There are worries that offshore oil rigs are particularly vulnerable to terrorism and concerns about disrupting the strategic Malacca Strait, one of world’s most important waterways and trade routes. Possible scenarios include using a fuel tanker to bomb a port, sinking a large ship in shallow waters to block the waterway or using an explosive-laden speedboat to ram a tanker of chemical carrier.

Victor Mallet wrote in the Financial Times, In the 1990s “you could still find people who believed south-east Asian Islam was so steeped in Javanese mysticism and pre-Islamic paganism, and so softened by sensuality and westernisation, that it would never fall prey to the extremism bedevilling Muslim societies in the Middle East. No one holds such beliefs today. Islamists in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, have attacked western tourists, local Christians and fellow Muslims with car bombs and machetes.. [Source: Victor Mallet, Financial Times, October 17, 2005]

“The Muslim southern provinces of Buddhist Thailand are in the grip of a separatist insurgency that has killed 900 people in 2004 and 2005 and Thai officials fear it will not be long before Islamist terrorists launch a big attack on a tourist resort. In the predominantly Christian Philippines, guerrillas loosely aligned with Islamist and separatist causes maintain their hold on parts of the Muslim south.

“Even in Asia, the march of chauvinist and ultra-conservative Islam sometimes looks unstoppable. In 2005, the Indonesian Ulema Council issued a batch of fatwas outlawing liberal Islam and demanding a literal interpretation of the Koran. These edicts were followed by renewed assaults on Indonesian Christians, Muslim liberals and members of supposedly heretical Muslim sects.

The invasion of Iraq played a big role in radicalizing Muslims in Southeast Asia and turning them against the United States. Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who expressed condolesces to the United States after the September 11th attacks, call the war in Iraq an “exceptional injustice” against a Muslim country. “The general view here is that the U.S. And its allies have lied because of the existence of weapons of mass destruction,”Din Syamsuddin, a leader in the Indonesian Muslim group Muhammadiyay, told AFP. “American is viewed as arrogant and imperialistic, trying to impose its values on other countries.” A Pew survey found that the favorable rating towards American by Indonesians dropped from 61 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2002 after the invasion of Iraq. [Source: Simon Martin, AFP, March 2004]

Sydney Jones, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group, told AFP that the detention of Muslims at Guantanamo and tighter U.S. Visa restriction on Muslims also soured attitudes. “The cumulative effect is that in Indonesia, and many other Muslim countries, the U.S. Is seen as having interpreted the war in terror as a license to take harse steps against Muslims,” she said. “The war on terror is still seen as a war on Muslims. Many Muslims see the U.S. As engaged in a systematic campaign campaign against them.”

Forces Behind Muslim Fanaticism in Southeast Asia

Michael Vatikiotis wrote in the New York Times, “Across the region, from the Philippines, through the Indonesian archipelago, up Malaysia and into Southern Thailand, Muslim communities have over the past decade strengthened their faith in Islam, driven in part by political and economic uncertainties. But along with greater religiosity has come a sense of anxiety and defensiveness propelled by the perception that the world of Islam is under attack. Southeast Asia's Muslims once lived in a comfortable world largely free of economic pressure and social prejudice; there were enough resources to share with non-Muslim neighbours and precious few issues to divide their communities. That was before the financial crisis of the late 1990s and before access to global media brought the plight of Palestinians into their living rooms. [Source: Michael Vatikiotis, New York Times, December 9, 2004. Vatikiotis is a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review]

“This new reality was driven home to me as I sat in a small Muslim restaurant here in southern Thailand. The people around the table, all Muslims, were grumbling angrily about their debt and shrinking job opportunities; but tempers really started to fray when the TV news showed yet more footage of Israeli tanks blasting away at Arab homes in the Gaza Strip.

“The rise of Islamic militancy in Southeast Asia has its roots in far-off conflicts like Bosnia and Afghanistan. Angry young men have returned from those wars as radicals with dangerous ideas and the skills to implement them. But less well understood is why ordinary Muslims are drawn to sympathize with their cause — or at least turn a blind eye — which in turn arouses suspicion and deepens the state of conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim.

“One common misunderstanding is that the practice of Islam is a ritualized and personal affair, much like Christianity for many Western Christians. Not so. For the millions of Muslims in Southeast Asia, Islam is a way of life and a badge of cultural identity. It follows that perceptions of Islam under threat are deeply felt. It also follows that in times of anxiety Muslims turn to their religion for more than a basic spiritual release — Islam becomes a shelter and a shield.

