Southeast Asia Cooperation Emerges out of Bali Attack ; A Counterterrorism Center Opens in Malaysia - with Only Minor US Involvement - Reflecting a Regional Determination to Combine Resources

Article excerpt

It's the house that Bali built.

The opening of a new regional counterterrorism center in Malaysia this month symbolizes how far governments in southeast Asia have come in their willingness to confront terrorism.

Located in Kuala Lumpur, the Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counter-Terrorism will house researchers and host training seminars for regional officials. While the center itself will not be an intelligence agency involved in operations, Southeast Asia's governments have already moved toward deeper intelligence sharing and joint investigations, say analysts.

"Police forces are cooperating better now, it's really a dramatic improvement that's paying off in terms of arrests," says Zachary Abuza, a professor at Simmons College in Boston and the author of a forthcoming book on terrorism in Southeast Asia.

But it wasn't always this way.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell first raised the idea of an counterterrorism center in 2002 during a visit to the region, critics asked if such a move was necessary.

Would this be a Trojan horse, enabling the US to install a military base? Or an attempt to drag the region into a costly US- led war?

But such doubts were quashed by last October's nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia, and the economic ripple effect caused by fear of more attacks on resorts. Even countries like Thailand, with few visible signs of such extremism, were caught short as Western tourists decided to stay home.

"The bottom line is that unless governments perceive a direct and immediate threat from terrorism, they won't take action against terrorist groups in their territory," says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Singapore's Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies.

Investigators have since dug deeper into the secret networks that allowed Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Al Qaeda-affiliated group behind the Bali attack, to recruit and train followers in several countries. And what they have discovered underscores the need for continued regional cooperation to bring terror groups to heel.

The trial of Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, accused of plotting to overthrow the government as head of JI, recently heard evidence from witnesses in Malaysia and Singapore. But because the witnesses are outside the country, Mr. Bashir's lawyers have tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the testimony as inadmissible in court.

FOR Indonesia, which once spurned offers from its neighbors to help snare Bashir, who spent much of the '90s in Malaysia, such cooperation marks a major turnaround. …