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

Behind the Veil of Successful Counterterrorism

Prior to the September 11, 2001 (hereafter the 9/11 Incident), attacks on the United States, governments and security planners in Southeast Asia had already been preoccupied with the threat posed by religious extremism and terrorism. There is a long history of both secular and religious-oriented terrorism in the region. In particular, the region has long been threatened by Jihadists, armed Islamist groups who declared war against various central governments with the goal of either gaining greater political autonomy, as was the case in southern Thailand and the Philippines, or outright secession, as was the case in Aceh, Indonesia.

In this connection, the emergence of the Al-Jamaah Al-Islamiyyah (AJAI), or “The Congregation of Muslims,” has increasingly focused attention on the role of religious-oriented terrorist organizations in Southeast Asia. The Southeast Asian region is particularly prone to Islamist-oriented violence for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is a sizeable presence of Muslims in the region, one of the largest in the world, amounting to a total of more than 230 million.1 Even more important, there are three Muslim-majority countries and others with sizeable Muslim minorities. The percentage of Muslim population in Southeast Asia is as follows: 90 percent in Indonesia, 67 percent in Brunei, 65 percent in Malaysia, 16 percent in Singapore, 6 percent in Thailand, 5 percent in Cambodia and the Philippines, and 4 percent in Myanmar. While mere Muslims’ presence does not translate into a threat due to the emergence of extremist Islamist concepts and ideology, it has made the region particularly vulnerable. Secondly, historically the region has been closely linked with the Muslim world, especially to the Middle East, South Asia, and even China.2 This has meant that there has been transmission of all kinds of influences, and with the Middle East being radicalized since the 1960s, extremist ideas and ideologies have also found its way into the region. Thirdly, the region is fairly accessible to outsiders, and this has also contributed to close interactions with Islamists elsewhere. Fourthly, the largely secular governments of the region are often alleged to have failed to effectively manage their Islamic constituencies, due either to pressures from external great powers or to anti-Islamic authoritarian national regimes that have persecuted Muslims in the region. Fifthly, the long-standing Islamic insurgencies in the region, some decades old, have also provided opportunities for all kinds of transnational influences to penetrate the region. Many extraneous extremist groups have supported and abetted these organizations, with the synergy aggravating the security situation in the region. Sixthly, the region has also been experiencing a rise of religious revivalism and fundamentalism, a phenomenon that has afflicted all religions everywhere in the world. Seventhly, due to the demographic expanse of Muslims, in particular against the backdrop of a glorious Islamic past in Southeast Asia, evident from the various indigenous Islamic powers in Southeast Asia such as the Malacca, Mataram, and Pattani empires, there has been a tendency among some groups to look back to the past for inspiration to address the problems and challenges of the present and future. Finally, due to concerted efforts by various external groups and particularly due to developments elsewhere, there has been a general revivalism of things Islamic, even in Southeast Asia.3 Some of these events include the successful Islamic revolution in Iran; Israel’s continued repression of the Palestinians;
the United States’ aggressive policies towards Islamic countries, best evident in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq; and the general perception that the “war on terror” is actually a “war on Islam” by the West, as seen from the American support for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in August 2006.

The AJAI is, however, not the first organization to use religion to mobilize support and construct its cause and ideology on the basis of a particular religion, albeit along hard-line interpretations that justified the use of violence to achieve political objectives. What distinguished the pre-AJAI religious-based terrorist organizations in the region was essentially their national character. This was evident from the modus operandi of various Islamist groups in Indonesia, southern Thailand, Myanmar and southern Philippines.

