FEER: Wrong Target
By Barry Wain
12/4/2002 12:59 pm Fri
The United States has returned to Southeast Asia in search
of villains but is finding itself involved in local
disputes that may have little to do with international
terrorism. So it's no surprise to hear critics say that the
U.S. is being clumsy and misguided
By Barry Wain/SINGAPORE and KUALA LUMPUR
Issue cover-dated April 18, 2002
AMID MEDIA reports that alleged terrorist mastermind Osama
bin Laden's Al Qaeda network is deeply entrenched in
Southeast Asia, the United States has deployed troops in
the Philippines, praised Singapore and Malaysia for jailing
suspects without trial and is pushing Indonesia to follow
suit. But many people in the region are now saying that
U.S. efforts to battle global terrorism are in danger of
doing as much harm as good. The U.S. has been criticized as
clumsy, misguided and falling into long-standing local
disputes that have festered for years and pose little
Driven in part by its own political considerations, the
U.S. has plunged into domestic politics in a way that
threatens to make complex issues even messier and harder to
solve. In Malaysia this translates into passive U.S.
support for a harsh security law; in Indonesia it may be
helping the government hound opposition politicians; and in
the Philippines it has given a licence to overzealous
law-enforcement officials to make false accusations.
Critics describe the U.S. approach as a witch-hunt. "The
hysteria that is starting to develop is quite frightening,"
says Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist who
until recently was a member of an opposition party. "You
start to react to shadows."
Seven months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade
Centre and the Pentagon, it is clear that international
terrorism, including Al Qaeda, did make inroads in Muslim
areas of Southeast Asia. But based on facts made public to
date, it appears that no more than a few dozen militants
were actively involved in plotting against the U.S. or its
allies at the behest of, or in cooperation with, bin Laden.
Much more often, indigenous Islamists were preoccupied in
struggling--sometimes through violence--with home-grown
political concerns that long predated September 11 and are
likely to continue despite the U.S. crackdown on terror.
While the search for terrorists is far from over, no
government in the region yet says it has discovered an Al
Qaeda cell on its soil. Al Qaeda's regional activities
appear to be "opportunistic," as one diplomat puts it--they
visit in search of recruits, or to offer training, but
apparently maintain no operational structure in the region.
The only group that seems to have followed an Al Qaeda-type
programme is Jemaah Islamiah, 13 of whose members were
jailed in Singapore in January for allegedly planning to
blow up the American and other embassies. Eight of them
trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, say Singaporean
investigators, and one is said to have briefed Al Qaeda
leaders on a plan to target a shuttle bus carrying U.S.
military personnel. Other alleged members were subsequently
arrested in Malaysia and the Philippines. Singapore Prime
Minister Goh Chok Tong told parliament on April 5 that one
member who escaped from Singapore had plans to hijack an
aircraft and crash it into Changi airport.
But before September 11, local violence was usually
attributed to local grievances. So while the extent of
contacts between various disgruntled groups in Southeast
Asia has been something of a revelation, it's no surprise
that many observers in the region feel the U.S. is often
misreading the situation and intervening sometimes
"The U.S. campaign is disproportionate to the evidence of
terrorism in Southeast Asia," says Lee Poh Peng, a
professor at University Kebangsaan in Malaysia.
FINDING A 'SECOND FRONT'
Lee and some other analysts are mystified by the choice of
Southeast Asia for what Bush calls a "second front" in the
fight the U.S. is leading against terrorism. Some speculate
about ulterior motives, suggesting that the U.S. wants to
regain a strategic toehold after being evicted from
Philippine bases a decade earlier. (The U.S. denies that it
seeks a permanent presence in the Philippines.) Others
think the U.S. is merely trying to maintain the momentum of
its anti-terrorist campaign until it is ready to strike at
Bush's "axis of evil"--Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
One Malaysian academic asks why the Americans aren't going
after Al Qaeda in Germany in the same way, noting that some
of the perpetrators of the U.S. attacks were once based in
Hamburg. The consensus answer: Europe doesn't fit the
demographic profile. Southeast Asia, home to 20% of the
world's one billion Muslims, does. "The Americans put two
and two together and get a much bigger number than four,
I'm afraid," says one Western ambassador, whose government
is a close ally of Washington.
A spate of media reports out of the U.S., many of them
apparently relying on briefings or leaks by Bush
administration officials, contributes to the impression
that the Americans are barging into a region they don't
fully understand. One report sourced to the Federal Bureau
of Investigation claimed that Malaysia was a "primary
operational launch pad" for the September 11 attacks. FBI
Director Robert Mueller has since said the FBI does not
think this was the case.
Furthermore, intense U.S. pressure on Indonesia to suppress
Islamic militants, backed publicly by Singapore and
privately by Malaysia, has caused tensions in the region.
The Singapore press, taking a cue from its government, has
added to the atmosphere of a beseiged region by playing up
the threat posed by international terrorism, especially
from Jemaah Islamiah, which the Singaporeans say is
directed by leaders at large in Indonesia. Jakarta, which
fears a backlash if it moves against militants, took strong
exception to criticism by Singapore Senior Minister Lee
Kuan Yew, retorting that while "authoritarian" Singapore
can jail suspects without trial, post-Suharto "democratic"
Indonesia is committed to the rule of law.
