Southeast Asia and the War Against Terrorism

Report Asia

Southeast Asia and the War Against Terrorism

October 23, 2001 12 min read

Authors: Paolo Pasicolan and Dana Dillon

Having completed the initial wave of air strikes on Afghanistan, the United States has deployed Special Forces troops to Central Asia, the front line in America's war on terrorism. The task is clear: to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists who are responsible for the September 11 attacks as well as other acts of terrorism against the United States. However, as President George Bush promised before the joint session of Congress on September 20, "Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." 1

Southeast Asia will be another important front in this war. Home to the largest Muslim nation (Indonesia) and two other countries with groups threatening to establish fundamentalist Islamic theocracies (Philippines and Malaysia), Southeast Asia has a large number of established Muslim fundamentalist groups sympathetic to Osama bin Laden. Thus, the region is both an ideal safe haven for him and a potential base of operations from which he could launch terrorist counteroffensives against the United States.

In addition, corrupt law enforcement institutions, backlogged judicial systems, and inadequate cooperation among its countries make it difficult to eliminate the various cells that operate in Southeast Asia. Moreover, until September 11 there was little political will there to commit significant government resources to combat terrorism, which had been perceived as a limited, but manageable state problem.

Nevertheless, unlike al-Qaeda's collaborative relationship with the Taliban ruling party and militia in Afghanistan, Southeast Asian governments have been opposed to terrorist groups and their activities for decades, even if they have not always actively suppressed them. Therefore, direct U.S. or coalition intervention could lend credence to bin Laden's contention that these governments are mere puppets of the West, and thereby exacerbate the terrorist infection.

U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Southeast Asia should be designed to help, not hinder, local solutions. Washington should work to increase the reach of Southeast Asian governments to combat terrorism by encouraging regional security cooperation, beginning with a special session of the Regional Forum of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). It also should help improve the counterterrorism capabilities of militaries in the region through training and equipment, developing a robust working relationship between intelligence services, and coordinating the efforts of national financial institutions to close off funding to the terrorists.

Identifying the Enemy
The biggest obstacle to fighting terrorists in Southeast Asia is separating the fans in the stands from the players on the field. Just because an organization is Islamic and sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, Kashmiris, or Afghans does not mean its members are international terrorists. The President defined the enemy as any "terrorist group of global reach." To be global in reach means either having an international political agenda incorporating acts of terrorism or receiving funds or assistance from international terrorist organizations.

There are more than 200 million Muslims in Southeast Asia. Three countries, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, have Muslim majorities, and in the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, 170 million people adhere to the Islamic faith. The vast majority of these people do not support terrorism and are not explicitly anti-American, but they provide fertile ground for al-Qaeda to recruit fighters, raise money, and find safe harbor. The region's governments already oppose terrorism; thus, direct U.S. military action against terrorist groups in Southeast Asia should be done in concert with local counterterrorism initiatives so as not to invite an anti-American backlash.

Governments define threats either based on dangers posed to their country's interests or dangers posed to the interests of the regime in power. The United States must be careful not to allow the definition of "terrorist" to become so broad that authoritarian governments could use it to label their opposition political parties as international terrorists. For example, the Malaysian government has arrested 10 people under its Internal Security Act, but they have yet to be charged with a specific terrorist-related crime. The police claim that these people are members of a militant Islamic group. Perhaps significantly, at least four of the people arrested are from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, the largest opposition party to the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. 2

In order to avoid becoming mired in the domestic political agendas of countries in Southeast Asia while combating legitimate "global" terrorist networks there, the United States should assist the region's governments in clamping down on groups that have a history of using violence and terror to achieve their political goals. Regardless of the declared worthiness of their objectives, kidnapping, piracy, and indiscriminate violence against civilians are unacceptable means to achieve those goals. After all, terrorism does not change the established laws of land warfare; neither should a war against it.

The majority of indigenous terrorist groups in Southeast Asia have limited resources to expand their fight outside their home countries, and they are small enough that local governments, with the requisite political determination, should be able to quash them. The United States can help regional governments to identify domestic terrorist organizations with foreign support and it should cooperate with them to cut off that support. Finally, the United States should make clear that it would defend its allies and friends in Southeast Asia against international terrorist attacks.

