John Gershman. Foreign Affairs. Volume 81, Issue 4. July/August 2002.
In late January 2002, the Bush administration sent 660 U.S. troops to the Philippines, deploying them in the south of the archipelago to assist in hostage rescue and counterinsurgency operations. The move was widely heralded as the opening of a second front in Washington’s war on terrorism. And that perception was understandable: after all, the deployment followed hard on the heels of the arrests of dozens of alleged al Qaeda operatives in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines. With the Taliban in Afghanistan having been routed, Southeast Asia—home to radical Islamist groups such as the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), Abu Sayyaf, and the Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM)—was starting to seem like the new home base for the terrorist movement that had brought down the World Trade Center.
Whether or not this is actually the case, September 11 and its aftermath have already transformed U.S. relations with many Southeast Asian nations. America’s previously chilly interactions with Muslim-majority Malaysia have thawed considerably; Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad has won plaudits from Washington for supporting the U.S. war on terrorism. Indonesia, meanwhile, has come in for heavy American criticism for failing to be similarly cooperative and crack down on its own extremists (although the United States has softened its tone on this issue in recent months). At the same time, many U.S. policymakers are now looking to overturn congressional restrictions on aid to Indonesia’s military, once spurned for its human rights abuses, as a way to bolster the state’s capacity to fight terrorism. And little more than a decade after the Philippine Senate refused to renew leases on U.S. bases in that country—prompting Washington to slash its aid to Manila—the American military is now returning in force. Indeed, the Philippines has not occupied such a prominent place in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
The intensifying U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia reflects the somewhat hysterical tone adopted by many recent policy and press reports about the strength and scope of the terrorist threat there. In February, a secret FBI report called Malaysia a “primary operational launch pad” for the September 11 attacks—a charge that has since been dismissed as exaggerated by Western intelligence sources. Even the FBI itself has backpedaled from the claim. Meanwhile, some U.S. analysts have described Abu Sayyaf, the rebel group now fighting the government in the southern Philippine islands around Mindanao and known for kidnapping Westerners, as similar to the Taliban—despite the fact that Abu Sayyaf operates in a limited area, lacks a major organized base, and has no coherent political agenda. And The National Review and analysts at the Heritage Foundation have already declared Indonesia the next Afghanistan.
Such overheated rhetoric is a mistake. Looking at Southeast Asia through the lens of Afghanistan will lead U.S. policymakers to the wrong conclusions and the wrong policy. The analogy will cause Washington to overestimate the threat of al Qaeda links to groups in the area and will push it into an over-militarized response to the problems that do exist—a response that will be at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. Even if al Qaeda operatives in Southeast Asia are neutralized and Abu Sayyaf is crushed, the underlying conditions that facilitated the emergence of these movements—namely, weak states unable to enforce basic law and order, and the economic marginalization and political subordination of large segments of their populations—will continue to exist. If Washington really wants to make a lasting contribution to peace and security in the area, it should work to address these basic flaws and not just beef up its military contributions or law enforcement operations.
The Wrong War
At first glance, Southeast Asia does indeed seem like a good candidate for the second front in the U.S. campaign. After all, the region is home to the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, as well as two other mostly Muslim states, Malaysia and Brunei. In addition, Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand all have significant Muslim minorities, and decades-old Islamist rebellions still simmer in the latter two countries. Furthermore, political Islam, in both violent and nonviolent forms, has been on the rise in Indonesia since former President Suharto’s fall in 1998. Since the mid-1990s, a number of dramatic terrorist attacks have been planned in the region, including attacks on the pope, President Bill Clinton, and commercial jets. These plans were frustrated only by happenstance. All these factors together, combined with the recent arrests of alleged al Qaeda operatives in Southeast Asia, seem to form a strong prima facie case for bringing the fight against terrorism there.
