by Ronald Palmer
Islam only reached Southeast Asia in the 1300’s, some seven centuries after the death of the Prophet Mohammad in 632 A.D. It rested on a relatively thin layer of Hinduism and Buddhism that local ruling classes had adopted one thousand years before from 600 B.C. to reinforce and legitimate their rule. However, the deepest layer in local culture was then and remains the traditional animist folk religion, strongly influenced by deferential superior-inferior feudal political culture.
The Islam of Southeast Asia came from two sources: India and Yemen. Indian Islam had already been moderated by its centuries of co-existence with Indian culture and was far more tolerant and easy going than the austere, ascetic, strictly observant and orthodox Islam that reached the region from Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The result has been a division in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines between a fundamentalist minority and a far larger secular, modernizing western-oriented majority. The elite of this majority has provided national leadership. The fundamentalist minority resents this less-observant majority, which typically is poor and rural.
These elites have vigorously opposed fundamentalist efforts to establish an Islamic state and sharia law.
To date the Southeast Asian states that have witnessed the growth of Islamic-extremist terrorism are Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. Thailand has an aggrieved Muslim minority in its southern provinces and terrorists who have been active elsewhere have slipped across the porous Thai border with Malaysia and some have found refuge. But Thailand has not yet been the subject of terrorist actions and I will give it only peripheral attention. A quick survey of the contemporary political situations in the countries, which have been affected by the connection between local problems and Al Qaeda, may help provide a framework for analysis.
What do Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei, Thailand, and Indonesia have in common?
First, they were all subject to foreign colonial subjugation except Thailand. Colonialism disrupted traditional political, economic, social and ethno-religious patterns, particularly the predominant role of Islam. The local people in these states and in southern Thailand were Malay-Polynesians ethnically. Colonial governments promoted Chinese migration, initially as coolie labor, but soon partnered economically with the Chinese who demonstrated a talent for capitalist enterprise. Many Chinese had achieved higher economic status than indigenous Malay peoples by the end of colonialism. Singapore is the only Chinese majority state but Chinese minorities play important roles elsewhere in the region.
Indigenous populations had fallen behind economically when colonialism ended. The Muslim governments in Malaysia and Indonesia have devoted significant political energies to trying to improve the status of their less well-off brethren but great gaps remain between the elites and the masses.
The Muslim minorities in Chinese Singapore and Catholic Philippines have not fared as well. The Philippines is a special case because Spain pursued a Christianizing mission against Islam, which eventually limited Islam only to Mindanao and the southern islands. In general, whether in Muslim majority or minority states, poor Muslims have a sense of grievance that makes them potentially vulnerable to extremist agitation and pose significant problems for contemporary post-colonial governments.
This sense of grievance has reinforced Islam’s role as a medium for asserting identity. The external manifestation is the wearing of Middle Eastern clothes by men and women. Moreover, women have increasingly worn headscarves or even gone fully covered despite the tropical heat.
Additionally, strict observance of fundamentalist Islam is also a means of asserting identification with reform and protesting upper-class corruption.
Another common feature of Islam for both observant and non-observant Muslims is that it leads to a deep resentment of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. A derivative of this resentment is resentment of the United States’ apparent indulgence of Israeli actions. U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq are also deplored as anti-Islam.
One more common feature is that all the states under review, except for Brunei and Singapore, will go through historic political transitions in leadership in the near future. There has been a succession to new leadership recently in nations where Islamic terrorist activities have taken place in recent years. Local terrorists may be expected to act if political confusion occurs following these changes.
Mahathir presided over what can only be called a revolution in his twenty-two years in power since 1981. He aggressively but deftly managed the major post-colonial issue bequeathed to Malaysia by Britain’s colonial administration: the potentially destabilizing ethnic divides between indigenous Malays and immigrant Chinese. Malays are presently between fifty and fifty-five percent of the population; Chinese are thirty to thirty-five percent; Indians and others make up the remainder of the population.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir used the affirmative action political, economic and educational provisions (quotas) of the 1971 New Economic Policy adopted after the bloody Malay-Chinese May 13, 1969, race riots to promote Malays to commanding positions in the Malaysian economy.
This delicate task was achieved without unduly antagonizing the Chinese. Mahathir managed this feat in a manner that has enabled the Chinese to retain impressive economic power. The economic and financial pie has been made larger. The potential for ethnic explosiveness has been diverted into economic competition.
