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August 2003

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The author, a retired senior U. S. diplomat, has contributed a number of analytical pieces to American Diplomacy over the years. In this consideration of a geographic region he knows well, Amb. Palmer surveys in some detail the prospects for coping with the threat of terrorism in the coming months.—Ed.

Terrorism in Southeast Asia: Local Origins, Global Consequences

"Politics and succession issues are the critical unknown factors in the immediate future of Islamic terrorism in Southeast Asia."

To date in Southeast Asia, Islamic-extremist terrorism is growing in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. Thailand with a Muslim minority in its southern provinces and some terrorists who have been active elsewhere does not appear to be as deeply penetrated as the countries previously mentioned and will not be a subject of this study.

What do Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia have in common? The common feature is that new leaders are likely to succeed to executive power in scheduled 2004 elections, except in Singapore.

Succession seems most secure in Malaysia where 77-year old Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad has stated he will retire in October, 2003 in favor of Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. Mahathir has presided over what can only be called a Revolution in his 22 years in power. He has aggressively but deftly managed the main post-colonial issues bequeathed to Malaysia by Britain's colonial administration. These include the potentially destabilizing ethnic divide between indigenous Malays and Chinese brought to the country by the British as coolie labor.

Chinese immigrants were on the verge of matching Malay numbers in the 1930s before immigration ceased in the war years. Malays presently constitute between 50 and 55 percent of the population; Chinese are 30 to 35 percent; Indians and others make up the remainder. At independence in 1957, the Chinese dominated the economy. Prime Minster Mahathi has used the affirmative action provisions of the 1972 NewEconomic Policy adopted after the bloody May 13, 1969 anti-Chinese race riots to promote Malays to the commanding heights of the Malaysian economy. This has been accomplished with the implicit cooperation of the Chinese who have acknowledged the truth of the mantra that there can be no economic development without Malay political stability for which Malay economic participation was necessary. This delicate task has been achieved without unduly antagonizing the Chinese. Mahathir has managed this feat by enabling the Chinese to retain impressive economic power. The pie has been made larger. The potential for ethnic explosiveness has been diverted into economic competition.

The British had based their indirect rule on co-opting the Malay aristocracy. The result in the post-independence era was that a westernized urban-oriented secular leadership class came to power. Its political expression was the "United Malays National Organization" which formed alliances with communally based conservative Chinese and Indian parties. There was a constitutional bargain in which Malays were guaranteed governmental political power and the Chinese were accorded a free hand in the economy.

However, the strongly islamicized, largely rural, Malay population, resented being left behind. Many turned to the fundamentalist "Pan Malaysia Islamic Party" better known by its acronym, PAS, as an alternative to UMNO. Since it was formed in 1950, PAS has unapologetically advocated an Islamic state based on Koranic law, and criticized the secular orientation of the modern state UMNO has organized.

Mahathir has strenuously sought to maintain Malay unity by keeping PAS off-balance with a mixture of cooperation, co-option and coercion. PAS centered its power in the Malay-majority states of Perlis, Kelantan, Trengganu and Pahang. It gained conrol of Kelantan and Trengganu in the 1999 elections. PAS also made important gains at both the local and national levels in the elections, and now heads the opposition in parliament.

UMNO lost Malay support because many were disgusted at the perceived corruption of some of its leading personalities who had enriched themselves in the 1990's bubble economy. The 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis focused a blinding light on favoritism toward such persons. Younger members of the rising middle class reportedly voted for PAS to protest against UMNO, implicitly demanding reform. Malays who voted against UMNO also were angered over Mahathir's ruthless treatment of his then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim who was jailed on charges many felt were spurious.

Despite the slippage in Malay support, Chinese and Indian votes enabled Mahathir to retain the Holy Grail of Malaysian politics --a two-thirds parliamentary majority that enabled the constitution to be changed at will.

