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Asiaweek: An Islamic Fraternity? [KMM]
By Sangwon Suh

14/9/2001 8:41 pm Fri Dateline/0,8782,174692,00.html

An Islamic Fraternity?

Separatists in Aceh, militants in Mindanao, extremists in Kashmir . . . Are Muslim fundamentalists in Asia cooperating with one another to wage a region-wide jihad? Not necessarily. The various radical groups are united by little more than sympathy


How real is the threat of radical Islam in Asia? Very real, if you ask Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad or Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. The topic was a matter for discussion during Megawati's recent visit to Kuala Lumpur. "Both leaders agreed that the security agencies of both countries must intensify exchange of information so that preventive action can be taken," Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told reporters afterwards. The message? Extremist organizations are working in concert to destabilize the region; hence, cross-border cooperation is needed to combat them.

Asia is certainly home to a fair number of Muslim fundamentalist groups, and many of them are armed and dangerous. But are they part of a regional, or even global, network that is seeking to spread terror in Asia and elsewhere? The short answer is no. Many of Asia's militants trained or fought in Afghanistan, and they express sympathy for one another's causes. But that aside, they are concerned more about their domestic aims - usually of the secessionist variety - than about waging a global jihad.

In Indonesia, a noted extremist organization is the Jakarta-based Laskar Jihad. Its machete-wielding "soldiers" have attained notoriety for their holy war against Christians in places like the Malukus. Laskar Jihad, however, insists it has no links to Afghanistan. "We have nothing to do with Osama bin Laden," says Ayip Syafruddin, chairman of the Communication Forum, a group associated with Laskar Jihad. "We have no contact with them. We have a different vision." Elsewhere in the country, the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, has been fighting a decades-long war for independence in the resource-rich province, but it insists it has no links with outside groups.

In the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has been struggling for independence on the island of Mindanao. The MILF, which rejected the 1996 peace deal that the rival Moro National Liberation Front signed with Manila, is currently in talks with the government. Eduardo Ermita, a presidential adviser on peace talks with the MILF, believes bin Laden's people have no contacts in the Philippines apart from the smaller, more hard-line Abu Sayyaf, which is viewed as little more than a deadly band of extortionists. There is no indication, he says, that "they have any direct influence or contact with . . . the MILF."

Pakistan is a base for a number of Kashmiri groups fighting to secede from India, and many of their fighters were trained in Afghanistan. But again, there is no evidence that they are operating outside their home turf. Shortly after the World Trade Center assault, one organization, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, reportedly claimed responsibility for the operation. But a spokesman later denied the report.

The East Turkestani Union, which seeks independence for ethnic Uighurs in China's Xinjiang province, has been responsible for a number of incidents, including a bomb attack at Tiananmen Square in Beijing two years ago. The group is believed to have links to Islamic radicals in Turkey, but no ties to Afghanistan have been established.

Standing apart from these violent militants is Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas), Malaysia's main opposition group. The government claims otherwise: The son of party leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat was recently detained with others for allegedly being part of an extremist group with links to Afghanistan. Pas says the arrests are aimed at discrediting the party. Pas's case mirrors the situation of many similar-minded organizations around the region: They are generally too busy with their own struggles at home to be bothered about others abroad. They do, however, provide governments, justifiably or otherwise, with convenient bogeymen.


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