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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 47, November 7, 2009

Mapping the Al-Qaeda Linkages in South-East Asia: How Real is the Threat?

Saturday 7 November 2009, by Tuli Sinha


Terrorism is an elusive concept. It is a kind of political violence but neither academics nor policy-makers have reached a consensus on its definition. Like every social phenomenon, terrorism is malleable, constantly changing in appearance and evolving structurally, which demands any definition to be all-encompassing. It involves political objectives and goals and relies on violence or the threat of violence. It is designed to generate fear in a target audience that extends beyond the immediate victims of the violence. The violence involves an organi-sation as opposed to isolated individuals.

The use of terrorism as a form of warfare has existed even before recorded history. Using violence to coerce societies has been the primary tool employed by terrorists in order to gain concessions or accomplish ideological goals. As a fundamental form of warfare, terrorism has affected practically every society on the planet at some point in history. In 2001, the United States (US) fell victim to the actions of the transnational terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda, which had expanded its ideological focus of eradicating moderate Muslim governments to include the US and its influence worldwide.

In this context, South-East Asia has been the home of indigenous Islamic militant groups for decades. Traditionally, the linkages among these groups were relatively weak and they mostly operated only in their own country or islands, focusing on domestic issues such as promoting the adoption of Islamic law, Sharia, and seeking independence from Central Government control. Even before the September 11 attacks, South-East Asia was attracting the interest of the Al-Qaeda. Several of the region’s home-grown radical Islamic groups sent their members to receive training and participate in jihad in Afghanistan. Since the early 1990s, the Al-Qaeda’s influence has spread across the geographical spectrum of South-East Asia with well-entrenched and extensive networks. Several countries in the region, namely, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines featured in the Al-Qaeda’s most ambitious plans.

However, South-East Asian states, long considered the “Islamic periphery” owing to their moderate Islamic stance, pluralism, and nationalism, were suddenly forced to confront a small but patent terrorist threat in their midst, culminating in the October 12, 2002 terrorist attack on a Bali resort. Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda had entered the region in the early and mid-1990s, establishing independent cells, and assisting and liaising with indigenous Islamic insurgencies that hitherto were believed to have solely domestic agendas. The Al-Qaeda penetrated the region for more than a decade beginning 1991, and emerged in South-East Asia at a time when state-sponsorship was waning. Until the September 11 attacks, the security concerns of the ASEAN members revolved around the impact of a rising China on the regional balance of power, the prospects for Sino-US power rivalry, and the dangers of war in regional flashpoints: the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, Kashmir, and the Spratly Islands. ASEAN governments also had to grapple with inter-state tensions, such as territorial disputes between Malaysia and Indonesia and between Singapore and Malaysia, and internal strife, especially in Indonesia after the downfall of the Suharto regime in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Emergence and Rise of Terrorism in
South-East Asia

The persistence of multifarious problems, both within and between the South-East Asian states, increased their vulnerability heightened by the existing problems. Since the end of the Cold War, threats to international security have become less direct and apocalyptic. Since most South-East Asian states are developing, the domestic situations within those states remain vulnerable to acts of terrorism. Although the majority of the population in South-East Asia are nationalist and tolerant, radical Islam is growing for a variety of reasons, such as economic diversity, the lack of political freedom, the spread of Wahhabism and Salafi Islam, the failure of secular education, and the increased number of religious students studying in the Middle Eastern states. Accordingly, these conditions generated the inclination to commit terrorist and other crimes as radical efforts to achieve a better social life. The specific circumstances in their respective economies were exacerbated by the regional economic crisis in 1997-98 and the aftermath of the crisis further resulted in severe poverty.

Historically the recurring demand for autono-mous Islamic states throughout South-East Asia gave rise to numerous militant Islamic groups throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In the Philippines, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) emerged in the early 1970s with the intent of establishing an independent Muslim state in Mindanao. Founded by Nur Misuari and Hashem Salamaat in 1972, the group sought to gain concessions by working with the Philippine Government. However, this form of diplomacy sparked disputes within the organisation’s leadership causing Salamaat to split from the MNLF and establish the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 1978. While sharing the MNLF’s core ideology of gaining an independent Muslim state, the MILF did not recognise the Philippine Government or Constitution and employed more aggressive guerrilla tactics to combat govern-ment forces throughout the 1980s.

Further, the organisational disagreements among leaders resulted in the formation of another splinter faction. In 1990 Abubakar Janjalani split from the MNLF to form the Abu Sayaf Group (ASG). Janjalani, a veteran of the Afghan War, recruited and organised MNLF members and former Afghan mujahideen to form an extremist group operating primarily throughout the southern Philippines. Like its predecessors, the ASG demanded an independent Muslim state. Unlike the MNLF and MILF, the ASG would not conduct any formal diplomatic negotiations with the country’s government.

