air from time to time as an expert on al Qaeda and terrorism. Gunaratna lives in Singapore, but he was born and raised in Sri Lanka.

Right now, he's mourning the loss of friends back home. Like most expatriates, he is stunned by what happened not only to his country but to the entire region.

Terrorism has been no stranger to the region. Gunaratna became an expert on suicide bombings many years ago because the Tamil Tigers in his homeland began using such attacks as early as 1987.

Several hundred people were killed this past year in southern Thailand in the festering insurgency between Islamic separatists and the Thai military. And Aceh, the hardest hit area in Indonesia, is the home of GAM, a separatist group that has been waging a sporadic conflict with the Jakarta government.

It was precisely in these areas that the devastation was worst. Some of it, says Gunaratna, took a toll on the terrorist and insurgent movements, who lost both fighters and infrastructure when the waves crashed on shore.

"This is a golden opportunity for the United States," says Gunaratna. The refrain that the United States and the West are losing the war of ideas, especially in the Muslim world, was the main topic at a recent conference about al Qaeda

But counter that with images of U.S. helicopters bringing aid to places like Aceh, delivering something that insurgents can't, and Gunaratna thinks that devastation can unwittingly bring some good. That it might overwhelm the message from bin Laden, at least in Indonesia, which is after all the most populous Islamic country in the world.

He also thinks that the magnitude of the destruction has brought on war fatigue.

"We haven't even started to think about this issue. But natural disasters shape leaders," says Gunaratna.

He talked recently with one former Tamil Tiger terrorist after the tsunami. Gunaratna says this man had been upset at the lack of progress in peace talks between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan government. But he changed his mind after he saw the immense suffering that took place on December 26.

Now, says Gunaratna, the man thought discussing politics was less important than relieving the suffering.

Still, Gunaratna isn't getting too optimistic. Already the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers are squabbling about who should deliver relief aid.

Another expert on terrorism, Zach Abuza, a professor in Southeast Asian studies at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, says the opportunity is there not just for the United States, but for the governments of these countries as well to win a propaganda victory by providing aid not just now, but in the years to come.

One reason military forces in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have a chance to show their positive side, says Abuza, is they've had such an appalling human rights record in the past.

With all the aid money coming into the region, Abuza says it will be important to keep an eye on funding from Islamic charities, especially in Saudi Arabia. In the past, he says, these charities have provided funding for al Qaeda-related groups like Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.

Still, like Rohan Gunaratna, Abuza thinks the tsunami's aftermath can help turn the tide against terrorism in the region, if the U.S. and local governments deliver on their promises.

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