The Shape of Anti-Terrorist Coalitions in Southeast Asia

Report Asia

The Shape of Anti-Terrorist Coalitions in Southeast Asia

January 17, 2003 11 min read
Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon
Policy Analyst

Even a brief review of the official position of the countries of Southeast Asia reveals that all of them oppose terrorism and, by their definition, are "working hard" to eliminate the threat. Therefore, specific criteria must be established to determine the manner of participation by regional countries in the anti-terrorist war and whether that participation constitutes membership in a coalition.

I use the definition of coalition as proposed by the United States Department of Defense. The Pentagon's Coalition Handbook defines coalitions as "Operations conducted by forces of two or more nations, which may not be allies, acting together for the accomplishment of a single goal." Because much anti-terrorist effort includes law enforcement activities, the term "forces" in the definition will include domestic police and judicial actions against terrorists.

Using that definition, one can say that there are multiple groupings in Southeast Asia that claim an anti-terrorist agenda but that membership is not universal, and where participation meets the definition of coalition, it is typically characterized by bilateral efforts, mostly with the United States. There is one indigenous, formal, multilateral, ASEAN effort, but it does not qualify as an anti-terrorist coalition.

Participation in anti-terrorist coalitions is frequently circumscribed by an individual country's commitment to America as an alliance partner and that country's individual perception of terrorism as a threat to its national security.

  • For example, Australia, which is a long-standing and reliable ally of the United States, made firm commitments to the international fight against terrorism immediately after 9/11.
  • The Philippines, also a long-time ally of Washington and suffering from a substantial terrorist problem, invoked the terms of its security treaty with the United States and permitted American soldiers on Philippine soil to assist in its battle against al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf. Also, President Arroyo initiated the only purely ASEAN anti-terrorist pact, which includes Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia, although this so-called pact is merely a diplomatic tool and employs no forces against terrorism.
  • Indonesia, which was neither an ally of the United States nor a vociferous opponent of terrorists, has provided little material or moral support to the coalition against terrorism.

Thus, there appear to be two levels of participation: Level one coalition members clearly employ forces against terrorists, while level two countries oppose terrorism but are either unwilling or unable to employ force coordinated with another country.

Level One Coalitions

Level one countries view terrorism as a global threat and the war against terrorism as a common effort that benefits all countries. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines are among them. Some governments have other items on the anti-terrorist agenda, such as Kuala Lumpur, which appears to welcome the collateral benefit of intimidating political opponents of the regime.

Nevertheless, level one participants are employing force against terrorists and are working bilaterally with Washington and with each other to pursue the war on terrorism. The following are summaries of activities that represent a cross section of the use of force against terrorists working inside a coalition.

Directly after 9/11, Canberra invoked the mutual defense clause of the ANZUS security treaty between Australia and the United States despite the absence of a formal declaration of war by Washington or Canberra. Long before the bombing in Bali, Indonesia, on October 12, 2002, Canberra had committed substantial military forces to the war on terrorism including more than 1,500 soldiers, combat aircraft, and navy frigates and support vessels. Additionally, Canberra took steps to investigate money transfers and track possible al-Qaeda cells in Australia.

The bombing in Bali, where more than 80 Australians were killed and many more wounded, has redoubled Australia ' s determination to fight terrorism. Since October 12, Australia has focused a considerable amount of energy on pursuing terrorists in Southeast Asia. Australian police, military, and medical units responded immediately to the bomb site in Bali, and the Australian police are working closely with the Indonesian police in their investigation to apprehend the perpetrators of the Bali attack.

At home, Australia is tightening border security, investigating links to al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya (JI) cells inside Australia, and boosting counter-terrorism funding. Furthermore, the government is discussing the formation of a homeland security department similar to the Cabinet-level agency created in the United States. Abroad, Canberra has increased security at its embassies, has introduced legislation creating a new offense of extraterritorial murder, and is participating in bilateral efforts with Singapore, New Zealand, and Indonesia in addition to the United States.

The Philippines
Since September 11, the Philippines has cooperated closely with the United States in its war on terrorism. The Philippine government has given the U.S. access to its ports and has allowed overhead and transit flights. Furthermore, despite the opposition of nationalists, President Arroyo has allowed U.S. troops to be in the Philippines for approximately six months in order to conduct joint counter-terrorism military exercises.