Aside from the problems of maintaining domestic stability, the Malaysian Government became concerned over the local impact of events in the Middle and Near East. The1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the 1991 US-led Gulf War against Iraq had created deep resentment among the traditionalist Malay Islamic base. Malaysian security officials began keeping a close watch on some 40 local extremist groups as early as the mid-1990s.

Many critics of the Mahathir Government thought the arrests of Islamic militants after the 1999 elections were merely crass attempts at political intimidation. However, these arrests soon demonstrated initially bewildering connections between the arrestees and foreign extremist groups.

The nature and extent of these ties only became apparent after September 11, 2001. Mahathir's earlier warnings about possible PAS extremism had seemed as if he were crying wolf for political advantage, but the Malaysian public became aware there was a real problem. The Mahathir Governemt had cooperated closely with US intelligence and security services since at least 1981 when he came to power and such cooperation intensified. Mahathir's subsequent even closer cooperation has had broad support among all ethnic groups.

Although he has announced his retirement will take place in October 2003, the Prime Minister has launched a series of initiatives to guide the Malay population toward a moderate course away from Islamic extremism. This includes a return to English as the medium of instruction. There will henceforth be no religious teaching in state schools. Instead, religious teaching will take place after school hours. Mahathir has also announced military conscription on the Singapore model designed to inculcate patriotic national values. He will surely watch over how these innovations develop much in the manner that Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew keeps a baleful eye on Singapore.

Singapore's potential vulnerability to Islamic terrorism shocked the island city- state. The fact that local Malays had readily played a facilitating role reminded the 70 percent Chinese majority that Malays are at the bottom of every socio-economic measuring scale. Even if Al Qaeda is uprooted, the conditions that produce Islamic terrorism may persist because of the apparently enduring income inequality.

The Philippines may be an example of this paradox. The ruling elite absorbed the Spanish hidalgo or aristocratic ethos all too well in Spain's 300 years of rule. Additionally, Spain's Christianizing mission absorbed virtually all of the Philippines except the Islamic heartlands in Mindanao and the southern islands. These areas remained outside Spanish control during Spain's centuries of rule. After the United States took the Philippines in 1898, the Americans sought to bring the area under their control. It took the bitter 1902-1913 War of Pacification before the Islamic areas were conquered. The Americans spent the remainder of their rule until Philippine independence in 1946 encouraging Christian relocation to Mindanao. In broad terms, Mindanao was 85 percent Muslim at the time of the American conquest and Christians constituted 15 percent of the population . The proportions have been reversed. Mindanao is about 80 percent Christian now and 15 percent Muslim. The consequences are obvious.

In addition to the seething Muslim area in the south, agrarian unrest by farmers in central Luzon and on Mindanao persists. Formerly the Huks fanned these flames. Their successors are leftist Mao-inspired New People's Army. Elites have maintained their control by the use of private armies.


What is the appeal of Al Qaeda to local Muslims?

1. They of course have historical grievances.
2. They view Islam as an alternative to upper class corruption.
3. They have grievances against Israel for its practices against Palestinians.
4. They have collateral grievances against the US for its support of Israel.
5. They are repulsed by materialism and US-inspired globalization.

Terrorism in Southeast Asia is not new. Terrorism connected to outside sources is also not new. The largely Chinese Communist Terrorists of Malaya and Singapore; the Philippine Huks and the later New Peoples Army of the Philippines and the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) were all connected in part to outside sponsors in Moscow and Beijing.

Islamic terrorism in Indonesia has a long history. The Darul Islam movement in Indonesia carried on an anti-Government campaign to establish an Islamic State from 1950 to 1962 in which at least 200,000 persons were killed.

Contemporary Islamic terrorism in the Philippines dates back at least to 1972 when the Moro National Liberation Front began anti-government activities against the 1968-1986 regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. In fact, the Marcos Government practiced terrorism of various types. The assassination of Oppositionist Benigno Aquino is an example.

The 1968-1998 regime of Indonesian President Suharto practiced all forms of terrorism against its political opposition including alleged Muslim extremists.