There are, however, several significant reasons why the threat posed by radical Islam in Southeast Asia is not nearly as great as it might at first seem. First, there is no risk in the region of state-sponsored terrorism against U.S. interests. Second, the profound ethnic and religious diversity (including in the practice of Islam) that characterizes the area militates against the establishment of a fundamentalist hegemony by any one group. Third, all the major Southeast Asian countries are more or less democratic. Dissent is generally tolerated, making radical Islam less attractive as a broader vehicle for opposition to the government (a role it played under Suharto’s repressive regime in Indonesia). Finally, the only terror groups in the region that have demonstrated a capacity for large-scale attacks—the JI and the KMM—are made up of the well-educated middle classes. Their members are globalization’s beneficiaries, not its victims, and these organizations have not managed to build a constituency among the masses of the poor. Both the JI and the KMM have small memberships and only limited ties to more broad-based Islamist groups. The two organizations therefore remain a challenge primarily for law enforcement, not the military.
At least some in the Bush administration seem to recognize this distinction, and a debate is now being waged in Washington between those who favor a law enforcement approach and those who want to strengthen ties with militaries in the region. Both positions, however, fail to examine the broader economic and political conditions that have facilitated the emergence of extremist political Islam in the first place.
Washington’s current framing of Southeast Asia as the second front in the war on terrorism, in fact, presents four distinct problems. First, it conflates different forms of political Islam. Second, it fails to recognize that the emergence of terrorist groups was caused by weak states, inadequate cooperation between countries in the region, and a number of social problems, including anemic economies, unequal patterns of development, and fragile democratic institutions. Third, the U.S. approach relies too much on cooperation with militaries that are unaccountable (especially in the Philippines and Indonesia) and commit human rights violations with impunity. And finally, the current U.S. campaign also risks legitimizing a broader crackdown on dissent by Southeast Asian leaders eager to do away with inconvenient opposition figures.
Faces of the Enemy
Washington’s tendency to lump together the various Islamist groups in Southeast Asia has elided crucial distinctions between what are actually very different organizations. The groups fall into several distinct categories: Islamic revivalist movements that focus on cultural and spiritual renewal, political parties, armed and unarmed organizations fighting for autonomy or secession for Muslim areas, radical Islamist paramilitary groups, and transnational terrorist cells and networks. But the differences between them have been obscured by the Bush administration’s rhetoric, which has emphasized that countries are “either with us or against us” in the war on terrorism. Such a simplistic paradigm ignores the fact that many Islamic organizations genuinely oppose al Qaeda (and similar extremist groups) yet also disapprove of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and other Bush administration policies, especially its Middle East strategy.
Most Islamic groups in Southeast Asia are in fact nonviolent. The largest and most influential are either political parties or revivalist organizations. The latter have surfaced periodically throughout history in the region, typically in response to economic or political crises. One such group is the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s—and the world’s—largest Islamic organization, with 30 million followers. The NU espouses “traditional” Muslim values, but “traditional” in this context means a fairly tolerant and pluralistic approach to the observance and practice of Islam. Indeed, the NU recently agreed to help combat the extremism of some Islamist groups and has supported efforts to crack down on violence.
In Indonesia, the rise of political Islam, in contrast, can be linked to the collapse of Suharto’s regime, the nation’s continuing economic crisis, and the fragility of local democracy. Political organizations representing modernist Muslims were banned from the 1950s to the 1980s, and many of their leaders were imprisoned. Although such groups have since become a major political force, more extremist forms of Islamism remain at the fringes—despite the increase in their popularity in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis. And the popularity of even moderate Muslim groups should not be overstated. Only a quarter of the parties that contested the 1999 elections advocated creating an Islamic government in Indonesia. These parties received about 16 percent of the vote, whereas secular parties polled over 60 percent and moderate Islamic parties received 20 percent. By contrast, in Indonesia’s previous free and fair election, in 1955, more than 40 percent of the vote went to parties pushing for an Islamic state in one form or another. Today, on the other hand, as Australian analyst Greg Fealy has noted, “Islamic parties [in Indonesia] are more divided than at any time in history since 1945.”