Prior to the 9/11 incident, governments in the Southeast Asian region managed the threat of “Islamist extremism and terrorism” nationally. Since the United States launched its war on terror, Southeast Asia likewise commenced its “war on AJAI,” even though with a different degree of intensity. Since Singapore detained what were described as AJAI “foot soldiers” in the republic, the terrorist organization has been described as the most dangerous to emerge in the region. Many of the counterterror-ism policies were undertaken in concert with external support, especially from the United States and Australia, as well as through multilateral support of various groupings such as the United Nations, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). As a consequence, many AJAI leaders were either killed or arrested and the organization crippled, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and to some extent the Philippines. This led many governments in the region and their allies abroad to roost the idea that the war on terror in Southeast Asia, often dubbed the “second front,” was or has been won. A testimony before the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Non-proliferation on September 29, 2005, manifested part of this triumphalism:

The most dangerous Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group in Southeast Asia was Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), responsible for the Bali bombing in 2002, the Marriot bombing in 2004 and suspected of a host of other bombings across Southeast Asia. But in September 2005 Gareth Evans, President of the International Crisis Group, declared that JI was “effectively smashed” and “no longer constituted a serious threat.” This remarkable change of fortune for JI came about because of good police work and the democratic transition in Indonesia. The United States, Australia and the international community invested heavily in training and equipping Southeast Asia’s police, prosecutors and judiciaries…Additionally, while the police have arrested and convicted active JI members, the democratic transition has apparently dried up the recruit pool. Jemaah Islamiyah was founded to oppose Indonesia’s authoritarian government. With former dictator Suharto out and a democratically elected President and legislature in, the armed struggle had lost its point to many of its supporters.4

While Southeast Asian officials and their counterparts in the West have echoed the notion of “success against AJAI and Islamist extremism,” the reality is far from this. This is mainly due to two main factors. First, unlike the Cold War against communism, Islamist extremism and terrorism are anchored on one of the most important religions, philosophies, and ideologies in the world, namely Islam. As long as Islam is used to mobilize support for causes of extremism and terrorism, this “war” is unlikely to be won. Also, if many continue to perceive that the war on terror is a war on Islam, there is every possibility that adherents of Islam, the second-largest religion in the world, will intensify their defense of their religion at any cost.

When President George W. Bush used the expression, “this crusade-the war on terrorism,” it has unnecessarily evoked the historical ideological clash between Christianity and Islam, with Muslims being viewed as “fifth columnists” in the West, and hence targeted for persecution.5 The U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, and the threat to do likewise in Iran and Syria, has strengthened the perception that the White House, under the influence of anti-Islam fundamentalists, were waging a war against Islam and not against terrorism. Islamist ideologues, having found convenient evidence of “Christian fanaticism,” have been able to grow and nurture dangerous bands of Islamist fundamentalists and extremists in response, thereby exacerbating the security situation worldwide and endangering both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Second, the governments in Southeast Asia and their allies have been concentrating on physically destroying the extremists and terrorists. While this is an important strategy, they have failed to address a whole array of other factors that have succeeded in ensuring the continuous swelling in the ranks of extremists and terrorists. If anything, killing alleged AJAI leaders and publicly demonizing the organization have had the reverse effect of enhancing AJAI’s image and strengthening its mass appeal. There is no better person to confirm the worsening of the radicalization and terrorist threat in Southeast Asia than Rohan Gunaratna, who has widely researched on this subject. Rohan argued, “We have seen that extremist groups that were modest in size have grown significantly. The number of regional ‘jihad’ groups has grown from around 30 to 47 in the past five years. They have recruited, raised funds and become more influential.”6

In this regard, Southeast Asia deserves to be labeled as the “second front” in the war on terror. This is justifiable on a number of grounds. First, it is an important part of the Muslim world and where radical Islam is fast gaining ground. Despite being a Sunni-dominant region due to various influences, extremist Islamist ideology from the Middle East has become a major part of the religious discourse. Second, there is the presence of many radical groups, not just in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, but also in Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Third, the most dangerous Islamist terrorist group, the AJAI, continues to operate in the region. Fourth, since the 9/11 Incident, the region has witnessed a number of violent attacks against what has been dubbed as anti-Islamic “Western targets.” Fifth, the region continues to host many training camps that are churning out violent Jihadists, especially in southern Philippines. Sixth, in addition to various suicide bombings, there are nearly 300 Islamist radicals in jail in the region.7 There are probably many more that are operating clandestinely and whose existence is not even known by the security apparatus,best evident from the so-called “ghost bombers” that operate in southern Thailand.