The British had based their indirect rule on co-opting the Malay aristocracy. The result in the post-independence era was that a westernized urban-oriented secular Malay leadership class came to power. Its political expression was the United Malays National Organization, UMNO, which formed alliances with communally based conservative Chinese and Indian political parties. There was a constitutional bargain at independence in which Malays were guaranteed predominant governmental political power and the Chinese were accorded a free hand in the economy.
However, the strongly Islamicized, largely rural poor Malay population resented being left behind economically. Many turned to the fundamentalist Pan Malaysia Islamic Party better known by its acronym, PAS, as an alternative to UMNO. Since it was formed in 1950, PAS has unapologetically advocated an Islamic state based on Koranic law and has criticized the secular orientation of the modern state the UMNO has organized. On November 12, 2003, PAS announced its goal of an Islamic state, which would incorporate sharia law, including stoning and amputation as punishment for criminals.
Mahathir Mohammad strenuously sought to maintain Malay unity by keeping PAS off-balance with a mixture of cooperation, co-option and coercion. PAS gained control of Malay majority states Kelantan and Trengganu in the 1999 elections and also made gains at local levels. It now heads the Opposition in Parliament.
In the mid-1990s Mahathir became concerned over the local impact of events in the Middle and Near East. The 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the 1991 US-led Gulf War against Iraq created deep resentment among the traditionalist Malay Islamic base. Malaysian security officials began keeping a close watch on some forty local extremist Islamic groups as early as 1995.
Many local critics of the Mahathir Government thought the arrests of Islamic militants after the 1999 elections were merely crass attempts at political intimidation. However, these arrests soon demonstrated initially bewildering connections between the arrestees and foreign extremist groups.
The nature and extent of these ties became vividly apparent after September 11, 2001. Mahathir’s earlier warnings about possible PAS extremism had seemed as if he were crying wolf for political advan-tage, but the revelations of local Malay support of Al Qaeda made the Malaysian public become aware there was a real problem. The Malaysian government has cooperated closely with U.S. intelligence and security services since at least 1981 when Mahathir came to power and such cooperation became intensified after September 11, 2001. Mahathir’s subsequent even closer cooperation with the United States initially had broad support among all Malaysian ethnic groups. However, the 2003 American invasion of Iraq is deeply unpopular in Malaysia and has caused some to question the US-Malaysian relationship.
The 1969-1986 authoritarian government of President Ferdinand E. Marcos sought to crush Muslim dissidence but fell in 1986 to a popular rebellion of ordinary citizens supported by the Catholic Church — so-called People Power. Corazon Aquino, the widow of martyred oppositionist leader Benigno Aquino, became President by virtual public acclamation and governed with good intentions in the 1986-1992 period. Her indecisiveness and inexperience encouraged various abortive coup efforts by military political adventurers who mounted numerous failed coup attempts. That of December 1989 almost succeeded until U.S. aircraft made a show of force over Manila.
President Aquino had promised to serve only one term before stepping aside so that the normal political process could resume. She did. In retrospect, she played a historic transitional role, especially in paving the way for her successor former General Fidel Ramos. President Ramos sought vigorously to pursue a reform agenda including tax reform but his popularity declined in favor of his Vice President Joseph Estrada a dashing former movie star.
Estrada was elected President in 1998 but had little success in administering the country. He backed aggressive but unsuccessful military campaigns against dissident Muslims. However, evidence of personal financial corruption led to his arrest in 2001. He was succeeded by his vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Facing seemingly intractable problems including the growth of Muslim terrorism, she announced in 2002 she would not be a candidate in the scheduled 2004 elections. She changed her mind however and was reelected.
The connection between the Philippine situation and Al Qaeda will be discussed shortly.
The democratically oriented post-Suharto Indonesian Parliament replaced him in 2000 with moderate Muslim leader Abdulrahman Wahid (known as Gus Dur) whose erratic administration ended in 2001 when a fed-up Parliament replaced him with his Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of former President Sukarno. Her rule has not been successful. She has had to confront the fact that Indonesia has been penetrated by Al Qaeda and its local partner Jemaah Islamiya (the Islamic Community, JI). In fairness to President Megawati, she has also had to deal with potentially explosive ethnic-religious-social-political-insurgency situations in Maluku in the eastern Spice Islands, Papua in New Guinea in the far east, Sulawesi in the north, and Atjeh at the northern tip of Sumatra in the northwest.