Islamist political parties are also prominent in Malaysia. Indeed, in 1999, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party won its greatest-ever victory at the polls, capturing 27 parliamentary seats (out of a total of 193) and gaining control of 2 of Malaysia’s 14 states. But this vote was as much about Mahathir’s repression of reform as it was about a popular commitment to political Islam.
None of this, of course, is meant to deny that violent Islamist terrorist groups do exist in Southeast Asia. The organization that has come to be referred to as the JI, for example, is a small group that advocates the creation through force of an Islamic state from southern Thailand through the lower part of the Philippines. When and where the JI originated remains murky. A generally accepted version credits Abdullah Achmad Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir as being two of its key founders, but the exact date of that founding remains uncertain. Some reports mention the existence in Indonesia of a group called the Jemaah Islamiah as far back as 1976, and Indonesian court documents from the 1980s also refer to the organization. Most intelligence and recent press reports, however, date the JI’s founding to the 1990s, presenting it as a creation of al Qaeda operatives.
Bashir is believed to have taken over the leadership of JI upon Sungkar’s death. Bashir returned to Indonesia after the fall of Suharto and now runs the religious boarding school that he and Sungkar cofounded in 1971; he also heads the pan-Islamist Mujahideen Council of Indonesia. Other alleged leaders of the JI include Hambali, also known as Nurjaman Riduan Isamuddin, who is thought to be Bashir’s lieutenant and is wanted by Indonesian police for his role in a series of bombings in Indonesia on Christmas Eve 2000 and also by Malaysian police for alleged links to terrorist groups; Mohammad Iqbal Rahman, who has been detained under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act since June 2001; and Fathur Rahman al Ghozi, accused of organizing a series of bombings in Manila in December 2000 and recently sentenced to 12 years in prison by a Philippine court for possession of explosives.
Members of both the JI and the KMM tend to be middle-class professionals and include graduates of both Asian and Western universities. They count among their ranks businessmen such as Yazid Sufaat, a biochemistry graduate of a California university who, in October 2000, hosted two of the September 11 hijackers and Zacarias Moussaoui (alleged to be the 20th conspirator). It was this meeting that led some experts to identify Malaysia as a launching pad for terrorist attacks; Hambali is currently the subject of an international manhunt.
Bashir and other alleged members of the JI got their start as part of an Islamist opposition to Suharto’s rule in Indonesia in the 1970s and 1980s. Bashir was arrested in 1978 and accused of agitating for an Islamic state, a crime under Indonesia’s now-repealed subversion law. He relocated to Malaysia after serving half of a nine-year prison term; once there, he settled with his friend, Sungkar, who had been jailed in Indonesia on the same charges.
In addition to these violent Islamist groups, Southeast Asia is also home to various militant organizations for which Islam is an important element of their identity—but only as it relates to demands for autonomy or secession, not as an end in and of itself. This category includes several organizations operating in southern Thailand, the Moro National Liberation Front and Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, and the Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia. These groups, unlike the JI or the KMM, engage in community-level organization, enjoy mass membership bases, have genuine political agendas, and (with exceptions) generally limit their violence to military targets. A significant number of groups in Aceh and the southern Philippines also work for self-determination through nonviolent means.
The final category to consider is radical Islamist paramilitary groups that blur the edges between criminal gangs and militias. This type includes Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and Laskar Jihad in Indonesia, which represent a particular kind of Southeast Asian outfit that mixes politics with criminal activities such as extortion and racketeering. Such groups have been found on both sides of the independence battle in Mindanao since the late 1960s and have been employed by the government to fight Moro and communist insurgents in the Philippines. Known as preman (literally, free men) in Indonesia, the gangs have also played an important role in politics in that country, where they were used to massacre suspected communists in 1965-66 and as anti-independence paramilitaries in East Timor in the 1990s.
