Whither Southeast Asian Terrorism?

sea-terrorism-articleTactical successes mask continued strategic weakness and incoherence among the region’s states. All political violence will be local

Southeast Asia’s post-9/11 tryst with terrorism was characterized by a number of issues. First, there was the labelling of the region – perceived as a hub for an Al Qaeda-led global jihadist movement – as the ‘second front’ in the global ‘war on terror,’ even if almost all of the conflicts in the region predated 9/11. Second, it was feared that a number of regional countries with predominantly Muslim populations could fall prey to religious extremism. Third, the ability of some of the region’s governments to deal with terrorism was suspect.

In retrospect, it is clear that the region is overcoming these challenges, and that it has been robustly countering the transnational terrorist threat. Groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and others have been contained or weakened. Indonesia has scored significant operational successes: key JI leaders like Azahari Husin, Noordin Top and Dulmatin have been killed. Abu Bakar Bashir, the leader of JI – and, more specifically, of its newest incarnation, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) – was arrested and convicted. The JI is now fragmented, forcing it to put the objective of establishing a regional caliphate on hold.

In the Philippines, military operations have decimated the ASG, including its top leadership. The group is little more than a bandit outfit engaged in kidnap-for-ransom operations. The national government has commenced peace talks with the communist rebels (the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army and the National Democratic Front – CPP-NPA/NDF), and resumed negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Despite hiccups in the respective peace talks, the overall level of militancy in the country remains low.

In Thailand, the active groups lie primarily in the south. Their attacks are low-key, and their impact is largely local.

In regional terms, the link between the groups in Southeast Asia – particularly JI and Al Qaeda Central – has weakened significantly. This is critical, as the regional groups had looked to Al Qaeda for inspiration, strategic direction, training, logistics and money. To be sure, a number of hybrid groups have emerged in the region, taking the name of Al Qaeda: Al Qaeda in Malay Peninsula, Al Qaeda in Indonesia, and Al Qaeda Serambi Mekkah (Al Qaeda in Aceh). But these names suggest only an ideological affinity, for no visible links exist with Al Qaeda Central.

Most importantly, groups in the region now focus on the ‘near enemy’ – taking up issues against local governments – rather than the ‘far enemy’ that was the idealized target of Al Qaeda Central. Despite these developments, concerns remain about how the regional threat will evolve in the coming years. While regional countries have dealt with the symptoms, the underlying issues still need to be addressed – or are being addressed without much success.

For instance, official response by successive governments in the context of the Southern Thai conflict has generally been marked by overreaction, insensitivity and brutal measures. At the same time, the issue was almost totally neglected during the last few years of political instability in Bangkok. No signs yet exist that the new government under Yingluck Shinawatra (sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) will be able to rein in southern militancy. The government is bogged down with political issues in Bangkok, and the legacy of Thaksin Shinawatra makes Yingluck’s appeal for reconciliation difficult. Thaksin’s name still invokes resentment in the South, due to high-handed policies and brutal crackdowns.

In the Philippines, negotiations with the CPP-NPA/NDF have reached an impasse. The government insists that there will be no further talks until the reciprocal working committees on the Comprehensive Agreement of Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) have reached a common tentative agreement on social and economic reforms. The government also clarified that there will be no formal talks regarding the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) and the release of NPA leaders detained in prison. The government had earlier accused the NDF of participating in the peace talks so that the NDF can demand the release of some of its members.

The August 2011 talks with the MILF were marked by disagreement concerning the nature of the autonomy that the government is prepared to concede. The MILF seeks an asymmetrical state-to-sub-state relationship, wherein the powers of the central and the local government are clearly stated. The government proposal conceding “a more empowered, more workable, and thus, more genuine autonomy” for the Bangsamoro region appears to be non-specific. While both sides agree that a negotiated settlement could succeed, certain elements within the MILF are becoming impatient.