Aside from working closely with the United States, the Philippines has been one of the strongest proponents of anti-terrorism cooperation in Southeast Asia. Whereas some Southeast Asian nations viewed terrorism as an American problem, President Arroyo was the principal advocate of Southeast Asian anti-terrorism cooperation. The Philippines has signed an anti-terrorism pact with Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Thailand, and President Arroyo intends to host a conference on anti-terrorism with the ASEAN countries as well as with the United States, Australia, Canada, South Korea, China, Japan, India, and the European Union. Despite Manila's sincere attempts to create multilateral coalitions, however, most of these efforts lack substantive results and have not affected international terrorist activities in a significant way.

On the domestic front, President Arroyo has repeatedly vowed to crush the Abu Sayyaf, which has been a persistent irritation to the Philippine government. Philippine military operations have reduced Abu Sayyaf's number from an estimated 1,000 terrorists to less than 250 within the past year. However, Abu Sayyaf has been linked to recent terrorist bombings in the Philippines and still remains a viable threat.

Singapore's efforts against terrorists are broad and comprehensive. As early as September 2001, the Singapore government established an interministerial task force on anti-terrorism. In October 2001, it issued regulations that permitted implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions on counter-terrorism. The Monetary Authority of Singapore instructed all banks and financial institutions to identify customers suspected of financing terrorist activities or who are engaged in money-laundering activities. Singapore's police also launched a rigorous review of financial transactions in the country.

In December 2001, the Singapore police arrested 15 persons for terrorist-related activities, including the surveying of many American business interests based in Singapore and spots where American servicemen congregate. Many of the people arrested had direct links to al-Qaeda. In the follow-on investigation, the police uncovered a region-wide network of terrorists with links in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Some of these countries have subsequently arrested terrorists linked to al-Qaeda.

Among additional efforts, Singapore authorities arrested 31 Jemaah Islamiyah operatives this year--21 of which have been arrested since Bali. Singapore agreed to increase intelligence sharing and expertise on preventing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons attacks with Australia. Singapore's navy patrol craft are escorting selected tankers (particularly large oil shipments) in the Straits of Malucca. Since September 11, deployment of patrol boats is up 30 percent.1 Singapore is seeking to procure more boats as well as more sophisticated surveillance technology.

Singapore has increased restrictions on sensitive waters surrounding petrochemical installations--only boats and ships on official business are allowed--and has increased the squads of troops at Changi airport and oil installations. Also, bomb detection at Changi has been upgraded. The Internal Security Department gave briefings to local businesses on how to protect themselves from terrorism.

Kuala Lumpur cracked down on Islamic radicals within its borders even before the September 11 attacks. Since April 2001, the Malaysian government has detained over 60 suspected Islamic militants. Its Internal Security Act (ISA) has given the Malaysian government power to actively pursue counter-terrorism measures domestically.

Malaysia's ISA, "which allows for indefinite detention without charge or trial...has been criticized by the United States for being used to repress political opponents."2 Prior to and since September 11, the Malaysian government has been accused numerous times of using ISA law to pursue its political agenda. Nonetheless, as a strong supporter of the war on terrorism, Malaysia has played a central role in arresting alleged members of Jemaah Islamiyah. Malaysia has also granted the United States access to Malaysian intelligence information and given overflight clearance since September 11.

Although Kuala Lumpur's domestic efforts have been substantial, internationally, Malaysia has preferred unsubstantial commitments. Malaysia was one of the founding countries of the regional anti-terrorism pact, which has not yielded substantial outcomes. Furthermore, Malaysia agreed to host an anti-terrorism regional training center--a sign of its commitment to the war on terrorism, according to Malaysian Defense Minister Najib--but this commitment has yet to take on a tangible form.

Level Two Coalitions

Level two countries appear to be using a quail-like strategy to avoid substantive engagement in the anti-terrorism war. For game birds, such as quail, the survival tactic is to use a combination of camouflage and stillness to elude hunters. Thailand and Indonesia use membership in anti-terrorism groupings as diplomatic camouflage to minimize American pressure and non-provocative security measures to avoid attention from the terrorists.

Other countries in the region, such as Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, do not have a severe terrorist threat and lack the capacity to intervene outside their borders. Thailand and Indonesia have both the terrorist threat and the ability to intervene against domestic terrorists, but lack the will to use force.