“Polls among Indonesia's Muslims show that the more law and order break down, the more they support the implementation of conservative Shariah law at a national level. When pressed, few would like to see Indonesia become a full-fledged Islamic state. But they yearn for a sense of moral order, and in the absence of a functioning civil society, the only reference they have is Islam.

“A better understanding of the sources of Muslim angst could help attack the roots of the shadowy militant movements behind the bombings and the violence in southern Thailand, in Indonesia and in the Philippines. A vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and tolerant but want their dignity and their faith respected; experience has taught them that they can trust their religious leaders at the community level, but not the civil servants and the military or police.

“It seems obvious, then, that to delegitimize the militants and ultraconservatives who are a threat to stability and security, states need to accord full respect to the Islamic faith and set about providing cleaner, more transparent forms of government so that Muslims won't need to turn to militant mullahs. Southeast Asia's Muslims have not become less moderate or tolerant, but they do feel demeaned and beleaguered. Desperate times often call for desperate measures.

Old Grievances at the Heart of Muslim Unrest in Southeast Asia

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray wrote in the New York Times: “The rebels in Southeast Asia's three main trouble spots — southern Thailand, the southern Philippines and Indonesia's Aceh Province — are Malay Muslims, but they are Muslims with ancient grievances. At one level, the disturbances look like part of a global Muslim upsurge. Thailand is Buddhist and the Philippines largely Catholic. Indonesia's Sufi-influenced Islam is different from Aceh's stark faith. But these insurgencies also hark back to sovereignties that predate by several centuries the present constitutional authorities in Bangkok, Manila and Jakarta. Sadly, Asia lives in the present. Few administrators are sensitive to historical complexities. That makes it easier for militant Islam to tempt wounded nationalism with a voice and platform. [Source: Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, New York Times, January 1, 2005. Datta-Ray is a former editor of The Statesman in India.]

“Aceh was the region's first Islamic kingdom. "The sultan of Aceh, along with the sultan of Malacca, was a major controller of trade through the straits," Paul Wolfowitz wrote when he was U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. British and Dutch stratagems destroyed the sultanate in the late 19th century. Even so, Aceh was not incorporated into the Netherlands East Indies, and objected from the very beginning to being swept into the new Indonesia. The Moro Liberation Front in the Philippines speaks for Mindanao, whose 34 sultanates dated back to the 15th century and once extended to northern Borneo. They fought the Spanish for 300 years and resisted the Americans after 1899. But the United States handed them over to the Philippines in 1935. Narathiwat was, like Yala, detached from the old Pattani kingdom of seven sultanates, which originally paid tribute to the Siamese kings of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. Though Pattani became independent, it suited British imperialism to divide it between Siam and Malaya in 1909.

History cannot be unscrambled. Once the principle of vivisection is conceded, almost every country would find itself on the chopping block, being pared into ever thinner slices reflecting religious, ethnic or linguistic identities. But it is not enough to invoke pragmatism to dismiss minority claims, especially when buttressed with evidence of population transfer, plundered natural resources and developmental neglect. Today's politicians must respect yesterday's rights. Democracy must not mean the tyranny of the majority.

Jemaah Islamiyah

See Separate Article

Abu Sayyaf

See The Philippines

Other Islamist Groups in Southeast Asia

Sangwon Sui wrote in Asiaweek: “In Indonesia, a noted extremist organization is the Jakarta-based Laskar Jihad. Its machete-wielding "soldiers" have attained notoriety for their holy war against Christians in places like the Malukus. Laskar Jihad, however, insists it has no links to Afghanistan. "We have nothing to do with Osama bin Laden," says Ayip Syafruddin, chairman of the Communication Forum, a group associated with Laskar Jihad. "We have no contact with them. We have a different vision." Elsewhere in the country, the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, has been fighting a decades-long war for independence in the resource-rich province, but it insists it has no links with outside groups. [Source: Sangwon Sui, Asiaweek, September 14, 2011]

Standing apart from these violent militants is Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas), Malaysia's main opposition group. The government claims otherwise: The son of party leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat was recently detained with others for allegedly being part of an extremist group with links to Afghanistan. Pas says the arrests are aimed at discrediting the party. Pas's case mirrors the situation of many similar-minded organizations around the region: They are generally too busy with their own struggles at home to be bothered bout others abroad. They do, however, provide governments, justifiably or otherwise, with convenient bogeymen.

