The Evolving Terrorist Threat to Southeast Asia: A Net Assessment: Introduction

Terrorism is not new to Southeast Asia. Indeed, for much of the Cold War, the activities of a variety of domestic ethnonationalist and religious militant groups posed what was arguably one of the most signifcant challenges to the internal stability of several countries across the region. Tese violent organizations arose in reaction to the unwillingness of many Southeast Asian governments to acknowledge or recognize the right of minority self-determination. Such reticence essentially owed itself to an implicit fear that acceding to even limited ethnonationalist demands would result in an unstoppable secessionist tide, challenging the very basis of statehood that underscored Southeast Asian post-colonial identity (Acharya, 1993, p. 19; see also Christie, 1996; Jeshurun, 1985; Joo-Jock and Vani, 1984; D. Brown, 1994; Findlay, 1996; and Nathan, 1997).

Since the 1990s, however, the residual challenge posed by substate militant extremism has risen, in reaction to both the force of modernization pursued so vigorously by many Southeast Asian governments and the political infuence of Islam-which has, itself, been further amplifed by the contemporary force of South Asian (and, more spe-cifcally, Afghan) radicalism (Christie, 1996, pp. 207-208; D. Brown, 1994; von der Mehden, 1996; Reilly, 2002; Tan, 2004; and Kurlantz-ick, 2001).

In the southern Philippines, an ongoing Moro insurgency continues to disrupt stability, investment, and local development, and, in stark contrast to the character of its original inception, now has an explicitly religious bent. Tree groups remain at the forefront of militant action in this part of the country: the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the Misuari Breakaway Group (MBG). Complicating matters in the country is an entrenched communist-terrorist insurgency that is seeking the establishment of a Maoist state through protracted people’s war and that continues to ben-eft from popular disillusionment borne out of government corruption and extreme socioeconomic inequities. Te New People’s Army (NPA) stands at the forefront of this challenge and, though weakened, continues to demonstrate an ability to disrupt and operate on a national basis.

In southern Tailand, violence associated with Malay Muslim separatism has been a recurrent problem since the late 1960s. Te overall scale of unrest, however, has risen dramatically since 2004 to the extent that the so-called “deep south” is now in the throes of what amounts to a full-scale ethnoreligious insurgency. Although it lacks clear organizational coherence and strategic direction, the present generation of militants operating in southern Tailand have taken their struggle to a level of violence and brutality not previously witnessed and, over the past four years, have been instrumental in carrying out repeated attacks against local administrators, politicians, police, Buddhist temples, and schools. Moreover, the current manifestation of Malay Muslim militant extremism has been marked by an explicit jihadist undertone that is seriously threatening to unravel the fabric of communal relations in this part of the country.

In Indonesia, Islamic extremism has emerged as an increasingly salient threat since the demise of the Soeharto regime in 1998. In particular, a dramatic reawakening of atavistic Muslim identity has combined with a more fuid domestic environment to dangerously exacerbate and radicalize popular sentiment across the archipelago. Tis has, in turn, helped foster the formation of a newer generation of jihadist movements variously dedicated to the establishment of a fundamentalist order in Indonesia and/or a wider caliphate in Southeast Asia.

Intelligence and government sources in Washington have viewed these developments with considerable consternation, expressing fears that Southeast Asia is now a major springboard for local and wider acts of international terrorism that has direct relevance for Western security, political, and economic interests. Indeed, various manifestations of politically motivated extremism sourced out of the region are presently counted as-if not the number-one security challenge and research priority in the United States-a principal focus of concern.

Problematically, to date, however, most of the attention paid to terrorism in Southeast Asia has tended to emphasize response contingencies and crisis management at the expense of systematic risk vulnerability assessments. As a result, policy has often been shaped by preconceived and, in many cases, unsubstantiated threat scenarios. Absent has been the type of comprehensive, empirically grounded analysis that is critical to prioritizing and marshaling resources across intelligence, informational, law enforcement, frst responder, and community jurisdictions.

Accordingly, this monograph aims to provide a holistic depiction of the overall terrorist environment in Southeast Asia by considering the issue from the “red” (adversary), “blue” (partner-nation), and “green” (partner-nation populace) perspectives. The study had three main objectives:

  • first, to provide an informed appreciation of the motivations, aims, modus operandi, and efectiveness of regional terrorist groups, the methods by which they entrench themselves in local civilian populations, and the extent to which they interact across national boundaries
  • second, to weigh the efectiveness of partner-nation eforts in Southeast Asia to (1) address underlying political, military, social, economic, and infrastructure conditions that foster extremist violence; (2) mitigate the traction or pull of militant ideology and propaganda; and (3) disrupt terrorist network efects
  • third, to audit the relevance and appropriateness of existing U.S. internal security, civil-military, socioeconomic, and governance support to partner-nations in Southeast Asia.

This monograph is divided into three main sections. Chapters Two through Five examine the contemporary threat environment in Southeast Asia, focusing on established confict zones in the Philippines, southern Tailand, and Indonesia and the regional challenge posed by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Chapters Six through Eight discuss the principal elements of Philippine, Tai, and Indonesian national security and counterterrorism (CT) strategies analyzing their efective-ness in ameliorating the contemporary terrorist challenge to regional states. Chapters Nine and Ten describe the main parameters of existing U.S. security assistance to Southeast Asia and assess how future programs can be structured to ensure the best possible CT outcomes. Finally, the monograph includes a dedicated appendix that examines emergent or potential operational and logistical hubs in Cambodia.


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