There have been abundant sources of local dissatisfaction, which produce local political terrorism both against local governments and by local governments against the opposition. Nevertheless, even in the days of communist terrorism, there was only limited contact between local and outside forces. Moreover, Islamic use of terrorist tactics was highly localized with little or no contact with terrorist entities in the Middle East.

However, Southeast Asian Islamic terrorism now connects local grievances with the well-organized, well-financed external Al Qaeda network. The connection came about as a result of modern communications and modern transport capabilities. It was fueled by the anger of Southeast Asian Muslims at the perceived attacks on Islam resulting from the Soviet 1979-1989 occupation of Afghanistan, the 1991 US-led Gulf War against Iraq and the US-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian Muslims volunteered as Mujahideen warriors in these conflicts and underwent indoctrination and training in Muslim extremist camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Southeast Asians encountered hardened veterans of Middle Eastern terrorism and returned to Southeast Asia full of zeal.

There are broadly two groups of returnees, those who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1979-1989 era and those who went to the area in the later period of the US war against the Taliban.

There was reverse traffic as well. Apparently impressed by the ardor of the Southeast Asians, Al Qaeda agents began exploring the potential for expanding operations in the region as early as 1988. Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law Mohamad Jamal Khalifa made a reconnaissance of the Philippines in 1988. He found conditions favorable for Al Qaeda and returned in 1991 to set up an office and to establish contact with both the Moro Independence Liberation Front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf.

The MILF had replaced the MNLF as the more aggressive champion of Islam in the Southern Philippines. Al Qaeda military trainers went to MILF and Abu Sayyaf camps.

The early Al Qaeda focus on the Philippines made it the center of extraordinary terrorist activity. Ramzi Yussuf laid his plot there for the unsuccessful 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. A 1995 accident involving handling explosives in his Manila apartment led to a fire. Police investigators discovered sophisticated plans to carry out high profile terrorist operations in 1995-1996. These included a plot to assassinate the Pope during his 1995 visit; plans for synchronized bombings of US Embassies in Manila and elsewhere in the region; plans to blow up twelve US passenger aircraft; plans to assassinate President Clinton during his 1996 visit to Manila for the APEC Summit, and plans for suicide assaults on FBI and CIA headquarters.

The mid-1980s Suharto crackdown on Muslim extremists caused religious teacher AbuBakar Baasyir and his devoted disciple Riduaan Isamuddin known as Hambali to flee to Malaysia. They found Malaysia a ready target for subversion. By 1985 Baasyir had organized Jemaah Islamiya which aspired to develop an Islamic state including Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Southern Philippines and Indonesia.

Malaysia was a choice location for this effort because of its excellent air communications, banking and financial systems, disgruntled rural Malay population attracted increasingly to PAS, and, most usefully, an immigration system that gave ready entry to foreign Muslims. Additionally, there were growing numbers of local religious clerics teaching in private homes or little known schools the severe brand of Islam espoused by the Taliban.

Abu Bakar Baasyir and Riduaan Isamuddin (Hambali) took leading roles in encouraging such religious indoctrination. Baasyir remained in Malaysia, while Hambali went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s to fight the Russians. Hambali returned to Malaysia in the early 1990s full of zeal to continue and expand the armed struggle to promote Islam. He became the regional link with Al Qaeda. The Singapore Government reports he had direct access to Mohamad Atef also known as Abu Hafs, one of Osama bin Laden's trusted aides. Hambali is one of the very few non-Arabs at high Al Qaeda levels.

Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian army officer, became the key accomplice of Baasyir and Hambali. His career illustrates how Al Qaeda took root. Sufaat spent four years, 1983-1987, studying biochemistry in the US. Upon his return, his Mother-in-law considered he had strayed from Islam and urged him to take religious instruction. Meanwhile, he joined the Army, became a captain and served as a laboratory technician in a medical brigade. He became extremist in his religious outlook under the influence of Baasyir and Hambali. Sufaat became their key Malaysian follower, including hosting group meetings at his residence.