The Rabitatul Mujahideen is a kind umbrella group formed in 1999 whose members have included Jemaah Islamiyah, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front of the Philippines, Kumpulam Militan Malaysia and Laskar Jihad and some Islamic extremist groups in Thailand and Myanmar. Hambali was selected leader of the group. It was involved in the Christmas Eve church bombings in 2000.

Ghuruba (Arabic for foreigners) is a group set up by the brothers and sons of Jemaah Islamiyah members. Leaders of the group have included Bashir’s son Abdul Rahim, who has said the group was set up only for religious discussion. Ghurubu appears to have been set up mainly to create a new generation of Muslim activist to take the place of Jemaah Islamiyah if it is shut down. The group has been accused of serving as a liaison between Hambali and al-Qaida and helping Hambali organize terrorist activities. As of March 2004, 11 of its members were in jails in three countries.

Mujaheddi Kompack is group formed in 1999

Al-Qaida in Southeast Asia

Al-Qaida has provided funding and logistical support for Southeast Asian terrorist groups. Some money was reportedly funneled to Southeast Asia using the Saudi-based charity al-Haramain. At least several hundred militants in Indonesia and Southeast Asia passed through Al-Qaida camps.

In 2002, Al-Qaeda's representative in Southeast Asia was Omar Al-Faruq. When he wanted a suicide bomber to attack an American naval ship, he hired a Somalian with a Bosnian passport. But the plan fell through when the Somalian had to return to get his passport renewed. Links to the Chechen struggle have also surfaced.

Al-Qaida in Indonesia

There are (or were) believed to be Al-Qaida cells in Indonesia. They are believed to be part of or affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah (See Below).

At least several hundred militants in Indonesia and Southeast Asia passed through Al-Qaida camps. It was were reported that Al-Qaida operatives from Yemen slipped into Indonesia and planned to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta with a large truck bomb in 2001. The plot was foiled. Authorities encouraged the terrorists to leave rather than arresting them.

Omar Farouq (Faruq, Farooq), the Kuwaiti-born Al-Qaida member, was a point man for Al-Qaida in Southeast Asia. He married an Indonesian woman, settled in a quiet village outside Jakarta and was captured in Indonesia and turned over to the CIA. He was involved with the Christmas Eve bombings in 2000 and a number of unrealized plots—such as an assassination attempt of Indonesian President Megawati and a bombing of U.S. embassies throughout Southeast Asia and attacking U.S. Navy ships in Surabaya—that never came off for one reason or another.

Farouq was high enough up in Al-Qaida that he gave Osama bin Laden’s right hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri a tour of the Aceh Province of Indonesia and made contacts between Al-Qaida and the Indonesian cleric Abu Bakur Bashir. One attempt to assassinate Megawati with a bomb didn’t come off because the man who was supposed to carry out the mission blew his leg off with a bomb. Farouq was captured by Indonesian authorities and handed over to the United States.

Al-Qaida in the Philippines

Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, came to the Philippines in the 1980s to seek recruits for the war in Afghanistan. He had some success. Hundreds of Filipinos reportedly participated in the anti-Soviet jihad. One of recruits, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, founded the Abu Sayyaf. Khalifa reportedly tried to arrange a merger between Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Khalifa was in the Philippines from 1986 to 1994. He married a Filipina and was suspected of using the International Islamic Relief Organization and a Muslim orphanage in Cotabato as fronts to funnel money from Saudi sponsors to Muslim groups and set up terrorist cells. He also set up coin boxes in schools and encouraged poor teachers and children to donate their lose change. This money was also presumably directed to terrorists.

Al-Qaida operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11th attacks, reportedly lived it up like a playboy while he lived in the Philippines in the mid-1990s. He visited nightclubs, scuba dived at island reports and once rented a helicopter to impress his girlfriend. Much of the time he lived with his nephew Ramzi Yousef (See Below).

See Terrorism

In 2001, three Jordanians and a Palestinian who had been living in the Philippines for more than a decade were arrested by Philippines intelligence agents. They were believed to be part of al-Qaida cell that was planning attacks. In 2004, a Muslim militant arrested by police said he had funneled $89,000 from al-Qaida operatives in Saudi Arabia to Abu Sayyaf. Some of the money was used to purchase explosives used to make bombs set off in Mindanao, including one that killed a Green Beret.

