COMBATING TERRORISM IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

FORCES AGAINST MUSLIM FANATICISM IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

Victor Mallet wrote in the Financial Times, “Asia’s struggle against fanaticism is not a lost cause. While moderates were much too sanguine about the prospects for Asian Islam in the 1990s, they err on the side of excessive pessimism. Thailand is a difficult case because the Thai government’s brutal response to Muslim demands has radicalised the local population and helped turn a manageable problem into a crisis. But in Indonesia and Malaysia – the region’s two leading Muslim countries – traditions of tolerance are strong and there is evidence that Muslim moderates can succeed in reversing the trend towards extremism. Ironically, the Jakarta hotel where the ulemas issued their fatwas was simultaneously hosting the Miss Indonesia pageant. [Source: Victor Mallet, Financial Times, October 17, 2005/\]

“The moderate cause has been strengthened in Indonesia by the rising number of Indonesians hurt in recent bomb attacks. Abu Bakar Bashir, the hardline cleric jailed for his role in the Bali bombings of 2002, felt compelled after the latest bombs to condemn the murder of innocents, especially if they were Muslim. It is disturbing for liberals of any faith that he sees the killing of non-Muslim innocents as a lesser evil, but a grudging condemnation of terror is better than nothing. /\

“In Malaysia, the fundamentalist Islamic party PAS, which won influence in the 1990s with demands for sharia law and an Islamic state, lost heavily in last year’s election. It has since tried to present itself as a modern party suited to Malaysia’s multicultural society. Abdullah Badawi, Malaysian prime minister and Islamic scholar, has meanwhile put PAS on the back foot by promoting Islam Hadhari, a “civilisational” Islam that seeks to reconcile religion with modernisation. And the creeping conservatism that alarms Malaysian liberals suffered a setback when religious police arrested more than 100 Muslim partygoers at a Kuala Lumpur nightclub; the raid prompted middle-class protests and persuaded the government to curb the powers of the force. /\

“Zainah Anwar, a Muslim feminist who heads the lobbying group Sisters in Islam and quotes Koranic verses to fight Islamic obscurantism and male chauvinism, is one of the small band of Asians optimistic about the retreat of Islamic extremism. “I think the worst is over, at least where Malaysia is concerned,” she says. /\

“Disillusionment with terror in Indonesia and weariness of Islamic puritanism in Malaysia have given Muslim moderates a historic opportunity to turn the tide against extremism. Militants will want to portray this as a simple battle between Islam and the west, but it is nothing of the sort: this is an internal struggle for the hearts and minds of Asian Muslims and moderates might actually win it. /\

Southeast Asia and the U.S. War in Terrorism

Countries in Southeast Asia, Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation “have responded differently to the US's call for further cooperation to fight terrorism, based on their perceived national interests. Within Southeast Asia, Singapore has been the US's most enthusiastic partner in the global war against terrorism. The island state's government has discovered local terrorist plots to disrupt international flights and blow up foreign embassies. Radical extremists linked to the various terrorist plots have been jailed. Singapore has since been considered a true strategic partner to the US and major asset in this region. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation (Thailand), September 11, 2006]

“Indonesia and Malaysia, as the world's most populous and developed Muslim nations, respectively, have been cautious. They have domestic concerns to think about. Furthermore, they do not want to jeopardise their standing within the global Muslim community. Malaysia, under former prime minister Mathathir Mohammad was the world's first Muslim-led country to reap diplomatic benefits from its strong stand against radical Muslims and has been praised by the Bush administration, paving the way for much-improved bilateral ties. Malaysia has also raised its profile through its leadership in the Organisation of Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement. [Ibid]

“ Indonesia, meanwhile, has reacted more slowly to the situation as its government has been going through a political transition. Under the leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia has had to deal with domestic problems like its own home-grown terrorists, in particular Jemmah Islamiyah. The Bali bombings in October 2002 brought the issue of terrorism into focus for Indonesia. Subsequent bombings at the Hotel Marriott in Jakarta have heightened the need to stamp out local terrorist networks and their regional linkages. [Ibid]