The Philippines and Abu Sayyaf
As the largest Christian country in Asia with only a 5 percent Muslim minority, the Philippines seems like an unlikely incubator of Muslim fundamentalism. However, the U.S. government has identified it as one of over 50 countries from which al-Qaeda operates, demonstrating that it is not the practice of Islam that is responsible for terrorism; rather it is the spread of a perverse political interpretation of Islam. Several organizations in the Philippines have clearly established links to al-Qaeda, and there is evidence that the events of September 11 can be traced to them.

The Abu Sayyaf group--an organization founded by one of bin Laden's lieutenants, Jamal Khalifa, and initially led by Abdurajak Janjalani, a Filipino Muslim who fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan--has been the most active of the terrorist organizations operating in the Philippines. It began operations in the early 1990s, staging conventional terrorist operations in the southern province of Mindanao.

  • In April 2000, the Abu Sayyaf committed its most successful international terrorist undertaking, kidnapping 20 Asian and European hostages from a Malaysian resort. After months of negotiations, a third-party negotiating team from Libya paid a ransom of over $20 million in order to secure the hostages' release.

  • In May 2001, equipped with more guns, state-of-the-art speedboats, and sophisticated communications devices purchased with the ransom money, the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped a second group of tourists, as well as foreign journalists covering their story. 3 This group included three Americans; one American was murdered, the other two remain hostages.

Many have discounted these kidnap-for-ransom incidents in the past two years as the acts of a criminal organization operating under the guise of Muslim separatism. However, the events of September 11 brought greater scrutiny upon the Abu Sayyaf and its links to al-Qaeda. Among the standard demands the Abu Sayyaf makes during hostage negotiations has been the release of three Arab terrorists, including Ramzi Yousef, who is currently serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

In 1994 Yousef visited Mindanao to help train Abu Sayyaf operatives in the use of modern explosives. Later that year, he used the Philippines as a staging area for a dry run of various terrorist scenarios. For example, to test a new bomb design, Yousef boarded Philippine Airlines flight 434 from Manila to Tokyo, assembled a bomb in the aircraft lavatory, and left during a stopover. 4 Although the pilot was able to make an emergency landing, a Japanese businessman was killed in the explosion.

Recently rediscovered intelligence reports from 1995 reveal that the Abu Sayyaf may have provided logistical support for Ramzi Yousef. In January 1995, while investigating a routine apartment fire, Philippine authorities uncovered the details of a plan called Operation Bojinka, a blueprint for terrorism that included a plot to kill the Pope as well as the bombings of 11 unidentified U.S. passenger jets. 5 More disturbing, however, are revelations that Operation Bojinka also included a plan to hijack a commercial airliner and crash it into the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

It turned out that the apartment belonged to Ramzi Yousef, and that the fire began when a bomb exploded prematurely. With the information provided by Philippine authorities, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was able to arrest Yousef a month later in Pakistan.

It is likely that, left to its own devices, the Abu Sayyaf group's high-profit criminal activities, such as piracy, kidnapping, and bank robbery, will continue, and that the funds these activities generate could be shared with al-Qaeda.

Responding to the Terrorist Threat
As a borderless crime, terrorism by nature is an international problem that requires a solution with an international focus. However, for a global coalition against terrorism to succeed, governments must be held accountable for eliminating their local terrorist threats. The United States should help governments in Southeast Asia as much as necessary to win the war on terrorism at its roots. However, any U.S. support must be geared toward local solutions as well as initiatives to deal with the problem in the long term. Diplomatic efforts of the U.S. government should encourage the people of Southeast Asia to recognize the dangers of terrorism and to see that only a concerted effort will eradicate this scourge.

Specifically, the United States should:

  • Encourage regional initiatives against terrorism. The government of the Philippines plans to initiate a regional anti-terrorist coalition with Malaysia and Indonesia--the three Southeast Asian nations that have a history of dealing with Muslim fundamentalists. Although the proposal is in the initial planning stages, the coalition would most likely focus on intelligence-sharing, improving maritime border security, and possibly joint military action against transnational extremist groups. The United States should strongly support the Philippine-led coalition against terrorism. Although such a coalition should include many countries committed to eradicating the problem of terrorism, a core group consisting of the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia would give it a solid foundation.