Bangkok is the only American ally in the region that persists in denying the presence of terrorists within its borders and has not participated in anti-terrorism activities. Prime Minister Thaksin has repeatedly claimed, "We are not a target." This approach of "everywhere is safe in Thailand" is driven by the desire to preserve Thailand's tourist dollars. Thailand's tourist industry brings in approximately 10 million visitors per year and accounts for $7.6 billion of revenue.3 Despite government officials' assertions, however, Thai police have said that they are aware of terrorist movements in the predominantly Muslim south of Thailand, where the country shares a border with Malaysia. According to Asia-based intelligence officials, "Al Qaeda's top Southeast Asian operative used southern Thailand as a pivotal planning area"4 for the Bali bombings. Police say they are keeping a close eye on terrorist activities.

Aside from heightened police surveillance, Thailand has acceded to the anti-terrorism pact, which includes Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Cambodia. However, the government's unwillingness to recognize the presence of terrorists within its borders hampers anti-terrorism efforts. The current air of denial regarding the presence of terrorists in Thailand starkly resembles that of Indonesia prior to the Bali bombing.

Jakarta is quite clearly not a very active member of the anti-terrorist coalition. Although there has been some anti-terrorist rhetoric, some law enforcement activity, inconsequential diplomatic activity, and some cooperation with Australia in investigating the Bali bombing, the overall weight of government action--or omission--may well benefit the terrorists.

There are no Indonesian forces deployed against terrorists, and the Indonesian government has never clearly articulated an anti-terrorist program. In fact, before the terrorist attack in Bali, many Indonesian government officials at all levels denied that they were any terrorists in Indonesia. Government officials made these statements despite the fact that Jemaah Islamiyah, the group accused of the Bali bombing and which had long been identified as a terrorist group in Malaysia and Singapore, operated openly in Indonesia.

After September 11, 2001, the Indonesian government opposed most American action against terrorist groups. During the American attack against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Jakarta permitted Islamic radicals to openly recruit an estimated 300 Indonesian volunteers to deploy to Afghanistan to join al-Qaeda and fight the American forces.

Also, although there has been cooperation between Indonesian and Australian police in the Bali investigation, rather than offering its full cooperation in the pursuit of JI terrorists, the Indonesian government has repeatedly protested Canberra's efforts to uncover JI links in Australia. On November 20, Hassan Wiryadu, Indonesia's Foreign Minister, threatened economic sanctions against Canberra if the Australian Security and Intelligence Office (ASIO) did not stop raiding and interrogating Indonesian nationals living in Australia.

Southeast Asia Anti-Terrorism Pact
Like most agreements initiated by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the anti-terrorist pact is longer on form than on substance. The members of the pact have quickly deployed high-sounding declarations and planned conferences where, I am confident, terrorism will be thoroughly denounced. However, the effectiveness of the pact will not be measured by the number of meetings held or communiqués issued, but by the number of terrorists captured or killed.

The most telling indicator of the expected efficacy of the anti-terrorism pact is that the two most effective countries fighting terrorism in the region, Singapore and Australia, are not members. Australia was not asked to join, and Singapore has refused to join. Despite the apparently sincere motives of President Arroyo to create an indigenous multilateral anti-terrorist coalition to fight a regional scourge, Indonesia and Thailand and other member countries are using the pact as diplomatic cover to avoid international criticism as they continue to evade substantive commitment in the war on terrorism.


There are multiple groupings in the Southeast Asia region that claim an anti-terrorist goal, but the strategies used by the coalitions determine whether or not they meet the definition of an anti-terrorist coalition. Countries such as Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, and Malaysia can clearly claim to have deployed forces against terrorists and are determined members of the anti-terrorist coalition. It is not clear, however, from published sources that the other countries in the region have employed sufficient force to qualify as members of an anti-terrorist coalition.

Dana Robert Dillon is Senior Policy Analyst for South and Southeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. This Heritage Lecture is adapted from remarks delivered at a conference on Southeast Asia and the International Anti-Terrorist Coalition that was held in Berlin, Germany, on December 12-14, 2002.

1. "Singapore on Alert for Terror Attacks," South China Morning Post, November 5, 2002.

2. Julie Chao, "Rights Lost to Malaysia's War on Terror," The Atlanta Journal and Constitution , November 17, 2002.

3. Agence France-Presse, "Thailand Launches Campaign to Win Back Wary Japanese Tourist," December 11, 2002.

4. Jay Solomon and James Hookway, "War on Terror: Thailand Base Used in Bali Attack," The Wall Street Journal Europe, November 7, 2002.


Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon

Policy Analyst