While scholars and practitioners have debated on the term “terrorism,” there is an underlying consensus between them.8 Terrorism can be defined from either the perpetrator’s or the victim’s perspective. Be that as it may, in this study, terrorism refers to any attempt or act of force aimed at achieving political goals. Building on this, Islamist terrorism refers to the attempt or use of force to achieve political goals by mobilizing or referring to Islam as a source of justification. Yet, in any discourse of Islamist terrorism, one comes across three different typologies-the fundamentalist, extremist, and terrorist. The Islamist fundamentalist is a Muslim who is well-versed in the Islamic religious heritage and tenets. He knows whereupon in Islam to draw for references to justify his ideology and the rationale behind his affirmative belief. His belief is not a crime. He merely excels in drawing upon Islam’s heritage. Neither is his preaching. The Islamist fundamentalist, if not guilty of committing violence, is not a criminal. If anything, a good Muslim must submit to the fundamentals of the Koran and to that extent, all good Muslims are fundamentalist. By the same logic, all good Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs are also fundamentalists. By itself, fundamentalism is not a problem.

The extremist, however, draws on the fundamentalist. He is dependent on the fundamentalist for the promise of sanctity of his actions to validate the facilitation of terror. The fundamentalist provides the extremist with a framework for planning operations. With the extremist’s subscription to the ideological framework established by the fundamentalist, the extremist takes one giant step closer to the employment of violence that characterizes terrorism. The extremist may not be directly involved in the planning and execution of terrorist activities, but he is an important conduit that accounts for the conversion of an individual to terrorism. The extremist’s enabling role to propagate and justify violence and the commitment to a radical ideology binds the individual or group together. This is what makes an extremist a threat of society. The extremist facilitates terrorism by providing information and logistical and financial support, links beliefs with action, and provides a rationale for violence that will be praised in the “House of God.” The extremist, by definition, is largely intolerant and propagates the use of violence to “correct” what is considered as “wrong.” While the extremist might not be “criminal,” he nevertheless through his intolerant interpretation of religious texts is able to convert a fundamentalist, or even someone largely ignorant of the essence of what is in the text, to the cause of terrorism. This is primarily by providing the justifications for the action and, most important, the benefits of such acts, namely everlasting life in Heaven.

Thus, if religious terrorism is associated with the act of violence perpetrated in the name of God, it is equally important to understand the process by which an individual is transformed to become a terrorist. No individual is born a terrorist. He becomes one through a series of processes and influences. As an analogy, the rise of a terrorist can be equated to the food chain, indicating the symbiosis between fundamentalism, extremism, and terrorism. The fundamentalist is akin to a plant that provides the basic food in the ecosystem. The extremist is the rabbit in the food chain, which feeds on fundamentalism, the food, for his growth. The terrorist is the third tier of the food chain, the lion, known for its instinctive violence that feeds on the rabbit for survival. In reality, the typologies might not be that neat. Still one gets a sense of how someone steeped in religion can be easily manipulated to a distorted ideology culminating in acts of terrorism, as the perpetrator believes that what has been done is justifiable regardless of its brutalities. This is the crux of religious extremism and terrorism that is confronting Southeast Asia today.


Against this backdrop, this study aims to undertake an in-depth analysis of the most important terrorist organization to surface in Southeast Asia to date, namely the AJAI. Following the introduction of some of the key Islamic terms that are relevant to this study, Chapter 1 will shed light on the nexus between religion and terrorism. How religion has been used to construct a particular political milieu that justifies the use of terrorism in the region will be discussed. It is argued that when socioeconomic inequalities are politicized, issues related to injustice projected, and the ideology of Jihad mobilized and socialized, there is a great chance that terrorism is one of the many likely outcomes. Chapter 2 examines the region’s experience with Islamist extremism. The study will focus on Jihadi-oriented terrorism in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar. Chapter 3 analyzes the origins, structure, and strategy of the AJAI in achieving its goals as a regionwide terrorist organization. Chapter 4 evaluates the measures that have been adopted both by individual states and collectively to manage the terrorist scourge in the region, with the AJAI as the key target. Why the measures are described as “one step forward, two steps backward” and what the limits to counterterrorism are in the region, will be discussed. Finally, the future of AJAI and Jihadi terrorism in Southeast Asia will analyzed. The key aim is to examine the consequences of Talibanization for Southeast Asia. What does the failure to curb Islamist extremism mean for the region and beyond? What is the likely political-security landscape of Southeast Asia, and how will this impact upon the external world?