President Megawati quickly sided with the United States after Sep-tember 11, 2001, and was the first foreign leader to visit Washington. Subsequently however she has faced considerable nationalist hostility over her attempt to develop a close partnership with the US. Nationalists were skeptical that there was any connection between Indonesian Islam and external Al Qaeda-sponsored terrorist activities. This skepticism has diminished substantially since the October 2002 bombing of tourist facilities in Bali and Indonesian suspects were captured, tried, and convicted and condemned to death sentences.The point of this rapid survey of local political situations has been to attempt to design a backdrop for a more intensive analysis of how local politics became connected with external Islamic terrorist sources.
There have been abundant sources of local dissatisfaction to produce local political terrorism both against local governments and by local governments against opposition. Nevertheless, even in the days of communist terrorism, there was only limited contact between local and outside forces. Moreover, Muslim use of terrorism tactics was highly localized with little or no contact with terrorism in the Near and Middle East.
However, present Southeast Asian Muslim terrorism now connects local grievances with the well-organized, well-financed external Al Qaeda network. It was fueled by the anger of Southeast Asian Muslims at the perceived attacks on Islam resulting from the Soviet 1979-1989 occupation of Afghanistan, the 1991 US-led Gulf War against Iraq and the recent war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian Muslims volunteered as Mujahideen warriors in these conflicts and underwent indoctrination and training in Muslim extremist camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Southeast Asians encountered hardened veterans of Middle Eastern terrorism and returned to Southeast Asia full of zeal.
There are broadly two groups of returnees: those who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1979-1989 era and those who went to the area in the later period of the U.S. war against the Taliban.There is no present evidence Southeast Asians are fighting against the American coalition in Iraq.
In earlier years there was reverse traffic as well. Apparently impressed by the ardor of the Southeast Asians, Al Qaeda agents began exploring the potential for expanding operations in the region as early as 1988. Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law Mohammad Jamal Khalifa made a reconnaissance of the Philippines in 1988. He found conditions favorable for Al Qaeda and returned in 1991 to set up an office to establish contact with both the Moro Independence Liberation Front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf. The MILF had replaced the MNLF as the more austere, aggressive and better-organized champion of Islam in the Southern Philippines. Al Qaeda military trainers went to MILF and Abu Sayyaf camps in Mindanao. New evidence indicates that separate training camps for Indonesians were set up in Mindanao as well as early as 1995.
The early Al Qaeda focus on the Philippines made it the center of extraordinary terrorist activity. Ramzi Yussuf laid his plot there for the unsuccessful 1993 bombing of the New York World Trade Center. A 1995 accident involving Ramzi Yusuf’s handling explosives in his Manila apartment led to a fire. He escaped before the arrival of firefighters and the police. Police investigators discovered sophisticated plans to carry out high profile terrorist operations in 1995-1996. These included a plot to assassinate the Pope during his upcoming 1995 visit; plans for synchronized bombings of U.S. embassies in Manila and elsewhere in the region; plans to blow up twelve American passenger aircraft; plans to assassinate President Clinton during his 1996 visit to Manila for the APEC Summit, and plans for suicide assaults on FBI and CIA headquarters.
A mid-1980s Suharto crackdown on Muslim extremists caused religious teacher AbuBakar Baasyir and his devoted disciple Riduaan Isamuddin known as Hambali to flee to Malaysia. They found Malaysia a ready target for subversion. By 1985 AbuBakar Baasyir had organized Jemaah Islamiya, which aspired to develop an Islamic-state including Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Southern Philippines and Indonesia.
Malaysia was a choice location for this effort because of its excellent air communications, banking and financial systems, and a disgruntled rural Malay population attracted increasingly to PAS. As a sop to PAS, Malaysia had adopted also an immigration system, which gave ready entry to foreign Muslims. Additionally, there were growing numbers of local religious clerics teaching in private homes or little known schools the severe brand of Islam espoused by the Taliban.
Baasyir and Hambali took leading roles in encouraging such religious indoctrination. Baasyir remained in Malaysia; Hambali went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s to fight the Russians. Hambali returned to Malaysia in the early 1990s dedicated to the continuation and expansion the armed struggle to promote Islam.
Hambali became the regional link with Al Qaeda. The Singapore Government reports he had direct access to the closest lieutenants of Osama bin Laden. Hambali was one of the very few non-Arabs with access to the highest Al Qaeda levels.
Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian army officer, became the key accomplice of Baasyir and Hambali. His career illustrates how Al Qaeda took root in the US. Upon his return, his mother-in-law considered he had strayed from Islam and urged him to take religious instruction. He became extremist in his religious outlook under the influence of Baasyir and Hambali. Sufaat became their key Malaysian follower, including hosting group meetings at his residence.
