The Talibanization of Southeast Asia: Losing the War on Terror to Islamist Extremists: Preface

Southeast Asia had been afflicted with the danger of terrorism, long before the United States and the Western world became aware of the threat in the wake of September 11, 2001 (hereafter referred to as the 9/11 Incident), attacks on New York and Washington. Various enduring factors such as historical developments, nature of geography, ethnic-religious makeup, accessibility to external forces, the role of extraneous actors in dominating the politics and economy of the region, and the nature of regimes in the region have entrenched terrorism, particularly associated with religious extremism in the region. This was evident in Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines since the end of the Second World War in 1945.

The terrorist challenge was essentially national in character, with groups attempting to either secede from the central government to form a new state or to force the central government to adopt policies that would support the raison d’eˆtre of these extremist groups. Essentially, this involved the establishment of a political system that was more Islamic in character, either nationally or within a specific territory of a national state. This changed fundamentally with the emergence of new terrorist threats in the region in the post-Cold War period. This study analyzes the increasing Talibanization of Southeast Asia, a relatively new phenomenon. It involves the adoption of Islamist doctrines, ideologies, and values that are largely militant in character, which for some groups includes the adoption of violence to achieve their goals. The emergence of organizations that are prepared to adopt terrorism as a means to achieve their goals is particularly pertinent, especially since it is rationalized in the name of Islam. While there were groups that adhered to these principles and mode of operations in the past, what is new is the expanse of the network, their extranational goals and linkages. However, religious-oriented terrorism is not a stand-alone phenomenon. It is largely a function of the introduction and adoption of radical and extremist religious ideologies, in this case, the radicalization of Islam in Southeast Asia, hitherto one of the few oases of moderate Islam in the world. Understanding this process, referred to in this study as Talibanization, is the key to unraveling the increased radicalization in Southeast Asia.

What has made the challenge of this new terrorism distinct, especially with regard to the emergence of the Al-Jama’ah Al-Islamiyyah (AJAI), is that while it aims to establish an Islamic state, its goals, organizational structures, and operations are far more wide-ranging. Unlike the terrorism and challenges of past religious extremists in the region, the AJAI represents the birth of the first regional terrorist organization in Southeast Asia. It is a transnational terrorist organization along the lines of the Al Qaeda, even though on a much smaller scale in terms of objectives and goals. It aims to establish a regional Islamic state (Dauliah Islamiyah Nusantara, or DIN) covering most of southern Southeast Asia that would ultimately form a new Islamic epicenter in the Asia-Pacific region. Additionally, what has made the AJAI a potent force has been its ability to synergize with various existing religious extremist groups in the region and beyond, including the Al Qaeda and other like-minded groups based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This has succeeded in posing one of the most serious security challenges to the region since the end of the Cold War.

This study is an attempt to understand and unravel the growing nexus between extremist Islamists and terrorism as evident in the operation of various terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, particularly AJAI. The term “Islamist” is deliberately chosen to distinguish it from the common term “Islamic.” In this study, “Islamic” refers to what is written in the Koran and Hadith, whereas “Islamist” is the use of “Islam” for specific purposes. Many political actors have often tried to justify their actions on grounds that these are “Islamic,” when indeed they are not. To that extent, “Islamists” usually manipulate and distort what is “Islamic” to achieve political goals. While “radical piety” is fast becoming a fact of life in the region, what is most dangerous is its abuse and manipulation to achieve the political goals of Islamists. The rise of the Islamist agenda is a key cause of extremism and terrorism. This study examines the problems and challenges facing Islam, the rise of Islamic radicalism, and the emergence of various Islamist extremist groups that are threatening secular regimes in Southeast Asia.

The emergence of Islamist radicalism will mainly focus on the AJAI, especially in Indonesia. What the AJAI is, how it emerged, what threat it poses, and the measures adopted to manage it will be examined. Whether there is a future for Islamist extremism and how Southeast Asian states have responded to the phenomenon will also be studied. A key theme throughout this study is the resilience of Islamist extremism and the apparent inability of governments in the region to annihilate the menace, especially at its roots. This study argues that due to inappropriate measures and approaches, and a lack of understanding of the key challenge at hand, governments in the region are “barking up the wrong tree,” as they have largely missed the nexus between religion and terrorism, leading in reality to the rapid Talibanization of Southeast Asia. Despite various counterterrorism measures since 2001, the region has failed to prevent terrorist organizations such as the AJAI and its affiliates from regenerating and mounting attacks. If anything, the threat of Islamist extremism and terrorism has worsened even though the region has launched a “war on terror” since 2001.

The rising Talibanization of Southeast Asia is a function of the spread of radical Islam into the region. This has spread from the epicenter of Islamic radicalism, namely, the Middle East. While Southeast Asian Muslims had long-standing historical ties with the Middle East, the spread of radical Islam to the region is a recent phenomenon, especially since the 1980s. Southeast Asia had in the past experienced spurts of radicalism, such as the Padri movement in Sumatra in the nineteenth century and Moro challenge in southern Philippines. However, due to various factors, the intensity of radicalization has heightened tremendously. While radicalism has colored Middle East Islamic politics since the 1960s and 1970s, and aims to overthrow the outwardly secular regimes, in Southeast Asia, the initial goals have been somewhat different, aimed largely at the adoption of the Sharia. Many groups and agencies have facilitated the spread of radical Islam into Southeast Asia. What is pertinent in this regard is the growing propensity to adopt radical Islamist ideology, almost akin to Liberation Theology, and this largely accounts for Islamist activism in the region. In terms of Islamic outlook, what was essentially regarded as a “moderate” region, Southeast Asian Islam increasingly has shifted to that of an Arabized and radical strain. This has made it increasingly amenable for militancy and extremism, accounting primarily for the march of Talibanization in Southeast Asia.

While Southeast Asian counterterrorism measures have primarily focused on a policy of “search and destroy,” in reality, and for the long term, this is not where the real danger lies. Just as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are no longer critical for the rise and sustenance of Iraqi insurgency and the Al Qaeda, respectively, likewise, leaders such as Abdullah Sungkar, Abu Bakar Ba’syir, and Hambali are not vital for the continuation of Islamist extremism in Southeast Asia. The rise of Islamist extremism and Jihadism lies in the proliferation of extremist Islamist ideology that has sunk deep roots in Southeast Asia. Dismantling the AJAI or other terrorist groups will only make a small dent in the struggle. This is because the process of radicalization, due to both internal and external imperatives, has spread widely and is intensifying through the Internet. What is worrisome is not only its ability to spread rapidly but even more dangerous is the anonymous manner this is being undertaken. Jihadists are operating diffusively in small and localized cells, even though the broad goals remain the same-to spread Sharia, establish an Islamic state, and bring down secular regimes-and are largely anti-Western, especially anti- United States. As most governments do not have the credibility or expertise to diminish the threat posed by Islamist extremism, Wahhabism and Salafism, Southeast Asia is in danger of being Talibanized in the near future.


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