Terrorism in Southeast Asia, More Than Just JI
Terrorism in Southeast Asia, More Than Just JI
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Terrorism in Southeast Asia, More Than Just JI

The members of the U.S. 9/11 Commission included in their report that "Southeast Asia, from Thailand to the southern Philippines to Indonesia" remains a likely base for terrorist activities. The first question is whether this is true. The second is what can be done about it.

If one focuses solely on the Jemaah Islamiyah organization, responsible for the Bali blasts of October 12, 2002 and a wave of other bombings across Indonesia and the Philippines, the truth is that it has been seriously damaged. Its top leaders are under arrest or on the run. Planning and coordination has become far more difficult, with sophisticated monitoring of mobile phone and electronic communications. Outside funding seems to have dried up. The network has been well-infiltrated by informants. And despite the fact that several of the most wanted bomb-makers seem to have hidden out in the heavily populated Indonesian island of Java for the last two years, there are some indications that the support base for these men is shrinking. The fear of being tainted as terrorists has led some previously sympathetic Islamic schools to shut their doors to known militants.

To be sure, JI recruitment continues in Indonesia, and training is ongoing in Java and the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. But it will not be easy to replicate the nearly two decades of experience that the top leadership had garnered from their years in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s onwards. It will also be tough to rebuild the trust that allowed "special operations" to be planned and executed in secrecy.

But no one should be complacent:

  • Some JI leaders with lethal skills appear to have become freelance instructors to other groups.
  • The network of like-minded jihadist groups in the region, while tiny in terms of overall numbers, is in a perpetual flux of growth, decay, and mutation. New groups are emerging, old ones are regrouping, and alliances are constantly shifting. It would be a huge mistake to focus only on JI.
  • Suicide bombing is now an established tactic in the region, and the hardest to prevent.
  • Porous borders, traditional trading networks, huge migrant labor flows, and endemic corruption all combine to thwart counter-terror measures.
  • Anger at the West, over Palestine and Iraq in particular, ensures continued support for radical interpretations of jihad, although this anger at the West is so widespread that it becomes less of an explanatory factor as to why some groups turn to violence and others don't.
  • Southeast Asian jihadists are not just interested in Southeast Asia. They also draw inspiration from the conflicts in Chechnya and Kashmir, and particularly for those who study in Pakistan and the Middle East, the possibility of recruitment into non-Southeast Asian radical organizations exists.

The international response to the ongoing threat has been to try to beef up the capacities of local intelligence and law enforcement agencies and to throw donor money at Muslim schools. The first is badly needed, although it will likely be more useful for strengthening the ability to go after people who have already used violence, or who are part of known networks, than to accurately predict new developments.

The second can't hurt, but it seems too often to be based on a few faulty assumptions. One is that poverty breeds radicalism, and that in many parts of the Muslim world, parents send their children to radical schools because no other education is available. The 9/11 Commission itself makes this point, writing with regards to Pakistan that "many of these schools are the only opportunity available for an education." While this may be true in Pakistan, it's not in Indonesia, where many JI members come from middle class families. Another assumption is that most of the recruitment into radical groups takes place in radical schools, whereas as much if not more goes on in mosques, after school hours, or on university campuses. A third assumption is that by increasing aid to moderate Muslim institutions, the message of radical jihadism will somehow get diluted. But there is a host of historical and political factors involved in why the radical message appeals to different groups at different times, and trying to create kinder, gentler militants through donor aid is likely to have limited success.

So what's the alternative? A part of any strategy has got to look at the local factors that give rise to terror in the first place. In Indonesia, the organization that later became JI was forged in the mid-1980s, but it wasn't until 2000 that its operatives undertook any bombings. It wasn't the 1998 fatwa from al-Qaeda, urging attacks on the U.S. and its allies, that tipped them over the edge -- it was the outbreak of communal violence at home. Christian-Muslim fighting in Ambon and Poso proved a more potent recruiting tool than all the other training, indoctrination, and funding put together.

The international community has got to work with Indonesia to ensure that communal tensions are better managed and that hotspots are identified before they erupt. Ambon and Poso continue to be beset by sporadic violence, but they aren't the only danger zones. Ultimately, a jihad at home serves the interests of terrorists far more than one abroad because defense of fellow Muslims becomes defense of family and friends. Not only recruitment, but also fund-raising becomes much easier.

In the Philippines, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had trained with JI for some time, but they appeared to find joint operations far more attractive after heavy-handed military assaults in 2000 and 2003 led to deep skepticism about the government's good faith in pursuing negotiations. It is the peace process itself now that may hold the key to making Mindanao less hospitable to terrorists. The MILF needs to hold local commanders accountable and find ways to end the ad hoc training camps for jihadists from around the region. The government needs to offer a credible autonomy package and enforce it. Failure of the current round of negotiations would be an immediate boost to the hardliners on both sides.

Terrorists don't create local conflicts -- they exploit them. The sources of those conflicts are very different in Indonesia, southern Thailand, and the Philippines, and the nature of the grievances behind them extraordinarily complex. There is not a one-size-fits-all anti-terrorist remedy, and there is no prospect of a quick solution. JI had a 25-year action plan. So should we.

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