Features | Security | Southeast Asia

When Is a Terrorist a Terrorist?

‘War on terror’ was a flawed term from the start. But Asian governments, too, are willing to play politics with terrorism.

Luke Hunt

Coming up with a clear definition of ‘terrorist’ has always been fraught with problems, not least because of political interference and the application of that old cliché: ‘One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.’

Of course this is nonsense—in old-fashioned military parlance, a terrorist is simply someone who strikes at soft targets in a way designed to terrify a civilian population as a means of trying to shape the agenda. Buses and trains, airplanes, crowded bars and tourist destinations are always popular for this type of warfare—it’s simply one bloody means for obtaining an end and can be deployed equally by governments, militaries, separatists and insurgents of all types, including religious fundamentalists.

But because of the political interference that too often accompanies the handiwork of terrorists, there’s no international legal agreement or criminal law that properly defines terrorism, which is ultimately the cheapest, easiest and most common strategic tactic employed and enjoyed by bullies the world over.

This is why the declaration of a ‘war on terror’ by former US President George W. Bush seemed such a silly response to the tragic events that unfolded on September 11. Instead of declaring war on the combatants—al-Qaeda and their Islamic militant affiliates—he took much of the Western world into battle against a type of warfare. This is akin to the Kennedy administration declaring war against guerrilla tactics deployed by the communists rather than the Viet Cong itself during the Vietnam War, or a declaration of war by Franklin Roosevelt on sneak attacks rather than the Japanese in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

Such distinctions are too often lost in the carnage, but the reality is that a ‘war on terror’ makes no more sense now than it did then, when it allowed members of the Bush administration to carry on their Middle East business dealings with unsavoury middlemen whose connections with al-Qaeda—whether direct or indirect—have been well documented.

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Unfortunately, the precedent of muddying definitions of this sort for political benefit that was set by the Bush administration didn’t end with the Bush presidency. Indeed it’s a precedent that now appears to be being followed with some gusto in South-east Asia.

Recent investigations into a bus bombing that left 10 dead in the Southern Philippines—widely regarded as the ‘second front’ in counterterrorism efforts—have given political opportunists in the Philippines the chance to latch on to a terrorist incident for their own gain.

Make no mistake—the bus bomb attack in Matalam, North Cotabato, was an act of terrorism. Ten counts of murder would also be appropriate for an attack that left dozens more people injured. But the Philippine military authorities have been awfully quick to imply the attack was the work of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The MILF has typically distinguished itself from other hard-nosed militant outfits like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), who have well-established track records of killing and kidnapping innocent civilians. Of course this isn’t to say the MILF are angels, but their demands for a Moro homeland and the way they’ve conducted themselves in peace talks in recent years has set them apart from the others, and even afforded them a degree of respect from many quarters that ASG and JI will never achieve.

Now, with a new administration elected in Christian Manila, fresh peace talks are looming and there’s now the best chance of a solution being found for the seemingly intractable problems in the south since another hard-won agreement was struck down by the courts in mid-2008.

However, as with previous pushes, there’s no shortage of political interests that would like to see the talks scuttled—and with them any prospect of a Muslim homeland in the south.

Police have arrested four men who they say are members of the MILF and were responsible for the blast: Yasser Talusob, Allamin Samai, Ibrahim Alimana and Abdul Alim Taluson. And, if the evidence is to be believed, the four are a hardcore bunch—they’re accused of ordering a 16-year-old boy to carry a backyard bomb made out of an 81-mm mortar shell and hidden in a bag onto the bus, where he is said to have stowed it at the rear of the carriage behind about 50 passengers. He is then said to have left before the bus exploded before later giving himself and the others up.

MILF says it had nothing to do with the incident and that none of the four were members of their outfit. They say the names simply aren’t on their books, and suggest a far more plausible explanation is that the attack was borne out of some kind of extortion effort.

Yet sections within the Philippine military expect the public to believe that the MILF—with a genuine chance of finally securing peace and a resolution to their political demands—opted to coerce a teenager into blowing up a rural transit bus.

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Politics, self-interest and terrorism are a dirty mix, wherever they occur.