In January 2000 Hambali ordered Sufaat to host two of the hijackers who later crashed United Flight 77 into the Pentagon. American intelligence authorities had alerted Malaysian police that a group of suspected Arab terrorists would arrive about that time and the entire group was tailed closely and videotaped by Malaysian security officials. As noted, Malaysian authorities had been watching various apparently extremist Muslim groups previously. However, this seems to have been the first direct observation of local terrorists with their foreign counterparts. Surveillance of Jemaah Islamiya began at that time. Neither the Americans nor Malaysians were aware then of how closely Jemaah Islamiya and Al Qaeda were linked.
Sufaat went to Afghanistan in 1991 and served in a Taliban medical unit.
Meanwhile, Hambali had set up at least two Al Qaeda cells in Singapore composed of ethnic Malays. After American bombing of Taliban targets began in late 2001, one of the cells was instructed to set off explosions at the American and other embassies in Singapore. Another cell was ordered to blow up U.S. warships and other targets in Singapore. In October, two Al Qaeda agents slipped into Singapore to help with the bombing plans. One, Fahur Rathman Al-Ghozali, was former student of Baasyir and an explosives expert but he delayed plans by insisting that more explosives were needed.
Fortunately, Singapore security officials learned soon after September 11, 2001, of local Jemaah Islamiya links with Al Qaeda and began investigations. Thirteen arrests were made in December shortly before the bombings were to occur. Singapore police interrogations produced evidence leading back to Malaysia and Hambali.
Malaysian police had already begun making their own arrests of known Jemaah Islamiya members. Hambali fled to Afghanistan in late 2001. About this time, Yazid Sufaat returned to Malaysia from Afghanistan by attempting to slip across the Thai border but the Malaysian police were waiting for him and he was quickly apprehended.
Sufaat has been charged among other things with procuring four tons of ammonium nitrate — twice the amount Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma bombings. The explosives were recently located in an oil palm plantation in Johor across the causeway from Singapore.
Singapore provided the Philippines with the identity of Fahur Al Ghozali,who was arrested. He turned out to a key figure in Al Qaeda activities in the Philippines. He was an Indonesian subordinate of both Baasyir and Hambali. Al Ghozali was charged with various bombings in the Philippines and Indonesia in which over 40 persons died. These attacks were reportedly test runs for the planned Singapore bombings. Al Ghozali admitted traveling to the Philippines since 1996 to buy weapons and explosives. Fahur Al Ghozali like Hambali was a highly sophisticated agent. Aside from his contacts with Hambali, Al Ghozali worked closely also with another Indonesian Hambali lieutenant named Faiz Abu Bakar Bafana. Bafana gave instructions to Al Ghozali to put the Singapore bombing plot into motion but Al Ghozali decided four tons of explosives was inadequate and ordered that a total of seventeen tons be procured. This led to delay, which gave the Singapore police enough time to make the arrests, which unraveled the plot.
Thus, a disaster of major proportions was only narrowly averted in Singapore, as in the earlier case of the accidental 1995 discovery of the Ramzi Yusuf plots in Manila.
Hambali and Baasyir escaped arrest and were able to return to Indonesia. Baasyir resumed his public role as a religious teacher. Hambali evaded capture until August 15, 2003 when U.S. security agencies cooperating with the Thai Government arrested him and took him away to an undisclosed location where he is currently being interrogated.
He may be the key to the unraveling of the entire Southeast Asian terrorism network.
Fahur Al Ghozali escaped Philippine custody, but was subsequently killed by the Philippine military. He had admitted being the Al Qaeda contact with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF has a re-ported 10,000 fighters under arms. They are considered to be better-led, better-trained and better organized than either the MNLF or Abu Sayyaf. The latter group may number only a few hundred persons and has degenerated into a gangster kidnapping operation.
The MILF has denied links with Al Qaeda, however, the Philippine Government has accused it of murderous bombing attacks. The MILF has denied responsibility.
As this indicates, the Philippines has been a launching pad for Al Qaeda activities elsewhere in the region, as well as in its Muslim South.
The security institutions in the strong states of Malaysia and Singapore are watching Muslim extremist groups closely. Moreover, populations in both countries, including Muslims, were repulsed by planned terrorist bombings. Nevertheless, Jemaah Islamiya and Al Qaeda have demonstrated a marked capability for patience and careful planning and have shown that spectacular results can be achieved by only a relative handful of dedicated assassins. Neither country has lapsed into complacency. Clearly, locals have been in contact with external Al Qaeda agents in the past and prudence demands highly focused attention to the reality that such contacts persist.