Some of the key Islamic terms that will be referred to in this study are elaborated below:


Jihad stems from the Arabic word Jahada, which means to strive for a better way of life. Specifically, it means “to strive” or “to exert to the utmost,” and when placed within the context of Islam, it would encompass all forms of striving, including armed struggle, aimed at making the Word of God (Islam) prevail. Often, jihad has been conveniently, yet erroneously, defined as holy fighting in the Cause of Allah or any effort to make Allah’s words ( Islam) superior. In actuality, the latter does not exist in Islam as it only refers to the Holy War of the Crusaders (Christians).

Similarly, jihad is not a war to force the faith on others, as perceived by many. It should never be interpreted as a way of compulsion of the belief on others, since the Al-Koran has explicitly said, “There is no compulsion in religion.”9 In actuality, the term jihad can be divided into two specific categories. The first is the al-jihad al-akbar or otherwise known as the greater jihad, while the other is al-jihad al-asghar, or lesser jihad. In the former, jihad is viewed as the struggle against evil and the maintenance of one’s virtue, ethics, and morals. It also encompasses the inner struggle to overcome one’s temptations and tendency to sin. The latter, on the other hand, refers to the fight against injustice and oppression as well as the defending Islam in general.

It is due to the ambiguity of the latter that the term jihad has often been utilized to mobilize Muslims to resort to armed struggles so as to achieve “divinely ordained goals.” More often than not, religious entrepreneurs have, whether for personal or societal gains, unwisely decided to emulate the jihad as practiced during Prophet Muhammad’s time. Such tendencies only serve to mislead since the society during that of the Prophet is certainly different from that of the modern day. Expectedly then, the term jihad at present is subjected to various radical and moderate interpretations, each guided by its particular circumstances or needs.

Even when engaged in an armed struggle, Islam does not condone terrorism, kidnapping, and hijacking, especially against civilians. Similarly, in an armed struggle, Islam prohibits Muslim soldiers from harming civilians, women, children, elderly, and religious men like priests and rabbis. Doing so would be a violation of Islamic laws, and the offender is liable to punishment under Islamic laws. As such, attacks on civilian populations as manifested in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are totally unacceptable and condemned in Islam.


Khalifah, or the Caliph, is short for Khalifatu Rasulil-lah, which translates to the successor or representative of Prophet Muhammad. In Islamic traditions, this would refer to the first four rulers after the death of the Prophet. The four Caliphs were Abu Bakr As-Siddiq (632-34 A.D.), Omar Ibn Al-Khattab (634-44 A.D.), Othman Ibn Affan (644-56 A.D.), and Ali Ibn Abi Talib (656-61 A.D.). They were also referred to as the Al-Khulafa’Ar-Rashidun (The Guided Caliphs). As successor to the Prophet, the Caliph was the head of the Muslim community, and his primary responsibility was to preserve in the path of the Prophet, which included calling people to the worship of and submission to Allah. The first four Caliphs were known to be kind, merciful, just, and impartial in the course of their leadership.

The death of the fourth Caliph, Ali Ibn Abi Talib, saw the transfer of the Caliphate to the Ummayad Empire under the leadership of Mu’awiyya. Following the fall of the Ummayad Empire, the Caliphate was transferred to the Abbasid Empire. The later Caliphs, however, assumed the manners of kings and emperors, which then degraded the true spirit of equality of ruler and the role of Caliphs. The later Caliphs also manipulated the concept of Caliphate for their personal ends. This eventually led to the decline and eventual abolition of the Caliphate in the Muslim world. Sporadic attempts to revive the Islamic Caliphate have increasingly failed.