The preman (and similar groups elsewhere), however, should not be viewed as creations of the military; rather, they represent alliances of convenience between criminals and segments of the political and military elites. The Islamic Defenders Front (known by its Bahasa Indonesia acronym, FPI), for example, was established in Indonesia in 1998 with the assistance of several high-ranking military officers. And it was the FPI that led some of the small but noisy anti-American demonstrations after the September 11 attacks. The similar Laskar Jihad, meanwhile, may have an ideological affinity with the Taliban, with whom Laskar’s leader, Jafar Umar Thalib, has publicly aligned himself. But there is no clear evidence that this connection has translated into actual cooperation with al Qaeda, although there has been some contact between the two groups, and Jafar has tried to distance himself from Osama bin Laden. Nevertheless, Jafar was arrested in early May on charges of insulting Indonesia’s president and vice president and for inciting an attack on a Christian village in the Moluccas in April.
What Washington should keep in mind about all of these organizations is that, although their details vary, they are all symptoms of the same diseases: problems in the local economy, the weakness of states in the region, and the fragility of democratic institutions and regional intergovernmental organizations.
The JI and the KMM have proved especially good at exploiting such ills. Unlike nationally based radical Islamist groups such as Laskar Jihad, the JI and the KMM are more like international criminal corporations. They have only weak ties to the broader Islamist movements in the region or to political and military officials. But they make up for these shortcomings in several ways that make them more threatening than other groups. Like transnational corporations, the JI and the KMM use modern communication technologies to plan and coordinate their actions. They also exploit the weaknesses of local governments, the porousness of borders, and the absence of international cooperation, all of which make it easy to move around money and people.
Malaysia, for example, requires no visas for citizens of other Muslim countries, and the Philippines has notoriously lax immigration controls. As of February 1, 2002, the Philippines and Indonesia had both been named by the international Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering as noncooperative in efforts to fight that crime. Thailand passed its first anti-money laundering law only in 1999, and the Philippines passed its version in 2001; Indonesia, meanwhile, has yet to enact any such legislation, although it is working on some now with help from the Asian Development Bank.
Besides money laundering and illegal transfers, other kinds of crime also remain rampant in the area. Acts of piracy in Southeast Asia increased significantly after the end of the Cold War, which reduced the presence of warships in the area, and again after the economic crisis of mid-1997, which sent locals scrambling for alternative sources of income. Although the number of attacks in 2001 was down from the previous year, it remained higher than in 1999. Indonesian waters, in fact, are now the most dangerous in the world. More than half of the 335 pirate attacks worldwide in 2001 occurred in Asia, and data from the International Maritime Bureau show that 91 such attacks occurred in Indonesian waters alone—the highest incidence of piracy anywhere. Attacks in the first quarter of 2002 exceeded those of last year. Pirates have even begun to share their loot with local coastal communities, thus earning themselves some protection from the authorities.
Of course, although poverty may be the source of crimes such as piracy, it is not a sufficient explanation for groups like the JI, with its middle-class leadership. Like the Laskar Jihad and the Abu Sayyaf, however, the JI has successfully exploited the relative failure of the Indonesian and Philippine states to meet basic needs of the people. Laskar recruits its soldiers from the unemployed, urban male population and pays stipends to their families during their service. In both Thailand and the Philippines, Muslim regions have the worst poverty, income inequality, infant and maternal mortality rates, and literacy levels—all of which have also made recruitment easier. In the Philippines, the government granted autonomy in the late 1980s to parts of Mindanao (where Abu Sayyaf operates), in an attempt to address the grinding poverty, political subordination, and anti-Muslim discrimination that have contributed to more than two decades of war. But a combination of factors—including Manila’s failure to provide the autonomous government with adequate resources or address massive inequalities in access to land and natural resources, as well as corruption and incompetence on the part of the local administration—have frustrated expectations. Public services remain rare or nonexistent, feeding public anger.
Send Trainers, Guns, and Money?