In January, 2000 Hambali ordered Sufaat to host two of the hijackers who later crashed United Flight 77 into the Pentagon. American intelligence authorities had alerted Malaysian police that a group of suspected Arab terrorists would arrive about that time and the entire group was tailed closely and videotaped by Malaysian security officials. While Malaysian authorities had been watching some 40 extremist groups previously, this was apparently their first direct observation of local terrorists with their foreign counterparts. Surveillance of Jemmah Islamiya apparently began at that time. At the time neither the Americans nor the Malaysians were aware of how closely Jemaah Islamiya and Al Qaeda were linked. The CIA was provided the videotape but paid it little attention until mid-1991 when one of those photographed was identified as a possible suspect in the bombing of the US destroyer Cole in October, 2000. By then the two eventual hijackers had already entered the US. Meanwhile, Sufaat went to Afghanistan and served in a Taliban medical unit.

Meanwhile, Hambali had set up at least two Al Qaeda cells in Singapore composed of ethnic Malays. After the US bombing of Taliban targets began in late 2001, one of the cells was instructed to set off explosions at the US and other embassies in Singapore. Another cell was ordered to blow up US warships and other targets in Singapore. In October, two Al Qaeda agents slipped into Singapore to help with the bombing plans. One called "Mike" was a former student of Baasyir and an explosives expert but delayed plans by insisting that more explosives were needed.

Fortunately, Singapore security officials learned soon after September 11, 2001 of local Jemaah Islamiya links with Al Qaeda and began investigations. Thirteen arrests were made in December shortly before the bombings were to occur. Singapore police interrogations produced evidence leading back to Malaysia and Hambali. Malaysian police had already begun making their own arrests of known Jemaah Islamiya members. Hambali fled to Afghanistan in late 2001. About this time, Yazid Sufaat returned to Malaysia in December, 2001 from Afghanistan by attempting to slip across the Thai border, but the Malaysian police were waiting for him and he was quickly apprehended.

Sufaat has been charged among other things with procuring four tons of ammonium nitrate - twice the amount Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma bombings. The explosives were stored in Johore across the Causeway from Singapore and were recently recovered by Malaysian authorities.

The Singapore arrests provided the identity of "Mike" a key figure in Al Qaeda activities in the Philippines. Singapore provided the information leading to his arrest by Philippine authorities.

His name is Fahur Rathman Al-Ghozi, an Indonesian associate of both Baasyir and Hambali. He was charged with December, 2000 bombings in Manila in which 22 people were killed and has been charged with Christmas Eve church bombings in Indonesia in which 15 persons were murdered. These attacks were reportedly test runs for the planned Singapore bombings.

Al Ghozali has admitted traveling to the Philippines since 1996 to buy weapons and explosives. Al Ghozali like Hambali was a highly sophisticated agent. He had traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, using five passports, often sailing in small fishing boats at night to escape detection. Aside from his contacts withHambali, Al Ghozali worked closely with another Indonesian, Lieutenant Faiz Abu Bakar Bafana. Bafana gave instructions to Al Ghozali to put the Singapore bombing plot into motion, but Al Ghozali decided four tons of explosives was inadequate and ordered that a total of seventeen tons be procured. This blunder led to a delay, which gave the Singapore police enough time to make the arrests that unraveled the plot.

Hambali and Baasyir escaped arrest and were able to return to Indonesia. Baasyir resumed his public role as a religious teacher. Hambali's whereabouts remain unknown.

Al Ghozali, as noted, is in Philippine custody. He has admitted being the Al Qaeda contact with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF has a reported 10,000 fighters under arms. They are considered to be better led, better trained and better organized than either the MNLF or Abu Sayyaf. The MILF has denied links with Al Qaeda, however.

As this indicates, the Philippines had become a launching pad for Al Qaeda activities elsewhere in the region as well as in its Muslim south. Additionally, the Macapagal-Arroyo Government continued to be plagued by the persistent menace of the Maoist New Peoples Army terrorist activities in Luzon. However, the initial enthusiasm of the Philippine Government for US assistance against Abu Sayyaf had to be cooled down when nationalists protested against the return of the former US colonial master in a military role. Painful negotiations were necessary to carve out any role at all for the 1200 or so U.S. military personnel, including 660 Special Forces, who arrived after January 2001.