Shias and Sunnis

Shias form the largest non-Sunni branch of Islam. The Shias, in their various forms, represent some 10-15 percent of the Muslim world. Shia Islam holds that the Caliphate after Ali is illegitimate. The term Shia refers to the partisans of the fourth Caliph Ali, who was Muhammad’s son-in-law through his daughter Fatima. Sunnis, on the other hand, form the main group in Islam, making up 85-90 percent of the religion’s adherents. Sunni Islam claims to be the continuation of the Islam as it was defined through the revelations given to Prophet Muhammad. Sunni Islam has its name from its identification with the importance of the Sunna (the examples from the hadiths). The theological and ritual differences between Sunni and Shia Islam developed over centuries. For a long time, Sunni Islam was distinct from Shia Islam by its adherence to the Caliph as the leader of the Muslim world.

Despite various differences, the Sunnis and Shias share three core doctrines- namely, oneness of God, the belief in the revelations of Muhammad, and the belief in resurrection on the Day of Judgment. Sunni Islam has a different set of hadiths from Shia Islam. Sunni Islam puts more importance into the haj to Mecca, whileShia Islam places importance on other forms of pilgrimages. Sunni Islam reveres Ali but does not hold him up as the only true continuation of the tradition of Muhammad, and has no emphasis on him bringing on a divine light from the Prophet. In the Sunni world, there are four major schools of jurisprudence founded by imams, or scholars, from the ninth to eleventh centuries, namely, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal in Baghdad, and Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Maliki, and Imam Idris al-Shafei in Egypt. These schools are respectively referred to as the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafei. With regard to legal matters, these four schools give different weight in legal opinions to prescriptions in the Koran, the hadith or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, the consensus of legal scholars, analogy (to similar situations at the time of the Prophet), and reason or opinion. Muslims are, however, not obliged to stick to any particular schools of thought since the belief in oneness of God and the Prophet forms the fundamentals of the religion. A Muslim can belong to any of the schools and is at liberty to consult any scholar from any of the schools of thought on religious matters.


Dating back from the mid-1700s, Wahhabism is a purist movement seeking to cleanse the Muslim spirit and eliminate all innovations to Islam. Wahhabists reject innovation and consensus, favoring instead strict adherence to the word of the Koran and Sunnah. Wahhabism has no special practices or special rites than the Sunni body of Islam. It originated from Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul al-Wahhab, who was born in 1703 in Ayina, Saudi Arabia. He started the movement during a time when Islam was suffering a decline in Arabia. People were straying away from the path of Islam by worshipping idols and praying to tombs and shrines. After having studied under prominent Islamic scholars, Sheikh Muhammad became passionate about restoring the true faith of Islam and called for people to worship only Allah (Ta w h e e d ) and to return to the Koran and Sunnah. The people who followed Ibn Wahhab called themselves muwahiddun, the adherents of Tawheed. In many ways, the term Wahhabism was the creation of Wahhab’s enemies and adversaries.

He traveled widely to spread his movement. He was banished from his hometown after cutting down trees that were being worshipped, bringing down the dome over the grave of Zaid ibn al-Khattab, and punishing a woman who had committed adultery the way it was prescribed in the Koran. He moved to Dariya where he stayed with Abdul al-Rahman bin Suwailim. It was during his stay here that prominent people came to know of Sheikh Muhammad and his movement, including Prince Muhammad bin Saud. The prince accepted the teachings of Sheikh Muhammad and promised to help and support him in his movement. Sheikh Muhammad started to gain a following, but with supporters also came enemies, who labeled the teachings of Sheikh Muhammad as Wahhabism. Prince Muhammad was asked by the Sheikh to lead the Muslims, and to this day the Saudi royal family follows
Wahhabism. This commitment was strengthened when descendents of Sheikh Muhammad helped the Saudi ruling family unify its kingdom in 1932.