After September 11, Washington’s first inclination was to respond to the Islamist threat in Southeast Asia militarily—hence the significant increases in military aid to the Philippines in late 2001 and the subsequent deployment of U.S. troops. Since then, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (a former ambassador to Indonesia) has declared that the U.S. approach to the region will henceforth come through law enforcement, not more troops. And indeed, Robert Mueller, the FBI director, has already made a trip to the region. But Wolfowitz’s promise sits uneasily with statements by his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that the United States hopes to quickly resume military ties with the Indonesian military, or with the fact that Admiral Dennis Blair, until recently the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, has had a higher profile in the region than any State Department personnel.
A further U.S. military response would be misguided, for several reasons. If Southeast Asia poses a security threat, it is not a military one (although Washington should improve its force protection, embassy security, intelligence sharing, and police cooperation in the region). Greater U.S. military assistance will not help matters in general and could well make local conditions much worse, by strengthening local armed forces that have committed serious human rights abuses and remain impervious to effective civilian control.
In the Philippines, for example, the military’s campaign against Abu Sayyaf and other Moro organizations had displaced 150,000 people by the end of November 2001, and there have been allegations of widespread human rights violations on the island of Basilan and elsewhere. Indonesian military abuses in East Timor and other areas, meanwhile, are infamous. Further strengthening these armed forces could weaken already fragile civilian institutions, undermining still-young local democracies. An increase in repression could also enhance the appeal of radical Islam.
It is also important to recognize that although relationships between local military and political officials and groups like Abu Sayyaf and Laskar Jihad are often opaque, it is clear that they do not correspond to the conventional picture of a unified military fighting a terrorist foe. Elements of the Indonesian armed forces have trained and in some cases encouraged Islamist terror groups to engage in paramilitary actions, worsening communal conflicts. Indeed, Laskar Jihad’s fighters have played such a role in the Moluccas, central Sulawesi, and West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya). In the case of the Moluccas, Laskar Jihad was able to import combatants from Java without any government opposition, despite the fact that President Abdurrahman Wahid and other officials had appealed to the security forces to stop them.
The Philippines presents even more dramatic evidence of official collusion. On June 2, 2001, the Philippine army had the chance to wipe out virtually the entire leadership of the Abu Sayyaf faction based in Basilan. After a 12-hour standoff, however, in which the Islamists were pinned down by tanks, helicopters, and 3,000 soldiers at a walled hospital and church compound, the army pulled its troops away from the rear of the building. The rebels duly escaped, along with most of their captives. But before they fled, three of their hostages walked free, including a construction magnate and his girlfriend. Numerous accounts suggest that the businessman bought his freedom for 25 million pesos ($500,000), which Abu Sayyaf then split with the local government and military officials who let the rebels escape. The Philippine Senate has held an inquiry into these allegations, but the results have yet to be released. The military’s own investigation cleared army officials of any wrongdoing.
For much of the Cold War, the United States maintained close ties with the armed forces in the region. Washington ended its military relationship with Jakarta in 1999, however, in response to the army’s complicity in post-referendum massacres in East Timor. Links have since been restored, but the United States still maintains an embargo on sales of combat equipment, restrictions that the Indonesians are eager to see lifted.
The conventional argument in favor of renewed military aid to Indonesia is that increased American engagement will better enable the United States to promote a democratic model of military professionalism. But if U.S. engagement with the Indonesian military is so conducive to professionalism, why did it not have that impact during the three decades of the Suharto regime? As the International Crisis Group noted in a July 2001 report, “the bilateral military relationship has not been effective to date in producing an Indonesian military that meets the standards of a modern, professional force under civilian control or promoting long-term stability in Indonesia.” And there remains no reason to think it would be so now.
A better way to improve security and help fight terrorism across Southeast Asia would be to strengthen the civilian police forces in these countries. Doing so would both enhance the state apparatus best equipped to meet the nature of the threat and provide a counterbalance to the military. The police were formally separated from military control in the Philippines in the mid-1990s and in Indonesia in 2001. Today it is not uncommon for firefights to break out between military and police units in both countries, often over who will benefit from lucrative racketeering and smuggling operations. This suggests that improving the police will not be easy. But doing so would strengthen the legal and juridical infrastructure, enhancing democracy and the rule of law.