Any hopes that US troops would accompany Philippine patrols in pursuing Abu Sayyaf were quickly discarded because of popular resistance. The proud Filipinos sharply de-emphasized any US role in rescuing the husband and wife American hostages (Burnham) who were held by Abu Sayyaf. By April, 2002, U.S. enthusiasm for the mission had declined reflecting concern over a possible open-ended commitment in the Philippines while other commitments elsewhere were rising, especially as a result of the stiffening US resolve to take action in Iraq.

The US effort became focused on providing intelligence to Philippine authorities on Abu Sayyaf movements in Basilan, especially information gained by US surveillance aircraft. This enabled Government forces to pursue a campaign that eventually caused Abu Sayyaf to abandon its Basilan safe haven for Mindanao. This was a basic error. Supported by US intelligence and planning, Philippine Government forces launched an attack on an Abu Sayyaf element guarding the hostages, including the Burnhams. He was killed; his wife escaped.

The end of the hostage issue, effectively, brought the narrowed US mission in the Philippines to a conclusion. The Pentagon made it clear the timetable for the departure of US forces would be met despite Philippine pleas for the mission to be extended. US forces departed the Philippines on July 31, leaving about 300 men to complete certain infrastructure projects on Basilan.

The security institutions in the strong states of Malaysia and Singapore are watching Muslim extremist groups closely. Moreover, populations in both countries, including Muslims, were repulsed by planned terrorist bombings. Nevertheless, Jemaah Islamiya and Al Qaeda have demonstrated a marked capability for patience and careful planning and have shown that spectacular results can be achieved with only a relative handful of dedicated assassins. Neither country has lapsed into complacency. Clearly locals have been in contact with external Al Qaeda agents in the past and prudence demands highly focused attention to the reality that such contacts persist.

Security forces in the Philippines and Indonesia, which are institutionally weaker, face very difficult tasks. Hambali has reportedly ordered attacks on soft targets such as the recent spate of bombings in the Philippines and the October, 2002 bombing of a night club in Bali. The MILF and Abu Sayyaf have been accused of the Philippine bombings and Jemaah Islamiya has been accused of the Bali bombing. The Philippines has again turned to the US for help but the transaction has been handled clumsily. US and Philippine negotiators reached apparent agreement on a new mission involving US forces in combat operations against Abu Sayyaf on Jolo in the heart of the area in the Sulu Archipelago where some of the most bitter fighting in the 1902-1913 era took place. Among other things the arrangement appears to violate a provision of the Philippine Constitution. Predictably Philippine nationalism was aroused and the agreement has apparently been shelved.

Excellent police work in Indonesia following the Bali bombing has produced evidence that the disaster was conceived and carried out by Indonesians, quieting those who initially denied Indonesian involvement and claimed the bombing had possibly been a U.S. CIA plot to drag Indonesia into the war on terrorism.

Politics and succession issues are the critical unknown factors in the immediate future of Islamic terrorism in Southeast Asia. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has announced she will not contest the scheduled 2004 elections. Although Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri may have toyed with the idea of stepping down herself, she has now firmly announced she will be a candidate in 2004 elections. Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia has announced he will retire in October, 2003. The Singapore leadership is the only group that will remain intact.

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda appears to be patiently waiting for its next opportunity to strike. Hambali remains at large. Jemmaah Islamiya knows well that the ideal of creating an Islamic state covering most of the insular Southeast Asian region as well as Southern Thailand and Malaysia will take time. The question is how well the local states will use the time to reduce the types of grievances that have increased the appeal of Islamic extremism.

Ambassador Ronald D. Palmer entered the U. S. Foreign Service in 1957 as a career officer and served thirty-five years before retiring to an academic post at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. He is a member of the American Diplomacy Publishers' board of directors.

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