  • Ask ASEAN leaders to call for a special session of the ASEAN Regional Forum. To further widen the political base of a regional coalition, the United States, the European Union (EU), and Japan should raise the issue of terrorism at that special session. For the war on terrorism to succeed, the Forum's members must make it clear to the people of Southeast Asia's nations that terrorism is morally unacceptable and a threat to regional stability that must be eliminated. Among the issues the Forum should address is a unified no-ransom policy. Paying off ransoms merely encourages future acts of terror, as evidenced by the Abu Sayyaf cases.

  • Provide support for counterterrorism through financial and military aid. Instead of paying money to the kidnappers as was done in the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping incident in April 2000, the United States, the EU, and Japan should create a consortium--similar to the Korean peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO)--to help fund Southeast Asian government counterterrorism efforts. Aid should be disbursed in the form of direct funds and in training for military and police personnel, possibly in the form of additional International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs. The United States should send excess defense articles (equipment that may be obsolete for the U.S. forces but represent an upgrade for Asian militaries) to governments that are sincerely committed to combating terrorism.

  • Ensure that support targets counterterrorism initiatives. Any financial or military U.S. support must be accompanied by conditions. The United States must be able to verify that its aid goes directly to counterterrorist initiatives and not into the pockets of corrupt military regimes. The U.S. war on terrorism must identify terrorist organizations based on the severity of their acts, not on their declared political agenda. Additionally, to avoid complicated political entanglements, the United States must ensure that its financial aid is temporary and geared toward facilitating a more permanent, regionally funded, counterterrorist organization. Wherever possible, the United States should reformulate existing military aid and cooperation for Southeast Asia to refocus programs on dealing with terrorism.

  • Increase intelligence-sharing with U.S. allies and friends in Southeast Asia. Washington should work closely with regional governments in identifying organizations in the region, beyond the Abu Sayyaf, that could be added to the State Department list of terrorist organizations with a "global reach" or funding from international terrorist networks. Groups should be listed as terrorists by their actions, not their political agenda.

    With a significant secular Muslim population and established links to Osama bin Laden's network, Southeast Asia offers valuable resources for human intelligence. For example, in Indonesia numerous organizations use terror and violence for political aims, including some with contacts to al-Qaeda. The Indonesian government will be hard pressed to address all of them with its limited resources. Many of these groups appear to have large budgets but undetermined funding sources. Washington could assist Indonesia, and other regional governments, in choking off these funding sources through closer cooperation in identifying domestic terrorist organizations.

  • Use unilateral military action as a last resort. While the preferred solution is to use local governments and local security forces to attack terrorism at its roots, in order to protect Americans from terrorist acts, Washington must always keep open the option of direct military intervention. Should there be a clear and immediate threat to U.S. citizens and property that local security forces in Southeast Asia cannot handle, Washington must be ready to act.

With the exception of Indochina, during the Cold War indigenous military forces were strong enough to resist numerous communist insurgencies. Today, despite the effects of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, governments in the region possess economic and military means to fight domestic terrorism that are far superior to those they marshaled during the Cold War. Yet the fragility of some local governments (and in some cases their culpability) means that direct U.S. military action must only be a last resort.

To win the war, Washington must focus on weakening international terrorist networks by cutting off their sources of funding. It should also help strengthen the ability of regional governments to suppress terrorists tied in with organizations like al-Qaeda by encouraging increased regional cooperation in intelligence-sharing and providing targeted funds, training, and support as needed.

Dana Robert Dillonis a Senior Policy Analyst for Southeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation.


1. President George W. Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, September 20, 2001, available at http//whitehouse.gove/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html.

2. "Malaysian Police Detain More Suspected Islamic Militants," Associated Press, October 10, 2001.

3. Noralyn Mustafa, "Sipadan Hostage-Taking: A Year Ago," Philippine Daily Inquirer , April 22, 2001, p. 18.

4. Frank Connolly, "FBI Agents Knew of Plan to Bomb the Pentagon," Sunday Business Post , September 23, 2001.

5. Robert Frank and James Hookway, "Abu Sayyaf: The Long Tentacles of Terror," The Wall Street Journal , September 25, 2001, p. A12.


Paolo Pasicolan

Policy Analyst

Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon

Policy Analyst