Al-Qaida and Hambali in Thailand

Al-Qaida members, including some of those involved with the September 11th attacks were fairly frequent visitors to Thailand. For a while Osama bin Laden T-shirts were widely available. The Pakistani-based groups Harkatul-Mujahideen (HUM) and Harkart-ul-Islamic (HUJI) are believed to have sleeper cells in Thailand. Fears of Islamic terrorism against Thailand’s tourist resorts were heightened after the terrorist bombings in Bali, Indonesia in October 2002. There were allegations that the Bali bombers, members of Jemaah Islamiah, may have planned their attack while living in southern Thailand.

Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, was arrested in Ayuthaya, north of Bangkok, in 2003. He was regarded as the operations chief for Jemaah Islamiyah, its main link with Al-Qaida and a primary Al-Qaida operative in Southeast Asia. He made plans and gave out orders with Jemaah Islamiyah and was reportedly the only non-Arab member of the Al-Qaida’s military committee.

Hambali is a Sundanese Indonesian. The son of peasant farmers from West Java, he was a stocky man with a round face. He worse glasses and had a wispy beard and blended easily into crowds Born in 1966, Hambali was the eldest son of 13 children. His great grandfather founded a religious school. His mother told Time that as boy he was “very religious, but also very quite, aloof and reserved.” As a teenager he became involved in local groups that later would become Jemaah Islamiah. In 1985, he accompanied Bashir to Malaysia and the two men ran a religious school together. In the late 1980s he fought for the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He returned to Malaysia in the early 1990s and lived in a $25 a month shack and supported himself by selling satay on the streets.

Hambali went undergound in May 2001. He reportedly returned to Afghanistan an was at an Al-Qaida camp at the time of September 11th. After the American invasion he reportedly personally fired a Stinger missile at a U.S. plane but missed because the plane was flying too high.

Hambali is the alleged organizer of the Bali bombing that killed 202 people in October 2002 and the bomb attack on the Jakarta Marriot hotel which left 12 dead. He was also believed to be involved in setting up meeting for the September 11th hijackers and participated in the 1995 plot to blow up 11 U.S. airliners over the Pacific.

A top Indonesian law enforcement official said that “Hambali was involved in 39 bombings in Indonesia” between August 2000 and the Bali blasts in October 2002. In many cases he chose which bombig missions to conduct and financed them. An arrested bomber said he made contact with militants through prayer groups and paid $6,000 donated by a Malaysia woman concerned about the treatment of Muslims in Indonesia. Amrozi, one of the Bali bombers testified that Hambali financed a car bombing in 2000 that injured the Philippine ambassador to Indonesia. Amrozi said that Hambali gave him money and told him to buy a Suzuki Carry for the bombing.

Hambali reportedly was in close touch with other international terrorists while in Ayuthaya. His brother had Thai friends and contaacts. The Nation said: 'What's troubling to Thai security officials is that in March 2003, terrorist suspect Gun Gun (Rusman Gunawan), the younger brother of Hambali, was among a group of Thai nationals studying in Karachi, Pakistan.'Gun Gun is now in Indonesian custody on charges of terrorism, but the Thai students who formed the Al-Bayan study group with him have not been found.'

Arrest of Hambali in Thailand

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.

Al-Qaida in Malaysia

On January 5, 2000, the planners of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 meet in Kuala Lumpur. The meeting was attended by Al-Qaida military planners and two September 11th hijackers who flew to Los Angeles after the meeting and then enrolled in flight schools in San Diego. A critical meeting for the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen also took place in Kuala Lumpur.

A FBI report went as far as saying that Malaysia was a “primary operational launchpad” for the September 11th attacks. The two hijackers, Saudi men, stayed in a condominium of Yazid Sufats, a former Malaysia army captain, later identified as a key participants in Al-Qaida’s effort to develop a biological weapon and a key Jemaah Islamiiyah operative in Southeast Asia. The so called 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui, stayed at the same apartment.

Yazid was arrested. He and 22 other men, who were also arrested, had trained at Al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yazid admitted helping the hijackers but said he had nothing to with plaining the attacks.

Several Malaysian army officers have been arrested on charges of involvement with al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiiyah. They include former Army Lieut. Colonel Abdul Manaf Kamsuri, arrested in February 2003; army captain Yazid Sufaat in arrested 2002; and an air force sergeant arrested in January 2003. They are not the only people with connections to Al-Qaida. By one count “several hundred” Al-Qaida-linked businessmen, bankers, traders and tourists—many of them Arab—either passed through to reside in Malaysia.

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.

Last updated April 2014

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