ATimes: Terrorists under the bed
By Anil Netto
31/1/2002 2:06 pm Thu
January 30, 2002 atimes.com
Terrorists under the bed
By Anil Netto
PENANG, Malaysia - As United States troops pour into the
southern Philippines to help in tracking down the armed Abu Sayyaf
group, focus in the war against terrorism has clearly extended to
The US troop deployment coincides with a Newsweek magazine
report citing secret Federal Bureau of Investigation data that
apparently showed that Malaysia was a primary operational
launch-pad for the September 11 attacks on the US. Ironically,
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, where more than 40
alleged militants have been detained without trial since last May,
forcefully denied the report.
The episode illustrates the delicate tightrope act that is being played
out by several governments in the region. On the one hand, they
are ignoring human rights norms and detaining dozens of alleged
militants, and in certain cases, wittingly or unwittingly, indirectly
tainting legitimate opposition parties with a militant hue.
On the other hand, the rhetoric is ill timed as it is bound to alarm
investors and tourists in a region that is struggling to ward off or
come out of recession. Increasingly, the region appears to be
suffering from an image problem as a terrorist haven - something
that bears little resemblance to the peace and stability prevailing in
large swathes of the region.
The war against terrorism is also allowing the US military "a window
of opportunity" (as one local analyst put it) to re-enter the region
and increase its profile after the closure of the military bases in the
Philippines in the early 1990s. Until now, the only other significant
presence the US military has had is its advisory role in the war
against drugs in the Golden Triangle (Thailand, Laos and Myanmar)
- a war that is now largely forgotten.
Malaysian police said last Thursday that they had detained 23
alleged Muslim militants supposedly with links to Osama bin Laden's
Al-Qaeda and other terror networks. The police say that 19 of the
23 detainees in Malaysia had received military training outside the
country - 10 in Afghanistan and nine at Camp Abu Bakar and
Camp Udaibiah in Mindanao, southern Philippines.
Authorities in neighboring Singapore, meanwhile, say that they
have uncovered further evidence of links between Al-Qaeda and
Jemaah Islamiyah militants arrested on the island for allegedly
planning to attack US targets in the city state. Thirteen suspects
have been detained under the Internal Security Act over the past
Governments in the region are claiming that these alleged militant
groups have regional links. But such claims have been almost
impossible to verify in the absence of trials in open court of those
accused of militant activities or hard evidence made available to the
"Camp Abu Bakar is a military camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation
Front (MILF)," said Malaysia's police chief. "We found that they
have links in Indonesia, Singapore and the southern Philippines.
They perceive their activities in a wider perspective, regionally and
not confined to Malaysia," he said.
Malaysian police said that they had identified three Indonesian
preachers as responsible for religious and militant indoctrination
within the Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM) group, one of whom
was identified as Ustad Abu Bakar Ba'asyir. Abu Bakar denied
during police questioning that he was associated with Al-Qaeda,
but hailed bin Laden as "a true Muslim fighter".
On Sunday, the MILF separatist group denied having links with the
"KMM militants" alleged to have received training at their military
camp in the southern Philippines. MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said
that the group did not allow foreigners into its training camps.
What is clear is that the authorities in the region are now working
more closely than ever in their efforts to counter these groups. The
Malaysian police also say that they will now press on with
operations to "neutralize" all the estimated 200 suspected members
of the KMM.
In the process, human rights have unfortunately taken a back seat
as public insecurities are fed on a daily diet of arrests and
revelations of alleged terrorist networks and links. Human rights
groups have expressed grave concern over the use of Malaysia's
harsh Internal Security Act (ISA) to rein in the alleged militants.
Under the ISA, the detainees have no access to lawyers during the
initial 60-day interrogation period. Neither is there a trial where they
can defend themselves.
"The government should not hide conveniently behind the ISA,"
said the Kuala Lumpur-based human rights group, Suaram. "The
public has a right to see justice being administrated and cannot
accept convictions based on suspicion and convenience." If the
prime minister had concrete evidence of such terrorist links and
networks, then he should present it during a fair court trial, asserted
Opponents of the ISA were bemused to learn that Malaysia on
Friday sent an official protest to the US embassy over the inhumane
treatment of Taliban and Al-Qaeda detainees held at a US naval
base in Cuba. Rights activists, while also expressing dismay over
the treatment of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, have noted that
the Malaysian government itself has flouted human rights
conventions in its use of the ISA on detainees locally.
In Indonesia, the war against terrorism has overshadowed human
rights violations in Aceh. Last year was one of Aceh's bloodiest,
with close to 1,700 people being killed in separatist-related
violence, according to human rights workers. The fatalities were
double that of the previous year and an estimated half of the deaths
took place after the present Megawati administration began its term
in the middle of last year.
The arrival of the war against terrorism in Southeast Asia has been
greeted with some degree of skepticism. In the absence of open
court trials where hard evidence is presented and argued, it will be
difficult for governments to convince large sections of the populace
as to the seriousness of the threat.
Instead, the mainstream press has confined itself to regurgitating the
official line while avoiding any attempt to analyze probable causes
or investigate if such links are true. For instance, to what extent
have political repression of the legitimate opposition, injustice,
income inequalities and a lack of outlets to express grievances bred
extremist tendencies? In the 1980s, many Muslims across the region
flocked to help in the war against the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan. To what extent has that link been used against those
For some older analysts, there is a sense of deja vu. For them,
international terrorism has replaced communism - the "green threat"
replacing the "red" one - as the latest bogeyman for the more
authoritarian governments in the region.
The way in which they seem to be finding militants under every bed
appears reminiscent of the crackdown on communists in the 1950s
and 1960s, a political scientist, who declined to be identified, told
Asia Times Online. Among those detained without trial for long
periods then were not only hardcore communists but also many
leftwing political opponents of pro-Western ruling elites.
There are lessons to be learnt from that era. In overcoming the
communist threat, the battle was not only against the enemy in the
dark dense jungles, but also for "the hearts and minds" of the
people. In the same way that Mahathir is asking Newsweek for
evidence that Malaysia was a launch-pad, leaders in the region
should present their evidence of local terrorism-related activities in
open court so that those detained will have an opportunity to defend
Indeed, if the governments in the region want to convince those skeptical as to the extent of the threat posed by the terrorists, they will have to start taking the public into their confidence and allow due process and the rule of law to take center stage.