“The Philippines and Thailand, two key US allies, have cooperated closely with the US in both training and intelligence sharing. But they are not reliable partners like Singapore. Their leadership styles and political situations have made further anti-terrorism cooperation more difficult. Although President Gloria Arroyo established a close rapport with Bush, being the first to call to express sympathy with him after the attacks, the friendship did not last. When a Filipino worker was captured by a radical group in Iraq in 2004 and threatened with beheading, Arroyo caved in and pulled out Filipino troops, much to the chagrin of the US government. [Ibid]

“After the first deployment of Thai troops to Iraq in September 2003, Thaksin did not follow up on his promise to send a second batch in late 2004 due to the situation in Thailand's southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani. It was a case of the chickens coming home to roost. After all, it was Thaksin who exploited the war on terrorism for his own personal interests. Ten hours before a scheduled meeting with US President George W Bush on June 10, 2003, a group of Thais suspected of being members of Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) was arrested in the South. Miraculously, Thaksin's visit, arranged by the US-Thai Business Council, was then elevated to an informal bilateral meeting. Within hours, the arrests in Thailand were hailed as proof of Thailand's commitment to the global war on terrorism. [Ibid]

United States and Combating Terrorism in Indonesia

As part of its anti-terrorism and immigration policy, the Bush administration decided that male citizens from Indonesia would have to register with immigration authorities and those seeking asylum would automatically be detained. Indonesia was the only member of ASEAN subjected to the rules. Many Indonesians were insulted by the ruling and believed that Indonesians and Muslim were unfairly singled out. Security concerns prompted U.S. President George Bush to limit a trip to Indonesia to only three hours.

Before the Bali bombing, the United States criticized Indonesia for not doing enough to combat terrorism. After the Bali bombing Jakarta earned nothing but praise as it made one series of arrest after another and put many people with links to Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaida behind bars.

The Bush administration approved a plan in 2002 to help Indonesia establish an elite counterterrorism unit. Hotels have addressed the terrorism threat by: installing metal detectors and employing bag, car and even body searches and hiring security forms, police and soldiers to offer protection.

Arrest of Hambali

In July 2003, Hambali was arrested in Ayutthaya, 45 mile north of Bangkok in Thailand. A dozen undercover agents burst into the apartment where he was staying with his wife. He had a handgun with him but did not have time to use it. Authorities were tipped of by the CIA, which had tracked one of his phone calls to Ayutthaya and tips from Muslim Thais who reported a foreigner at their local mosque and Internet café that did not speak Thai. He was carrying a Spanish passport. His face had reportedly been altered by plastic surgery.

After his arrest Hambali was turned over to the CIA and taken to the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. He was arrested at same time as three other men linked with Jemaah Islamiiyah, The men reportedly had plans to blow up embassies, American-owned hotels and Israeli-owned businesses in Bangkok and the resorts in Pattaya and Phuket. They were also considering staging a major attack at an APEC meeting attended by U.S. President George Bush in Bangkok. Under interrogation by U.S. investigators, Hambali said hey were also considering attacks a shopping complex and a synagogue and Israeli embassy in Manila.

While he was living in Thailand, Hambali eschewed Muslim clothes and wore shorts and a T-shirt and was clean shaven. He told his suspicious neighbors there he was salesman . Hambali had been on the run since December 2001, when Singapore cracked down on Islamic militants in the wake of September 11th. He had crossed borders of Malaysia, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand and managed to stay a step ahead of his pursuers, who on one occasion came within a day of catching him. In January 2002 he entered Thailand from Malaysia. From September to March 2003 he stayed in Phnom Penh in Cambodia in a guesthouse popular with budget travelers. Using a false passport he traveled to Laos and Burma, entering Thailand about two weeks before his arrest.

Other Arrests of Jemaah Islamiyah Members

As of March 2004, 240 suspected members of Jemaah Islamiyah, including many of its leaders, had been arrested.

In April 2003, 18 suspected members of Jemaah Islamiyah were arrested. They included Abu Rusdan, the successor to Abu Bakar Bashir. In a raid in which the suspects were apprehended police also found dozens of detonators and 40 kilograms of fertilizer like that used to make the Bali bombs.

In 2003, a Jemaah Islamiyah cell was broken up in Pakistan that reportedly had been set up to train future leaders of the group. Among those involved were Bashir’s son Abdul Rahim and Hambali’s younger brother, Rusman Gunawan.

