The Eastern Front: Southeast Asia Struggles to Create Anti-Terrorist Network

By Magnuson, Stew | National Defense, June 2007 | Go to article overview

The Eastern Front: Southeast Asia Struggles to Create Anti-Terrorist Network


Magnuson, Stew, National Defense


SINGAPORE -- The strategy is called "whack-a-mole" and it's precisely what those fighting the so-called global war on terror want to avoid.

Waiting for a threat to rear its head, then reacting with a hammer is considered bad policy.

As conflicts rage in the Middle East and South Asia, and North Africa heats up, strategists must keep an eye on Southeast Asia, home to three troubling hotspots.

Malaysia and Singapore have so far successfully cracked down on homegrown terror groups, but volatile regions with active terrorist groups surround them.

Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world. Most citizens practice a tolerant version of Islam, but a violent fundamentalist group, Jemaah Islamiya (JI), has waged a series of high-profile attacks starting with the Bali bombing in 2002 that claimed 202 lives. Thailand's restive south is a growing hotspot, and experts predict it may attract combatants from throughout the world. Separatists in the Philippines southern islands have waged battles against the majority Christian government for decades, although U.S. special operations forces there have had some success waging a counter-insurgency campaign.

Rohan Gunaratna, director of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the past five years have seen Southeast Asian governments set up the infrastructure to effectively combat and "manage" the terrorist threat.

But their efforts don't wholly prevent the emergence of small groups that copy al-Qaida's methods. Fueling their passions are the events in the Middle East, he said.

"These jihadists are largely driven by what is happening in the conflict zones in the world--particularly in Iraq." The U.S. invasion serves as a "recruitment poster" for these groups, he told the Global Asia Security forum in Singapore.

The most dangerous group, he said, is Jemaah Islamiyah.

"This group still remains the most capable and the most credible terrorist organization in the region," Gunaratna said.

Brig Gen. John Toolan, principal director for South and Southeast Asia and Pacific Security Affairs in the office of the secretary of defense, said there has been a great deal of bilateral partnerships in the region to combat terrorist networks. "But what we haven't been able to do is bring it completely together in a multilateral picture," he told reporters in Washington.

Singapore and Malaysia, in the aftermath of 9/11, effectively dismantled JI cells operating within their borders, Gunaratna asserted. One JI group based in Singapore had plans to bomb the U.S. embassy and subway stations. The plot was interrupted by the Singapore Internal Security Department in early 2002, but served as a wake-up call to the city state, said Mike Millard, author of "Jihad in Paradise: Islam and Politics in Southeast Asia."

"Singapore has a very harmonious society for being a multi-ethnic society," Millard told National Defense.

The mix is about 75 percent ethnic Chinese, 15 percent Malay and 6 percent Indian. The standard of living is high, there is low unemployment, and a notable lack of extreme poverty. "It's not a perfect society, but it runs well," Millard said.

It's an efficient, well run government and that efficiency extends to its police departments, Millard noted.

Gunaratna said Singapore's experiences managing terrorism should be shared with its regional and world partners. It has had success reaching into the Muslim community, engaging religious leaders to address the false ideology of extreme Islam, and reforming members of the cell that threatened it in 2002. Some extremists have even been released from prison.

Unlike some of its neighbors, Singapore occupies a small territory and has a small population--about 4.4 million. And like its neighbor, Malaysia, the government has enjoyed a long period of de facto one-party rule.

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