Security forces in the Philippines and Indonesia which are institutionally weaker states face very difficult tasks. Excellent police work in Indonesia following the October, 2002 Bali bombing produced evidence that the disaster was conceived and carried out by Indonesians, quieting those who initially denied Indonesian involvement and had claimed the bombing had possibly been a CIA plot to drag Indonesia into the war on terrorism.
The transition of the Malaysian Prime Ministership to Abdullah Badawi has been smooth. Low-key Badawi is a vivid contrast to high-powered Mahathir. He has excellent Islamic credentials including a degree in Islamic studies. He is the son and grandson of renowned Islamic scholars who were ardent advocates of uplift of the rural Malay masses. He has announced that another of his priorities will be the promotion of agriculture which presently only contributes 9 percent to GDP. This will be a key feature of his rural development plans to improve grassroots education and infrastructure. These plans are focused on the poor rural Malays and are designed to counter the appeal of PAS.
Badawi will reinforce Malaysian tough anti-terrorist policy. He had been Home Minister in charge of police , intelligence and counter- intelligence matters since 1999. He will use his power to root out extremist elements from PAS and to pursue Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist cells.
Mahathir has left the issue of what to do about the jailed Anwar Ibrahim to Badawi to solve. Badawi may be expected to release Anwar when the appropriate opportunity occurs, perhaps after a good win in the upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda appears to be patiently waiting for its next opportunity to strike. Its network is more deeply rooted and far more complex than Indonesian authorities previously realized. Nevertheless, Jemaah Islamiya has been weakened by the arrest of Hambali. The Indonesian Government arrested and tried Abu Bakar Baasyir for treason and sedition. He was acquitted of the treason charge but sentenced to four years in prison on the sedition charge. Bafana is jailed.
Still, Jemaah Islamiya has successfully adopted the non-hierarchical organizational methods of Al Qaeda. Individual cells have the capability for autonomous action. He knows well that the ideal of creating an Islamic state covering most of the insular Southeast Asian region as well as Southern Thailand and Malaysia would take time. The question is how well the local governments will use this time to reduce the types of grievances that have increased the appeal of Islamic extremism.
The United States will also have to use the time well to find ways to be helpful to local moderate leadership groups.Meanwhile, since 1997 China has launched a sophisticated, smooth and deftly executed diplomatic offensive to win the hearts and minds of Southeast Asia. China wants a stable environment on its periphery and successful, effective governments capable of coping with the threat of terrorism in the region are in its interest. U.S. attention to the region has been episodic and guided by national security concerns. Growth of Chinese influence in the region of course has national security implications for the US.
In concluding, it is useful to highlight a key passage in a May 31, 2002 address by Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew:
“It is necessary to emphasize that the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam. The majority of Muslims have nothing to do with terrorism or extremism. However, militant terrorist groups have hijacked Islam as their driving force and have given it a virulent twist. Throughout the Muslim world , the militants are out to impose their version of Islam. The majority of Muslims who are moderates are caught between (1) their sympathy for and identification with the Palestinians and anger against the Israelis, and (2) their desire for a peaceful life of growth and progress. To resolve the problem of terrorism, the United States and others must support the tolerant non-militant Muslims so that they will prevail.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has also spoken on this theme: “A successful counter-terrorism strategy … cannot be confined to punitive or deterrent action alone…but when terrorism springs from massive discontent and mass perception of manifest and blatant injustices punitive action alone will not work… To successfully defeat terrorism we have no choice but to address the root causes. The issues, which terrorists use to mobilize support, will have to be neutralized . This will necessitate reform, concession and compromise…”
Badawi was challenging his own nation and its neighbors but his challenge was also addressed to “powerful states” (the United States):”The greatest challenge, I believe, is leadership. The world, this region, looks to new leadership from the powerful states. We need global powers with global vision and global interests at heart. Powerful states that pursue very narrow interests do not attain global leadership. They forfeit it.”
These Southeast Asian leaders of strong and effective states believe the key to confronting Muslim terrorism is a wide-ranging program of confronting the political, economic, cultural, educational, and, human rights grievances of Muslims in their societies.
A successful U.S. policy to defeat Muslim jihadism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, including Africa, will need to reflect such views. This is not presently the case.
The author, a retired career diplomat, served as U. S. ambassador successively to Togo, Malaysia, and Mauritius, in addition to other senior positions in Washington and abroad during his thirty-two year Foreign Service career. A member of the American Diplomacy Publishers board, he is now professor emeritus at The George Washington University in Washington, D. C.