The Muslim struggle in the Philippines was mirrored in Indonesia. Elias Abu Bashir established the Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) organisation in 1995. The goal of the JI was to establish a Pan-Islamic state that included all Muslim communities throughout South-East Asia. Today, the JI is the largest Al-Qaeda associate group working throughout the region. It has ties with groups in the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore.

Another significant Islamist group to come up was based in Indonesia and named the Lashkar Jihad (LJ). Founded in 2000 by Umar Jafar Thalib, the LJ’s goal was to eradicate Christian influence in the outlying islands of Indonesia. Trained by members of the Indonesian military, Thalib organised the group to wage a jihad or holy war against Christians in Indonesia’s Maluku Islands. The effort to cleanse the region of Christians attracted the mujahideen from all over the world. With over 10,000 Islamist fighters, the LJ controlled the largest, most organised jihadi group in the region. The Maluku conflict succeeded in inciting confusion between the Indonesian military and the government in terms of their involvement in the crisis, as well as almost severing diplomatic ties with the US. Indonesia remains an unreliable ally in the Global War on Terrorism.

Like Indonesia, Malaysia became home to several extremist groups, the most active being the Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM). Organised in 1998 by Zainon Ismail, a veteran mujahideen of the Afghan War, the group’s goal was to establish a Muslim state comprising of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the southern Philippines. Closely tied to the JI, KMM members became the JI’s foot soldiers within the country. KMM operatives executed the JI planned operations, including bombings and assassinations, as an effort to terrorise the population and usurp government control.

These South-East Asian extremist groups began insurgencies within their respective countries to delegitimise their governments and fight for autonomy. Because of the lack of financial support, sufficient training, and adequate equipment, most groups were relegated to basic guerrilla activities, such as bombings and kidnappings for ransom. This trend continued from the late 1960s till the late 1990s. While the Islamist groups were prevalent in South-East Asia for centuries, it was not until late in the twentieth century that the often minority Muslims were organised and united against a common enemy: the dominance of Western influence.

JI and Al-Qaeda Linkages:

How Real is the Threat?

Throughout the 1990s, the Al-Qaeda developed a global network of like-minded groups to combat the West on multiple fronts. Targeting South-East Asia with its large Muslim population, the Al-Qaeda exploited the conditions that gave rise to an Islamist movement. A high percentage of economically deprived population, common to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, made them attractive targets for exploitation by Islamic fundamentalist groups.

In order to gain support from the Muslim world, the Al-Qaeda expanded connections to relate operatives to influence the most populous Muslim countries in South-East Asia that had similar objectives of creating a Muslim state. In this case, they connected and synchronised with the operations of the fundamentalist Muslim group, that is, the JI. While many Indonesians still question whether the JI exists as a formal organisation, most appear to have accepted that the men on trial for the Bali bombings were most likely responsible for the crime and that Indonesia does indeed have some home-grown terrorists. What is much more difficult for many to accept is that those terrorists have links with the Al-Qaeda.

Beginning with the first half of the 1990s, the Al-Qaeda terrorist network made significant inroads into the South-East Asian region. By 2002, roughly one-fifth of the Al-Qaeda’s organisational strength was centred in South-East Asia. The Al-Qaeda operatives’ task was made easier by several factors, primarily the withdrawal of foreign state sponsors, most notably Libya, which had supported some local groups in the 1970s and 1980s; second, the personal relationships that had been established during the 1980s, when many South-East Asian radicals had fought as mujahideen in Afghanistan; and third, the weak Central Government control. Other factors included endemic corruption, porous borders, minimal visa requirements, extensive network of Islamic charities, and lax financial controls of some countries, most notably Indonesia and the Philippines. Over time, the Al-Qaeda’s presence in the region has had the effect of professionalising local groups and forging ties among themselves and between them and the Al-Qaeda so that they can cooperate in a more efficient way. In many cases, this cooperation has taken the form of ad hoc arrangements of convenience, such as helping procure weapons and explosives.

Despite these clear ties, the discourse about the JI’s relationship with the Al-Qaeda being one of subservience than of mutual advantage and reciprocal assistance often comes up. The JI’s relationship with the Al-Qaeda has been described as similar to that of a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) with its funding agency. The NGO exists as a completely independent organisation, but submits proposals to the donor and obtains a grant when a proposal is accepted. The donor only funds projects that are in line with its programmes. In this case, the Al-Qaeda may help fund specific JI programmes but it neither directs nor controls them.

Conclusions about the extent of the JI’s affiliation with the Al-Qaeda network are contradictory. The International Crisis Group (ICG) believes that “JI follows Al-Qaeda’s jihadist ideology and that the organisation has a long period of shared experience in Afghanistan”. However, the ICG disputes that the JI is operating simply as an Al-Qaeda subordinate because “virtually all of its decision-making and much of its fund-raising has been conducted locally, and its focus, for all the claims about its wanting to establish a South-East Asian Caliphate, continues to be on establishing an Islamic state in Indonesia”. The JI’s relationship is one of mutual advantage and reciprocal assistance, and can be compared to the relationship between an NGO and its funding agency. The JI submits proposals as an independent agent to the donor, and gets a grant when a proposal is accepted. In this case, the Al-Qaeda funds projects that correspond to its goals, but neither directs nor controls the JI.