Fate of Jemaah Islamiyah

By 2004, Jemaah Islamiyah was regarded as largely in disarray and incapable of carrying out a coordinated attack like it did in Bali. At that time it was believed to have about 2,000 members but had been infiltrated by informers and was running short of funds. The public had lost sympathy with the group after the Marriot hotel and Australia embassy attack because most of the victims were innocent Indonesians.

Many still regarded Jemaah Islamiyah as dangerous. Even with all the arrests Jemaah Islamiyah, some believe, has stayed alive. A former member told the Washington Post, “At the same time that the police arrest them, they always find someone to replace them. Even if the entire Jemaah Islamiyah membership is wiped out, other groups will arise and do the same thing.”

In June 2003, AP reportedly: “Hurt by arrests of key leaders, the regional Islamic militant group Jemaah Islamiyah is reorganizing and intelligence officials expect it to resume operations. Citing an alleged June 21 report from military chief Gen. Narciso Abaya to Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, AP said US officials told their Filipino counterparts that JI "is not capable of large-scale operations" due to the disruption in its senior leadership following the arrests. "The JI is currently reorganizing around remaining sub-regional teams, re-establishing communications, and operations will resume (in) the midterm," AP quoted a copy of the report which it claimed to have seen earlier this week.

Shefali Rekhi wrote in the Strait Times in 2004: “JI is in ruins now,' says Nasir Abbas, one of the outfit's regional leaders who is trying to help the Indonesian police in their investigations. 'Anybody who was a JI member is no longer claiming to be a JI member now. 'Azahari and Noordin are the most dangerous, but even they don't say they are part of JI now. 'There is no management, no administration any more,' he told The Straits Times. According to Ms Jones, one of the most important divisions of JI is perhaps being led by Abu Dujanah, who was the secretary of the JI central command. After the Marriott bombing, Azahari and Noordin reported to him, she said. Reports say Abu Dujanah was the director of a key JI institution known as the Al Ikhlas Institution Foundation at Gading in Solo, Central Java. It runs an Islamic university called Mahad Ali al-Ikhlas. Previously, he helped hide Singapore JI members accused of planning attacks on United States interests in the city state. Others tracking the network believe Zulkarnaen or Aris Sumarsono, JI's top military trainer from Solo and a key member of the outfit's central command, could be the outfit's new leader, which puts them on the most-wanted list as well. But JI apart, there are other concerns in the region [Source:Shefali Rekhi, Strait Times, October 19, 2004]

Decline of Jemaah Islamijayh: Does the Same Fate Await Al-Qaida?

John Hudson of Atlanticwire wrote: “Counter-terrorism experts said Al Qaeda wouldn't vanish in a sweeping final act but in a gradual, winnowing decline. A new report out of Southeast Asia gives a sketch of what that looks like. Reporting from Jakarta, the Associated Press writes that Al Qaeda's foothold in Southeast Asia appears to be gone. The evidence stems from an interrogation video of Umar Patek, a top Indonesian terrorist suspect affiliated with Jemaah Islamijayh who was captured in Abbottabad, Pakistan, shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed there. Initially, Patek's arrest in bin Laden's sanctuary city signaled that Al Qaeda's ties to Asia remain strong. But interrogators soon concluded that Patek had gone to Abbottabad to rekindle his relationship with the terror network, waiting for months until a years-old contact eventually reached out to him. [Source: John Hudson, Atlanticwire, February 2, 2012~]

"Relying on such an old contact suggests Patek had been unable to forge any new jihadist ties in recent years," writes the AP's Niniek Karmini. "It was a far cry from the early 2000s, when Jemaah Islamiyah was believed to have received funding and operational support from al-Qaida, and some JI leaders were believed to have close relations with al-Qaida leaders from their days in militant training camps in Afghanistan." ~

“In some important ways, the development follows the script of a 2008 RAND Corporation study titled "How Terrorist Groups End." The project analyzed the spectrum of terrorist groups from 1968 to 2006, tracking their rise and fall. It found a group's downfall was typically gradual and led by police and intelligence work. "The evidence since 1968 indicates that terrorist groups rarely cease to exist as a result of winning or losing a military campaign. Rather, most groups end because of operations carried out by local police or intelligence agencies or because they join the political process." ~

“The emphasis on local police efforts as opposed to sweeping military campaigns is precisely what experts, speaking with the AP, attribute to the decline of Al Qaeda-linked military groups in Southeast Asia. "They can't stand their ground," said Sidney Jones, a terrorism analyst at the International Crisis Group. "The Indonesian police in particular is managing the threat very well." That should please the Rand researchers who urged the U.S. to step up "cooperation with foreign police and intelligence agencies" when the study was written.