Manila's eagerness to go after suspected terrorists is also
ruffling feathers in Jakarta. The latest suspects are three
Indonesians who were charged last month with allegedly
carrying explosives and detonators at Manila's
international airport. One suspect, Tamsil Linrung, an
official of the opposition National Mandate Party, told
Jakarta's Tempo magazine that he believes the Indonesian
intelligence service orchestrated his arrest to discredit
prominent politician Amien Rais, who chairs Tamsil's party.
Philippine intelligence officers say the three men are
close associates of Abu Bakar Bashir, leader of Jemaah
QUAGMIRE IN THE PHILIPPINES
In the southern Philippines, where marginalized Muslims
have had a grievance against Christian Manila for
centuries, Washington could be walking into a political
quagmire. The U.S. finds itself training Philippine troops
and tracking Abu Sayyaf, a small kidnap-for-ransom gang
that has only tenuous links to Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the
15,000-strong separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front,
with military muscle, a political cause and stronger ties
to bin Laden, doesn't even appear on the U.S. State
Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has made it
known that she wants the MILF, which is in delicate peace
talks with the government, left alone.
Also, Manila has apologized after state prosecutors alleged
that Libya had channelled funds to Al Qaeda using ransoms
paid to Abu Sayyaf as a conduit. In 2000, the kidnappers
raked in millions of dollars in ransoms after abducting 21
tourists from a Malaysian diving resort. The prosecutors
had recently attended an FBI training course in the U.S.,
where trainers discussed hypothetical examples of how Libya
may have provided funds for Al Qaeda. Back in Manila, the
prosecutors recounted these examples as fact. Arroyo said
"there is no evidence at all" that Libya was cooperating
with the Abu Sayyaf.
Judged by its public comments, the U.S. is extremely
pleased with its anti-terrorist drive in Malaysia. It
applauds Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government for
arresting "suspects" under the Internal Security Act, which
provides for indefinite detention without trial, despite
past U.S. criticism of the ISA. Bush also rewarded Mahathir
by making time to meet him in Shanghai in October and
phoning to thank him for his cooperation. Mahathir is
expected to make a state visit to Washington in mid-May.
Yet by supporting the round-up of suspects in Malaysia, the
U.S. may have done more to stifle the voice of opposition
than to stamp out terrorism.
In the past 10 months, police have arrested 48 alleged
extremists, making it known that most of those arrested are
members of the Islamic opposition party, Pas. Only three of
them have been released. The detainees have been accused by
the government of staging bank robberies, murdering a
politician, dispatching volunteers to fight Christians in
Indonesia, acquiring arms to overthrow the Malaysian
government and conspiring to set up an Islamic state
encompassing Malaysia, Indonesia and Mindanao.
Most Malaysians seem willing to give Mahathir the benefit
of the doubt over his contribution to the fight against
terrorism. In two by-elections held since September 11, the
government has won by larger than expected margins.
September 11--a "godsend for the government," as one
pro-government analyst puts it--has changed the political
climate in Malaysia. The largely Chinese Democratic Action
Party withdrew from a Pas-led opposition coalition. Pas
damaged itself in the eyes of non-Muslim Malaysians by
calling for jihad, or holy war, against the U.S. for
bombing Afghanistan, and Mahathir regained the initiative.
But comments from a government source, who asked not to be
identified, show inconsistencies in the official line on
the nature of the terrorist threat.
To begin with, the government has said that all detainees
belong to the KMM, or Malaysian Mujahideen Organization,
sometimes called the Malaysian Militant Organization. But
the government source tells the Review the detainees, in
fact, represent two separate groups: Those arrested before
September 11 belong to the KMM, while the others,
previously described as a "second wing" of the KMM, are
actually members of Jemaah Islamiah. The reason for
announcing that all the detainees belonged to one
organization was "not wanting to alarm the public."
The source says that Jemaah Islamiah in Malaysia has a
transnational outlook, and that its five cells have the
same leaders as its Singapore counterpart--Abu Bakar Bashir
and his associate, Riduan Isamuddin, better known as
Hambali. Its goal, the source says, is to establish an
Islamic sovereign entity connecting Malaysia, Indonesia and
the Philippine island of Mindanao. The group's regional
agenda, though home-grown, complements Al Qaeda's more
global approach, the source says.
None of the 22 detainees alleged to be Jemaah Islamiah
members belongs to Pas, but all but one of the 23 alleged
KMM detainees are Pas members, according to the source. The
source goes further, describing the KMM as Pas's
paramilitary wing and drawing a parallel with the Irish
Republican Army and its political arm, Sinn Fein. "The
KMM's objective is to deliver power for Pas," the source
Pas leaders have not only repeatedly denied any connection
with the KMM, but some of them have also questioned its
The government source claims that Nik Adli Nik Aziz, son of
Pas's spiritual adviser and chief minister of Kelantan
state, is the leader of the KMM. The source says some KMM
members trained in Afghanistan and the group pursues a
purely domestic agenda: to overthrow the government by
armed force in the event that its demands aren't met by the
To explain why Islamic militants should be involved in
ordinary crime, the source says a "rogue cell" within the
KMM staged two bank robberies to obtain operating funds,
and killed Joe Fernandez, a doctor who held a seat in the
Kedah state legislature, who the militants accused of
trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The wayward cell
became disillusioned with the democratic process and was
influenced by Hambali, the source says.
Through his lawyer, Nik Adli has rejected all the
allegations against him.
Opposition parties have demanded that the detainees be put
on trial, especially those accused of criminal offences.
But it is obvious the government feels little pressure to
provide a full explanation of the security threat facing
James Hookway in Manila contributed to this article