Countering the Support Environment for Terrorism in the Asia-Pacific Region

31 JAN—2 FEB 2006

Paul Smith and Terry Klapakis

Background: Terrorism is a growing threat in Southeast Asia.  It is fostered by two simultaneous trends: the spread of militant religious ideologies and the growth of transnational ‘enabling’ factors that allow illegal mobility and access to weapons and funding.

To understand the support environment for terrorism in Southeast Asia, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies hosted a 3-day conference (31 January to 2 February 2006) involving roughly 40 participants.  Among the objectives of the conference were:

  • To assess and understand the ideological underpinning of terrorism in the region (and its causes) and current trends.
  • To assess the transnational ‘enabling’ factors, such as crime, porous borders, availability of small arms and explosives, that helps sustain terrorist organizations.
  • To assess current measures by states (and regional organizations) to counter terrorism and to identify any limitations that are acting as barriers to success.

The conference was divided into six key sessions.  Session one was designed to provide a regional overview of the terrorism challenge facing Southeast Asia.  Among the key findings:

  • The insurgency in Thailand is transforming.  Growing evidence suggests increased influence from foreign elements (organizations and individuals).  The insurgency displays evidence of increased learning by militants and an increase in criminal activities that support the insurgency.  Global ideologies—such as violent jihadism—are also influencing the conflict.
  • In the southern Philippines, the government is engaged in peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is in a weaker state than a few years ago.  There is evidence of splits within the MILF—where top leaders may want peace, while certain field commanders do not.  Other groups that are active in the region, such as the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) have connections with Jemaah Islamiah (JI).
  • In Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiah is now decentralized.  The fluidity of membership gives JI an opportunity to tap into the vast network of jihadists (including members of the preexisting Darul Islam group).  Indonesia is potentially witnessing the rise of other “pockets of radicalization” that are emerging outside of current organizations.

In Session two, presenters were asked to address state and regional responses to terrorism.  Among the key findings:

  • In the case of the Philippines, certain state responses are bringing success, while other measures are inadequate.  On the positive front are negotiations with the MILF—the target year (for peace) is 2006.  Increasingly, the MILF is willing to work with the government.  On the negative front, the Philippines has been unable to control its maritime borders through which operatives from neighboring states (particularly Indonesia) enter Mindanao.
  • In the case of Thailand, the government has emphasized improving basic law enforcement tools, such as intelligence sharing, document integrity and cooperation with other law enforcement entities (within and outside Thailand).
  • In the case of Australia, terrorism has emerged as a key issue in Australia’s relationship with Southeast Asian countries.  Australia has 12 bilateral MOUs with Southeast Asian countries that address counterterrorism.  Prior to 11 September 2001, Australia considered terrorism a nuisance akin to piracy; however, subsequently Australia has taken the issue much more seriously and has developed a comprehensive security response.
  • Regarding ASEAN’s response to terrorism, the primary issue is how specific countries in ASEAN react to terrorism.  Some members of ASEAN do not focus extensively on terrorism because the issue does not affect them significantly.  Specific country responses to terrorism have been more effective than ASEAN’s overall response. It is unrealistic to expect a seamless multilateral approach within ASEAN.

In Session three, presenters were asked to focus on the ideological roots of extremist movements in Southeast Asia.  Among the key findings:

  • Contemporary Southeast Asia terrorism has always had international and domestic drivers.  Domestic factors include deeply-held grievances against secular or non-Muslim ‘home’ governments.  International factors include the influence of extreme salafi notions of jihad emanating from the Middle East, South and Central Asia.
  • However, today in Jemaah Islamiah there are several splits in the organization.  Those who advocate unrestrained jihadist ideology in JI are now under attack from the organization’s own ulema who are seeking to return JI to its founding principles.
  • The JI ulema criticize the ‘bombers’ wing (those who advocate terrorist violence) for misunderstanding jihad and waging attacks without justification.  Increasingly the bombers (terrorist wing) lack leaders with knowledge of jihad teachings.
  • Certain JI leaders encourage members to engage in crimes (robberies, computer hacking, credit card fraud, etc.) to raise money.  The justification that is given is that robbery and theft of non-Muslims’ property are permissible.
  • In the case of Singapore, countering ideological roots of extremism has been predicated on a series of measures, including enhancing internal security (surveillance and policing); detecting the spread of extremist ideology; strengthening social cohesion and religious harmony, and the formation of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (formed in 2003 to help re-interpret religious concepts that JI was using for its recruitment).