Islam the Solution to Islamism in Southeast Asia

Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek: “Terror attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines seem to have opened up a new front in the war on terror. Strategists and commentators have focused their attention on Southeast Asia, asking whether radical Islam has found a new home in this volatile region. But, because of its size and severity, the Bali bomb blast has led people to the wrong conclusion. Islam in Southeast Asia is not the problem. In fact it may be the solution.

It is an awkward but unavoidable reality that Islam has not been able to make its peace with today's world. From Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to China, Muslims--or at least some Muslims--stand in stubborn, often violent, opposition to modernity. One region has been an exception to this dismal rule: Southeast Asia, where a gentle strain of Islam has flourished for centuries with tens of millions of followers. [Source: Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek, November 4, 2007=]

“Islam in Indonesia is still mostly moderate, says one of the region's senior Muslim politicians, Surin Pitsuwan, who warns against making too much of the Bali blast. "This was done by a tiny group, fueled from outside the country," he says. "Indonesia's problem is not Islam; it's instability." Indonesia's two largest Muslim groups--which together have 70 million members, making them the largest Muslim political organizations in the world--have forcefully denounced the bombings and urged President Megawati Sukarnoputri to crush the terrorists.=

“Pitsuwan is a member of Thailand's tiny Muslim community, a scholarly man well versed in Arabic and Islam, who served as his country's foreign minister for much of the past decade. At a recent conference of Muslim intellectuals held in Qatar, he argued that Southeast Asia, always considered to be on Islam's periphery, may have something to teach the Arab world, long regarded as the heartland of the faith. True Islam has often been thought to be Arab Islam. "From the beginning we have had to be flexible and innovate," Pitsuwan explains. "Islam in Southeast Asia had to accommodate to different cultures, religions and people. In doing so, we had to decide what were the essential aspects of Islam and hold on to those, while also embracing the world we live in." =

“The results have been remarkable not simply in the negative sense—few bloodbaths—but in positive terms as well. Southeast Asians have done better, economically and politically, than most Muslims, but also better than most people in developing countries. Over the past 20 years Malaysia and Indonesia have been among the fastest-growing economies in the world. That's why even now, while foreign investment in most Muslim countries is sinking, it has stayed stable in Malaysia. Muslims in Southeast Asia have prospered through globalization.=

“But the Bali bombings result from a different aspect of globalization. Over the past few decades, religious activists from the Arab world have traveled to Southeast Asia, preaching and teaching an austere Wahhabi version of Islam. Southeast Asians have gone to the Arab world and been trained in seminaries and schools, returning to spread their newfound zeal. (The next time you praise cheap travel, think of this.) The new, easy flows of information have further complicated matters. Pitsuwan explains that "news and images from all over the world have been beamed into the homes of Southeast Asians. They watch political events in the Balkans, the Middle East and Chechnya, and it raises their consciousness in a Pan-Islamic sense." =

“But the spread of radical Islam was not simply the result of the natural forces of globalization. It was given a huge push by wealthy charities and individuals from Arabia. Across the Islamic world, oil money from Saudi Arabia and the gulf states has funded puritanical schools, mosques and foundations. For more than three decades, Islamic fundamentalism has been a state-sponsored export. =

“It has been destabilizing. "It has unsettled the accommodations we have made with other faiths, with diversity, and also with modernity," says Pitsuwan. "If we don't retain some independence from the Arab center of Islam, we will undermine the flexible and successful faith that we have developed." Pitsuwan remains optimistic. "Most Muslims in Southeast Asia are very comfortable with their religion; it works for us. We have new movements here that are interpreting the Qur'an in light of the modern age. Perhaps others in the Muslim world can learn something from our experience." =

“For all of Islam's history, Southeast Asia was considered a backwater. But the flows of globalization now need to be reversed. Islam must learn not from the center but rather the periphery. As Peter Singer, one of the participants at the conference, noted, what some call the periphery, others call the frontier. =

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2014

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