Openly expressing his opposition to peace negotiations, renegade MILF commander Ameril Umbra Kato has formed his own splinter unit – the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Front – to wage an armed battle for an independent Muslim homeland. Though the MILF downplays the significance of Kato’s defection, the Philippine government is not convinced that it can afford to underestimate Kato’s force in Mindanao.

In Indonesia, the July 2009 Jakarta bombings – after a five-year ‘hiatus’ – and the discovery of the military training camp in Aceh in February 2010 demonstrated the ongoing threat of terrorism in Indonesia, while exposing chinks in the national counter-terrorism strategy. Despite a strong military response, which resulted in the killing and capture of key leaders, terrorists groups have been able to regenerate. The Aceh camp was an initiative of a new cross-organizational coalition (lintas tanzim) – the Al Qaeda Serambi Mekkah – comprising members from JI, JAT, Darul Islam (DI), the Action Committee for Crisis Response (KOMPAK), and also Aceh’s Islamic Defender Front (FPI).

The camp was run by Dulmatin – one of the region’s most wanted terrorists, due to his involvement in the October 2002 Bali bombings. The fact that Dulmatin – who was believed to be with the ASG in the Philippines – could evade detection and return to Indonesia to organize the camp, exposed weaknesses in border management and the lack of cooperation in intelligence sharing. This fact was further buttressed by the arrest in Pakistan of Umar Patek – another high-value fugitive in the region.

The Aceh camp also exposed the double act of Abu Bakar Bashir. For a number of years, the mainstream perception was that there had been a breakdown in JI’s hierarchy, and tensions between two major factions. It was believed that the faction led by the now-deceased Azahari Husin and Noordin Top was interested in focussing on an anti-Western agenda similar that of Al Qaeda. On the other hand, the faction led by Bashir was believed to have been against this approach, preferring instead to use religious proselytization and socialization. Bashir also maintained that violent means like bombings are not justified in Indonesia, since it is not a land of conflict. However, Bashir’s involvement in the Aceh camp demonstrated that, behind a façade of legitimate activities, he was actually training a new generation of militants.

Given the complex composition and history of the polities of Southeast Asia, multiple groups will remain at the margins of society or perceive that they are exploited. As such, some form of politicized violence will persist for the foreseeable future. The good news is that this violence will lose much of its transnational flavour. The bad news is that political violence as a means of problem-solving will remain attractive at the regional and sub-national levels.

Even though the key groups have weakened operationally, the prognosis for the region remains troubled. The threat has now refracted into multiple fronts. Small groups or even individuals are acting autonomously in terms of planning, target selection and execution of attacks. An increasingly radicalized milieu in Indonesia, and certain pockets of Malaysia and the Philippines, continue to provide the new recruits for militant activity. The influence of the Internet and the print media in fuelling radicalization is increasing. Many radical Islamic educational institutions in the region – and even some universities (for instance, in Malaysia) – continue to spread extremist ideologies. Prisons have become a major source of recruitment – mostly due to a dearth of effective de-radicalization or rehabilitation programmes. A high degree of recidivism exists among ex-convicts, as was the case with a majority of the people arrested in the Aceh camp.

In many Southeast Asia countries, the legal regimes against terrorism remain weak. Cooperation among many of these countries remains ad hoc and issue-specific. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries (ASEAN) has binding commitments for its members to work in concert in countering terrorism. Still, high sensitivity on issues like sovereignty and non-interference, ambiguity about the definition of terrorism, the domestic politics of the respective countries, and divergent national capabilities, are all hindrances to the implementation of a regional strategy. Thus, even as significant successes at the operational level have reduced the transnational threat in the short-term, the countries in the region must remain prepared for prolonged regional and localized struggles in the years to come.

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Arabinda Acharya is Research Fellow and Head of Strategic Projects at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Tom Quiggin is a Senior Research Fellow at Carleton University (Ottawa), a criminal court-appointed expert on terrorism, and a Canadian Federal Court-appointed expert on intelligence and evidence.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press / Tatan Syuflana)

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