The final danger of a military-oriented approach, or even a law enforcement approach that fails to take democracy into account, is that such operations could give governments in the region an opportunity to repress political opponents of all stripes. Already there are signs that this is occurring: the Indonesian military, for example, has cracked down on separatists who have nothing to do with al Qaeda. And arrests in Malaysia under the Internal Security Act (ISA) have focused on political opponents of Mahathir and pro-reform activists as well as suspected terrorists. The ISA (and similar legislation in Singapore) allows for indefinite detention without trial, and its indiscriminate use has prompted criticism from a range of civic organizations and the government-appointed Human Rights Commission. The Bush administration, however—now a new friend of Mahathir—has refused to voice any concern over the ISA’s use or the broader crackdown.
Fight the Power
In the end, a limited role does exist for small increases in American training and military assistance to the countries of Southeast Asia. But such efforts should focus on the coast guard and naval capacities of those countries. And any increases in military assistance must have significant human rights conditions attached.
A more nuanced and effective U.S. approach to the problem of criminal Islamist groups in Southeast Asia should involve several additional elements, however. Washington should back civilian-controlled efforts to crack down on terrorist cells as part of a broader effort to combat piracy, money laundering, and other crimes that reflect weak state regulation and poor regional cooperation. These efforts would be both more politically viable and ultimately more effective than increased U.S. military involvement alone, because they would be less politically sensitive and because they already have natural constituencies within these countries. These potential allies include civic organizations concerned about the connections between money laundering, political corruption, and capital flight—as well as terrorism.
The United States should also support efforts to strengthen fragile democratic institutions such as domestic human rights mechanisms. Linking U.S. policy too closely to the militaries in Indonesia and the Philippines would strengthen the least accountable institutions of these states, which are guilty of major human rights violations. Until Washington sees signs that these militaries have been brought under effective civilian and legal control, it should not increase military aid to any appreciable degree.
In addition, Washington should back efforts to improve local government in both Indonesia and the Philippines, which would give a boost to recent decentralization and autonomy initiatives and might weaken support for rebel groups. Aid should be funneled through the Asia Foundation (a nonprofit group, largely funded by the U.S. government, that supports nongovernmental organizations), which has managed, despite dwindling budgets since the end of the Cold War, to support watchdogs that help promote accountability and openness in government.
And then there is the fight against poverty. Poverty alone cannot explain the existence of transnational terrorist networks such as the JI. Poverty and inequality have, however, contributed to popular discontent and thus helped such groups as Laskar Jihad and Abu Sayyaf. Long-standing economic grievances have also created support for secessionist groups in southern Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Because Southeast Asia has still not recovered from the 1997 financial crisis, the Bush administration should support economic policies that promote broad-based growth, even if these policies diverge from the wholesale liberalization typically advocated by Washington. Targeted foreign aid can also play a limited role in poverty reduction in the worst-off regions and help support social safety nets. An even more valuable step would be to reconsider U.S. policies that have been an obstacle to expanding growth, such as opposition to debt reduction. Despite three successive reschedulings of its debt since the 1997 crisis, Indonesia will spend 40 percent of its budget this coming year on debt service. This is not the basis for creating a dynamic economy. Convincing the U.S. Congress to reduce this debt will not be easy, but enlightened American self-interest makes it an urgent task.
Finally, the United States should commit to regional efforts to improve economic, political, and social conditions. Successive U.S. administrations have offered little support for regional initiatives under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; indeed, the United States has not acted as a partner with countries in the region since the end of the Cold War. Now that Washington has rediscovered Southeast Asia as the source of a perceived security threat, however, the partnership should be recreated in a way that addresses issues of mutual concern. Such a partnership should focus not just on countering existing terrorist networks but also on strengthening regional coordination to attack the roots of violent Islamism.