Sat, 21 Feb 2004

Taking the long view in countering terrorism

Barry Desker, The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

The emergence of the Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) threat in Southeast Asia has spawned a cottage industry of books and commentaries discussing terrorism in the region.

Most of the analyses are by counter-terrorism specialists, theorists in international relations and political pundits.

Those who have spent years studying the region, including area specialists and scholars in Islamic studies, have been absent from the debate. Instead, they have decried the lack of depth in these analyses.

One reason for their late involvement: Most were mesmerized by the moderate character of Islam in the region. There was denial that there are groups intent on disrupting the peaceful evolution of societies, such as Indonesia, in a transition to democratic governance.

Lacking the long view these specialists could provide, the debate on JI resulted in the perception that militancy in Islam is a recent phenomenon.

In reality, radical interpretations of Islam are not a new development. In the 1870s, religious Muslims who returned from the haj inspired by the austere Wahabi fundamentalism they encountered in Mecca embarked on the Padri wars in West Sumatra.

The use of the term "padri" was an astute recognition of the overlap between fundamentalists of different religious faiths: The white robes of the Wahabi followers and their religious zeal reminded local villagers of Christian missionaries or padres.

At the beginning of the 20th century, pamphleteers and editors in Singapore, then the hub of the regional Malay-language media, spread competing Islamic doctrines around the region. They set the stage for a political contest between the Kaum Muda (the reformists) and the Kaum Tua (the traditional establishment).

In the 1950s, the new Indonesian republic faced a major challenge from the Darul Islam revolt, which was supported by Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Basyir, the leaders of today's JI.

Colonial regimes in the region, as well as post-colonial leaderships, agonized over the role of Islam and recognized the challenge posed by Islamic radicals bent on overturning the existing state order.

Radical interpretations of Islam will be a recurrent challenge, as today's JI shows. Like other similar movements in the Islamic world which describe themselves as Salafi, JI sought a revival of the pristine Islam of the founding ancestors (salaf), by replicating the historic conquest of pagan Arabia.

The JI redefined jihad to justify revolutionary violence against internal and external enemies of Islam. Like Osama bin Laden, its leaders justified violence against Muslim rulers on the grounds that they suppressed Islamic law and were therefore apostates to be punished with death. Violence against Americans and other "Crusaders" was justified on the grounds that they promoted secular societies which subjugated Islam.

One fascinating aspect is the unintended consequences of earlier actions. United States support for the mujahideen who opposed Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s led to the creation of a multinational network of Afghan veterans who returned to their home countries desiring to replicate their successful jihad.

The late Abdullah Sungkar laid the groundwork for future cooperation between JI and al-Qaeda when he went to Afghanistan to participate in the resistance. The decision by the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan after the end of the Cold War allowed al-Qaeda to use this failed state as a sanctuary and training ground for a global jihad.

The networks created in Afghanistan formed the building blocks for al-Qaeda's global reach, as local concerns were fused with its global agenda.

To appreciate al-Qaeda's global as well as regional impact, one should look at the organization as a venture capitalist acting as a revolutionary catalyst. It provides training and funding while allowing for local initiative and a sense of empowerment.

Instead of a hierarchical transnational organization, al-Qaeda is a hydra-headed network linking operatives with shared beliefs. Although al-Qaeda has provided logistics support and financial assistance to JI, its most significant role lay in the creation of a shared identity and a global vision.

It is frequently argued that the rage within Muslim communities arises from the conflicts in the Middle East -- the Israel-Palestine conflict and now the American occupation of Iraq. We should not ignore the radicalizing impact of these developments.

However, a closer reading of Osama's pronouncements and of jihadist literature suggests that even if these conflicts were resolved, a host of new issues would arise, such as Chechnya, Kashmir, the southern Philippines and domestic governance in Algeria.

The aborted Singapore JI plan in 2002 to hijack an Aeroflot aircraft after its stopover in Bangkok and crash it into the Changi Airport control tower illustrates this new dimension. A Russian aircraft was chosen to demonstrate Singapore JI's solidarity with the struggle in Chechnya.

While attention has been focused on the globalising impact of MNCs, even terrorist movements have become globalised. The CNN effect has magnified the impact of the Middle East and other conflicts.

In meeting the threat of terrorism, a critical aspect will be the use of soft power, the use of non-military strategies to respond to this threat, which go beyond military, law enforcement and intelligence collection responses. It is a battle for hearts and minds.

The important role of strengthening cooperative networks tends to be underestimated.

In Southeast Asia, counter-terrorism cooperation is at the bilateral and trilateral levels. ASEAN agreements are primarily declaratory in intent. ASEAN has been most useful in establishing norms and in capacity building through the sharing of expertise.

Nevertheless, the current level of intra-ASEAN cooperation is considerably improved today compared to the mutual recriminations when the first evidence of the JI network emerged in December 2001.

The writer is director of the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies.