Center for Strategic Decision Research


A Southeast Asian View On Terrorism and Global Security

His Excellency Peter Ho
First Permanent Secretary of Defense,
Ministry of Defense of Singapore


The world changed for Southeast Asia on September 11. Still struggling to recover from the political and economic effects of the 1997 financial crisis, the terrorist attacks could not have come at a worse time for the region. 

Southeast Asia has the largest Muslim population in the world, with some 250 million Muslims living in the Philippines, Malaysia, southern Thailand, Brunei, the small city-state of Singapore, and in the archipelagic sprawl of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. The war against global terrorism has inevitably created stress in those Southeast Asian countries with large Muslim populations. 

Inevitably, some see the war against terrorism as a war against Islam. It is a seductive line of reasoning that Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network have exploited. But it is important for Southeast Asia that this view of the war does not take root. Many observers feel that with the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Al-Qaeda will shift operations to Southeast Asia because its large Muslim population will be a congenial environment in which to operate. 


The governments of Southeast Asia generally understand the dangers. In different ways and despite the domestic political risks, most of them have supported the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism because they see it as the right thing to do, and because they agree that terrorism is not compatible with Islam. 

Since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, U.S. naval and air force troops passing through the strategic Malacca Straits have been supported by countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. The Japanese have also sent navy ships for stopovers in Singapore and through the Malacca Straits to provide logistics support to the war effort. An Indian warship, replenished from Singapore, now escorts U.S. naval ships that pass through the Malacca Straits. Intelligence cooperation has also improved markedly since September 11. 

It is altogether a remarkable picture of international cooperation. This positive change underlines the importance of Southeast Asia in the war against terrorism. It also underscores the need for the rest of the world to support Southeast Asia in this war. 


On the negative side of the ledger, the events of September 11 have added to the already diverse range of challenges to our security. 

Terrorism per se is not a new phenomenon to Southeast Asia. In Malaysia in 2000, the Al-Ma'unah group robbed an army camp of arms and ammunition, and then fought a pitched battle with security forces before finally surrendering. Laskar Jihad was behind the savage religious violence in the Indonesian province of Maluku in 2001. In April this year, the Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility for a lethal bomb attack in a main Philippine city to show that they are still a force to be reckoned with. Singapore has faced its share of terrorism as well. The Japanese Red Army hijacked a passenger ferry in 1974 and, in 1991, four Pakistanis took over a Singapore Airlines aircraft. 

But the new form of global terrorism is radically different in nature. Its danger lies in its wide network of cells operating in many different countries. The arrest of 13 members of the Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, in Singapore in December 2001 uncovered a regional terrorist network whose objective was to establish a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia. The JI planned to blow up the U.S. Embassy and other American targets in Singapore by acquiring 21 tons of ammonium nitrate to make seven truck bombs of three tons each. Had they succeeded, each bomb would have gone off with more than twice the explosive power of the single bomb used in Oklahoma City. The group also plotted to hijack an airliner within the region and crash it into Singapore's Changi Airport. 

Some have asked why Singapore was targeted by these JI terrorists. The answer is partly because of the large U.S. presence in Singapore. But it is also because of Singapore's open support of the U.S.-led war against terrorism. 

Investigations revealed that the was operating in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and had established contacts with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network. The chief bomb-maker, an Indonesian named Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, was arrested in the Philippines in early 2002 while trying to smuggle explosives for the group. In the latest bombings in the Philippines, the suspects claimed to have received their explosives training in Malaysia. The founders and leaders of the JI came from Indonesia and are still at large. One of them, Abu Bakar Bashyir, operates openly in Jakarta, and has even sued the Singapore government for defaming him because we pointed out that he was the spiritual leader of the JI. 


The uncovering of JI's operations in the region reveals a more disturbing underlying trend-that of religious extremism. Islamic militancy has become a serious concern of governments in Southeast Asia. Islam is a peaceful religion. It is the extremists who have perverted the nature of Islam for their own political purposes. They obscure the issues and mislead the people. They prey on the growing wave of religious consciousness and turn it to their advantage. An important component of the strategy against global terrorism is to disrupt the influence of religious extremists. 

A recent study by Malaysia found that a large number of its young people were studying in hardline Pakistani madrasahs that produced the Taliban. Following the arrests of 12 Malaysian students in Yemen for terrorist activities, the Malaysian Prime Minister ordered a clamp-down on students going overseas for religious studies to ensure that they do not pick up militant religious tendencies abroad. 

Global terrorism is lapping at the shores of our region. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and hope that it will go away. The networked nature of its organization gives it a high degree of survivability. It will therefore require effort, resources, and political will to eliminate this threat. And we must not just disrupt the network, as Singapore did to the Jemaah Islamiyah. We must deal with the root causes of terrorism. 

Terrorism is rooted in religious extremism that thrives in the breakdown of societies and in the loss of hope in political systems and institutions. When governments are unable to meet the aspirations of their peoples, to provide jobs and a decent standard of living, then a combustible situation is created that oxygenates extremists and terrorists. But there is no shortcut to dealing with these fundamental problems. They pose challenges over the long term. 


A number of countries in the Southeast Asian region, including Malaysia and the Philippines, have already taken firm action against the terrorist elements within their own borders. Since December of 2001, Malaysia has arrested members of the militant group Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia, which has links to Al-Qaeda. Philippine and U.S. forces are also carrying out joint operations against the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines. 

But though countries in Southeast Asia are trying to stamp out terrorism within their borders, the efforts of individual countries alone, while necessary, are not sufficient to combat this threat. Some countries lack the resources and organization to deal with the many problems associated with terrorism. Others lack the international support they need to stand up to domestic pressures. 

The international community has a vital role to play in helping the countries of Southeast Asia meet the post-September 11 challenges head on. Southeast Asia should be a focus of the foreign policy of governments around the world that have an interest in stamping out global terrorism. The international community cannot afford to ignore Southeast Asia's terrorism problems simply because they seem far away. There cannot be a weak link in the chain. If there is, the efforts of other countries will be negated by terrorist masterminds who are able to roam free, plotting and recruiting new members. Then terrorists would have a platform from which to launch attacks worldwide, beyond the region. The international community should recognize this imperative and give support to the countries of Southeast Asia as they fight this scourge. 

Of course, as we focus our efforts individually and internationally to develop capabilities to combat terrorism, we should not forget that security depends on the ability of countries to protect their own sovereignty and national interests from all kinds of threats. This is why countries such as Singapore have a policy of steady investment in defense. We constantly seek to upgrade our capabilities to ensure that Singapore remains a safe place for investment and economic growth. 

The challenge is to muster the necessary political will to produce concrete actions that will dismantle terrorist networks worldwide.


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