Being a conservative and intolerant form of Islam, Wahhabism does not tolerate integration with other religions. Wahhabism gained popularity in the West and the Muslim world in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. In effect, Wahhabism was propagated by the Saudi royal houses to counter the Shia ideology that was emanating from Iran at that time. Religious schools, madrasahs, and mosques in Afghanistan, for example, were flooded with Wahhabi – oriented Islamic ideology. This greatly influenced the earlier batches of Afghanistan and Taliban veterans. The Islamist government in Sudan and the now-defunct Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan were both greatly influenced by the Wahhabi movement. The ideology of Wahhabism has also spread to Southeast Asia with the AJAI and its regional associates, such as MILF and Abu Sayyaf, as strong adherents.

Dar al-Islam, Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Sulh

In the conservative Islamist tradition, the world is divided into three components or houses. This consisted of the dar al-Islam, or the house of submission; dar al-Harb, or the house of war; and dar al-Sulh, or the house of treaty. The terms are used to describe those lands administered by Muslim and non-governments. Dar al-Islam, also the house of Islam, signifies a geographic location or territory controlled by Muslims and where Islamic Sharia law prevails. The dar al-Islam is also said to include areas where Islam is dominant.

Dar al-Harb, or the house of war, on the other hand, refers to the territory controlled by non-Muslims or nonbelievers. Many have argued that this would also encompass secular Muslim-majority countries. The dar al-Harb is viewed as an active and a potential threat to the dar al-Islam and is always viewed with hostility. Dar al-Sulh, or the house of treaty, are territories that are not under Muslim control but has friendly relations with Islamic territories. In Islamic history, an example of the Dar al-Sulh is the treaty that the Prophet Muhammad entered into with the Christian city state of Najran. Numerous Islamic militant movements argue that the dar al-Islam should be expanded at the expense of the dar al-harb, with the sole intention of creating a universal Islamic community. More importantly, such movements would contend that this is the true meaning of jihad.


  1. This figure is taken from “An Analysis of the World Muslim Population by Country.” See http://www.factbook.net/muslim_pop.php. According to another source, “Muslim Population Worldwide,” the total Muslim population in Southeast Asia in 2005 was 226,656,000. See http://www.islamicpopuation.com/asia_general.html
  2. According to latest statistics, after Indonesia, which has an Islamic population of 196.28 million, India and China have probably the second- and third-largest Islamic nations in the world, with an Islamic populace of 133.29 million and 133.10 million, respectively. While much has been written about the role of the Middle East and India in the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, what is little known is that China played a crucial role in the spread of Islam to Indonesia, especially Java. Six out of the nine Walisongos (the nine saints) were of Chinese origin. See http://www.islamicweb.com/begin/population.htm.
  3. See Zachary Abuza, Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucible of Terror (Boulder, London: Lynne Rienner Pub., 2003), 1-5.
  4. See Dana Robert Dillon, “Evolving Counterterrorism Strategy,” The Heritage Foundation, September 29, 2005, 5-6.
  5. See Iqbal Hussain, Terrorism in Action—Why Blame Islam? (Lahore: Humanity International, 2003), 89-90.
  6. Opening Remarks by Dr. Rohan Gunaratna at a workshop on “Transnational Islamist Movements in Asia: Networks, Structure, Threat Assessment,” organized by the Hudson Institute and The Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, September 19-20, 2006, Singapore.
  7. See Joe Cochrane and Julia Yeow, “Radical Islamists in Southeast Asia Make Gains Since 9/11,” Deutsche Presse Agentur, September 4, 2006. See http://rawstory.com/news/2006/ Radical_Islamists_in_South_East_Asi_09042006.html
  8. See Martha Crenshaw, “Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental and Organizational Approaches” in Inside Terrorist Organizations, ed. David C. Rappoport (London: Frank Cass, 2001); Alex P. Schmid, Political Terrorism (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1983).
  9. See Al-Baqarah 2, p. 256. Cited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Baqara

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