Abuza, on the other hand, calls the Al-Qaeda as the JI’s “parent organisation” that trained and developed JI operatives in its operations against Western targets in South-East Asia. As the Al-Qaeda’s affiliate organisation in South-East Asia, the JI developed its own capabilities, with Hambali and Jibril fund-raising and putting together Laskar Mujahideen and the Laskar Jundullah to fight in Ambon and Poso in the late 1990s. Furthermore, Al-Faruq also admitted having worked closely with Ba’asyir to plan the Al-Qaeda attacks by offering logistical support and the services of JI operatives, a relationship which Ba’asyir denies. In a similar vein, a Congressional Research Service report declared that Al-Qaeda operatives helped to create an indigenous, semi-autonomous, arm a “mini Al-Qaeda”. Sungkar and Ba’asyir “merged their evolving network into Al-Qaeda and began setting up a sophisticated organisational structure while actively planning and recruiting for terrorism in [South-East] Asia”. In a possible support of this claim, Omar al-Farouq allegedly confessed to planning joint and simultaneous JI/Al-Qaeda bomb attacks in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Cambodia to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11.


The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were a watershed in strategic development and international relations, marking the end of the post-Cold War era. It was an era of only one superpower and much uncertainty about the direction of global developments because the superpower had no agenda. The security context for international relations in South-East Asia dramatically changed after 9/11 with the insistence by the US that the war on terrorism had become its priority interest in its international dealings in the region. In addition to American bilateral relations with the South-East Asian states, nearly every dimension of South-East Asia’s multilateral interactions, political, strategic, economic, and even cultural, has been affected by the new emphasis. In terms of impact on international relations, terrorism, more specifically terrorism as a weapon of Islamist radicals and separatists, is the uppermost in the minds of national security planners. More broadly, however, terrorism is but one of the international and trans-border problems involving violence and criminality originating from non-state organisations and clandestine criminal networks.

Following the seminal events of September 11, 2001, and especially since October 12, 2002, South-East Asia has come into the focus as the so-called ‘Second Front’ in the war against international terrorism. However, the threat of terrorism to South-East Asia emanating from radical Islam predates these events. An emerging security concern in recent years has been the rise of extreme Islamic groups. In addition, there exist Islamic separatist and guerrilla groups within the region which envision separate Islamic states, and which have been actively engaged in long-running insurgencies against the Central governments in the region.

The recognition of the newest formulation of American security interests and engagements in South-East Asia overlays a complex set of broader and deeper political, economic, and cultural international interests that links the US to the eleven South-East Asian countries. These interests are promoted bilaterally and in multilateral settings. US interests complement and compete with the interests of Japan, China, the European Union (EU), and other countries. Security is the only dimension of a pattern of international relations that makes the South-East Asian subsystem an important unit of the global international system.

Hillary Clinton’s recent declaration, made on arrival in Bangkok during her visit to the ASEAN partners, that “the United States [was] back”, stressed America’s intent to engage in an all-around interaction and develop friendly ties with the South-East Asian nations. This comment has reiterated the Obama Administration’s diplomatic strategy to improve America’s image on a global scale. Like other nations, the US’ willingness to become a contracted state on its own accord is not only a symbolic political stance, but more so, a binding political promise. As the foremost military superpower with an important strategic and practical interest in this region, the US’ move signifies its willingness to interact with the ASEAN on an equal basis. Apparently, this is another one of the Obama Administration’s efforts to rectify America’s international image to help eliminate various doubts people have about the country’s strategic intent. This would only serve to benefit America’s own interests which include a broader and deeper involvement in South-East Asia’s affairs. Therefore, the focus of the US on terrorism also emerges because the US feels the need to keep the South-East Asian states linked due to its own concerns over the rise of China. The regional implications, which may arise from China’s emergence on the South-East Asian scene, may be one of the factors because of which the US is using terrorism to keep its linkages with South-East Asia based on the political and military dimensions. There is even a possibility that the South-East Asian states are interested in the presence of a superpower to counter Chinese domination in the area. Further, a comparison reflects upon the fact that the two regions are primarily concerned about similar issues, namely, the rise of China and terrorism. In fact, the emergence of East Asian regionalism is not welcome in South-East Asia without the involvement of US. Thus, in my opinion, the menace of terrorism is highly exaggerated by the United States and South-East Asia merely for balancing, bandwagoning and hedging against the rise of China. n


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Tuli Sinha is a Research Officer at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) for the South-East Asia Research Programme (SEARP). Her major areas of interest include India-South-East Asia relations, free trade agreements, terrorism, US-China engagements in South-East Asia and new regionalism.

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