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FEER: Wrong Target
By Barry Wain

12/4/2002 12:59 pm Fri


Wrong Target

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


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 international threat.

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 unhelpfully.

"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.


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 Islamiah.


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 says.

Pas leaders have not only repeatedly denied any connection with the KMM, but some of them have also questioned its very existence.

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 democratic system.

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 the country.

James Hookway in Manila contributed to this article