TERRORISM: Evolving Regional Alliances and State Failure in Mindanao

By Collier, Kit | Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

TERRORISM: Evolving Regional Alliances and State Failure in Mindanao


Collier, Kit, Southeast Asian Affairs


The death of Azahari bin Husin in a shoot-out with Indonesian police near the East Java town of Malang on 9 November 2005 was widely acclaimed as the most important victory against the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) since the capture of Hambali.1 But it became increasingly clear during the year that Malaysian-born Dr Azahari - known as the "Demolition Man" for his skills in assembling the first Bali bombs that killed 202 three years earlier - did not answer to the JI hierarchy and was operating as his own man. Indeed, in 2005 it became obvious that old ways of thinking about JI and regional terrorism were no longer adequate - if they ever were in the first place.

The dominant model, perpetuated in the media by prominent commentators Rohan Gunaratna and Zachary Abuza, views JI as an al-Qaeda franchise, with a clearly demarcated command structure and organizational boundaries, dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic caliphate embracing much of Southeast Asia. To the extent this image was ever valid, as Sidney Jones points out, it represents a five-year-old "snapshot" of JI with little relevance today.2 A fluid pattern of alignment and realignment between autonomous jihadi factions characterized the terrorist threat in 2005, and this trend is likely to strengthen in the future.

What knits these factions loosely together is not "a very horizontal and exceptionally compartmentalized organization" with a "very rigid cell structure", as Abuza insisted after Ball's second series of suicide bombings on 1 October 2005,3 but a shared world-view based on personal allegiances forged in exile, training camps on the Afghan border, or the conflict zones of Sulawesi, Maluku, and - looking forward - Mindanao. Gunaratna has even declared Mindanao the "new strategic base of Jemaah Islamiyah", but like Abuza, misperceives the nature of this threat.4

This overview examines Mindanao's growing role as the regional terrorist crossroads in 2005, but from the perspective of local realities, not externally imposed organigrams. It demonstrates a kaleidoscopic interplay of foreign and domestic jihadi groups only possible in Mindanao's lawless enclaves, where for all practical purposes the Philippine state has failed.

Perspectives on Southeast Asian Terrorism

Carlyle Thayer identifies three basic ways of looking at terrorism in Southeast Asia: from a global, a regional, or a national perspective.5 The global view rests on an "al-Qaeda-centric paradigm" that places Osama bin Laden at the centre of analysis and evaluates local political violence largely in terms of its purported "links" back to the terrorist mainspring. Gunaratna is the most widely cited exponent of this view, portraying JI as "al-Qaeda's instrument" and "al-Qaeda's Asian arm".6

Regional specialists like Abuza take this perspective a step further. While showing more interest in local context and specifies than globalists, Abuza agrees that al-Qaeda "established" JI as "a regional arm of its own", then extends the argument to apply a JI-centric paradigm to developments in Southeast Asia.7 Like al-Qaeda, JI is seen as an organizational monolith, to be analysed like a wiring diagram. Regionalists are often inattentive to contingency and factionalism, and, for country specialists, their interest in local history and culture seems shallow, unsupported by the necessary learning.8

The dominance of global and regional perspectives is partly due to the reluctance of many country specialists to take terrorism seriously as a legitimate field of inquiry. Until the first BaIi bombings, prominent Indonesianists downplayed globalists' and regionalists' assertions of an emerging terrorist threat.9 The latter's often cavalier approach to evidence, sources, and referencing, their lack of area knowledge and languages, and suspicions of intelligence laundering by persons too close to security services for comfort, all help explain the initial scepticism of most country specialists. …

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