In Session four, presenters were asked to focus on specific case studies of terrorism involving four key countries in the region (Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia).  Among the key findings:

  • The bombings in southern Thailand are being conducted by disparate groups, sometimes acting in concert.  No one particular group has accepted responsibility.  The violence has created a climate of fear among locals.  The insurgency does not enjoy widespread support, except among certain segments of youth.  The government response has been less than adequate.  The long term challenge is the possible spread of the insurgency northward, to include violence in Bangkok.
  • The violence in the southern Philippines is ‘directed’—it is not so much rooted in religion (particularly for the MNLF and MILF), except in the case of the JI or ASG.  Political and economic marginalization are major factors.  JI and MILF have cooperated, to include joint operations, but this cooperation has dissipated in recent years.
  • For Malaysia, much of the militancy throughout Southeast Asia can be traced, directly or indirectly, back to Malaysia.  Malaysia has its own problem with Jemaah Islamiah through the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia.  However, Malaysia is in relatively good shape to counter violent ideologies; it is a democratic country that is relatively well-developed economically.  Thus it does not suffer from the same pressures and political restrictions that exist in most parts of the Middle East.
  • In Indonesia, there are both positive and negative trends.  On the positive side is great police work since the 2002 Bali attack (many JI operatives have been arrested or killed).  In addition, there has been good international cooperation. In addition, within Indonesia there is growing intolerance of JI’s militant ideology.  However on the negative side, there has been poor inter-agency cooperation, sometimes unenthusiastic counterterrorism support from top levels of government, poor governance at local levels, and continued persistence of communal violence (which could be exploited by jihadi groups).  The overall picture is mixed.

In Session five, presenters were asked to address the ‘enabling environment’ factors that make Southeast Asia attractive

  • One of the key enabling factors in Southeast Asia is poverty.  In the case of Indonesia, poverty is a major problem particularly in rural areas.  Most of the homegrown terrorists are from rural areas and have minimal education, and yet many of these individuals conduct terrorist operations in urban areas.  Thus, the effort to counter ideological basis for terrorism must be complemented by efforts to mitigate poverty (and improve education).
  • One of the key enablers of terrorism in Southeast Asia is the communications infrastructure, including the Internet and other new communication technologies.  Cyberspace is emerging as a new theater of war; the region is seeing the emergence of an electronic jihad.  Most terrorist groups are currently focused on exploiting, rather than destroying the Internet.
  • Another key enabler for terrorism in Southeast Asia is finance.  One of the challenges of disrupting terrorism finance is the fact that small amounts of money are involved in terrorist acts.  Currently, Southeast Asia is a hub for terrorist activities; the region is featured prominently in al Qaeda’s most ambitious plans.  From a financial standpoint, Southeast Asia is attractive because it is a ‘business friendly’ environment with poor regulations and it has extensive money laundering.

The final sessions (six and seven) featured breakout sessions and report-back sessions that addressed 4 critical questions: (1) What are effective measures to counter ideological support for terrorism in Southeast Asia? (2) How to reduce the functional enabling environment in Southeast Asia? (3) What state or ASEAN responses are working and which are not? (4) What can be improved regarding U.S. policy toward the region (in the context of terrorism)?

(1) Regarding effective ideological counter-measures:

  • Effective counter-ideological measures require comprehensive knowledge of ideologies and their environments
  • Advocate multi-level approach (int’l, nat’l, organic, including Islamic civil society groups)
  • Identify various target audiences and tailor messages specific to each of them
  • Develop metrics system and process to ensure programs are effective
  • Decide who and what organizations are best able to affect this

–        Use people who are best able to affect terrorists and their supporters, to include people with whom countries like the US would traditionally not deal

  • Open collaboration environment that allows opportunities for info sharing and capacity building
  • Develop support and aid-based system that encourages peaceful, tolerant social- civil society structures

(2) Regarding countering the functional enabling environment:

  • Regional:
    • Combat transnational crime
    • Improve multilateral cooperation
    • Reduce border porosity (between states)
    • Promote legal responses to terrorism
  • National:
    • Improve state capacity
    • Reduce corruption
    • Strengthen rule of law
  • Local
    • Conflict resolution and mediation
    • Improve law/governance
    • Community empowerment and participation, includes education
    • Economic development and social services

(3) Regarding ASEAN (and state other than U.S.) responses in Southeast Asia:

  • ASEAN members have to see deeper cooperation as valuable to their self interest
  • They must come to a (bottom-up) common understanding of the problem and their vulnerability to nontraditional security threats
  • Malacca Straits may be the lynchpin to evolving multilateral cooperation
  • Build habits of cooperation—humanitarian aid and disaster relief
  • Understand the value of offers and implementation of assistance that take cultural sensitivities into account

(4) Regarding US policy in Southeast Asia:

  • Restore US capacity in strategic communications
  • Encourage better attention from electronic media to Southeast communities and their interests
  • Build up a substantial strategic scholarships program, especially for Islamic intellectuals, to equip change-agents & ambassadors
  • Explain the benefits of mil-mil relations
  • Help build the capacity of government agencies in SEA to consolidate democracy & secure the region
  • Build understanding within US agencies of Islam in Southeast Asia (e.g. Indonesian madrasah)
  • Encourage foreign language proficiency & cultural knowledge amongst DoD and State Dept officers

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