Features | Security | Southeast Asia

How Terrorism Still Looms Over Asia

Counterterrorism doesn’t get the attention it used to. But recent successes can’t mask the risk it still poses in South-east Asia.

Luke Hunt

It was probably inevitable that counterterrorism would slip from the top of the totem pole of diplomatic attention, where Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and their allies had placed it.

The September 11 strikes in 2001 against New York and Washington DC justifiably elevated the issue to a realm it had rarely enjoyed before, including in South-east Asia, which has been home to a number of well-structured and well-funded terrorist outfits.

But the global financial crisis and the rise of China have gradually put economics back on top of the list of international concerns and interests, much as the subject was in the heady days of the dot.com boom in the years before 9/11.

In a sense, counterterrorism has been a victim of its own success, with results in the field in recent years – and particularly over the past 12 months – cutting regional leaders some political slack. This has allowed them to turn their attentions to other issues, such as the economy, trade, people smuggling and human trafficking (and more traditional cross-border spats like the Spratly Islands).

Of course, nobody really believes the likes of al-Qaeda, the remnants of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) or the more radical splinter group Jama'ah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) have packed up their bags for a life of obscure retirement in the Southern Philippines.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Indeed, the Christmas attacks in Pakistan, where a burqa-clad suicide bomber killed 44 people, and on the island of Jolo in the Southern Philippines, where a bomb exploded near the altar of a local chapel during Christmas mass, injuring nine people, were an uncomfortable reminder of terrorism’s continuing shadow.

In addition, the British and Australian embassies in Jakarta have warned tourists in Indonesia that there’s a high risk of attacks over the holiday period, while in England, nine men have been charged with conspiracy to bomb high-profile London targets in the run-up to Christmas, including the London Stock Exchange.

The festive season, it’s clear, is sadly often a magnet for the worst of intentions.

Still, 2010 was a year the authorities across South-east Asia brooked little nonsense with Muslim hardliners. Indonesia and its counterterrorism unit, Detachment 88, led the crackdown on Islamic terrorists, taking on the lion’s share of the work in an increasingly thankless job.

Among those tackled were Dulmatin, who was killed in March, while in recent weeks Abu Tholut and JI’s spiritual head, Abu Bakar Bashir, have been detained and charged. This latest round-up followed a meeting of surviving members of Indonesia’s radicalized militants in Aceh in February, when they plotted to assassinate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

However, it was a tip-off and a list of who’s who in attendance that helped Detachment 88 to its biggest haul in recent years. Thirteen alleged terrorists were killed by police and at least 66 arrested, with trials pending.

Many believe Bashir is a key recruiter and player in the organizational structure of terror cells, as opposed to being the simple preacher that he has always claimed to be. But it was the arrest of Tholut that was seen as particularly important. This wasn’t just because of his expertise as a bomb maker (which included years of experience in Afghanistan), but also because of his renowned ability to recite the Koran with considerable poetic license, making him canny in recruiting younger, impressionable and disgruntled men to the cause.

The Malaysians and Singaporeans have also chipped in.

Mas Selamat Kastari, leader of the Singapore arm of JI, was finally handed back to authorities there in September by Kuala Lumpur, after being recaptured following his escape. Three family members in Singapore were convicted of abetting him and were also jailed.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Malaysia has also arrested and expelled Indonesian JI leader Fadli Sadama, and Jakarta is expected to prosecute.

In Australia, meanwhile, a Melbourne court found three men guilty of planning a terrorist attack on an Australian army base in Sydney. The Victorian Supreme Court was told the three were part of a planned shootout at the Australian Army Barracks at Holsworthy, and wanted to obtain a religious decree endorsing the strike, working off a belief that Islam was under attack from the West.

Whether success in 2010 translates into a more peaceful 2011, though, remains to be seen.

Among the remaining high profile militants still at large are Indonesian Omar Patek and Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan. Both were linked to the 2002 Bali bombings and are believed to be hiding out in the Southern Philippines.

Close monitoring and the simple fact of their notoriety are expected to limit any damage they might choose to inflict. But the reality is that keeping tabs on the increasingly fragmented jihad movement and those who have aspired to the ranks extolled by Tholut and Bashir is much trickier, and will dictate the next stages of this unholy war.

It’s a conflict that remains stubbornly alive in many minds, and is one that will still deserve the focus of political leaders from around the region and beyond in the coming year.