October 21, 2003

October 21, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

The Beast's Belly

You can almost picture the beads of sweat welling up among the protective detail when they got the word: "POTUS [the president of the United States] is going to Southeast Asia" - the War on Terror's second front.

A three-day trip to Thailand for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is no walk in the park for the Secret Service agents assigned to POTUS. For starters, it means going to the place where authorities had just arrested Hambali, ops chief for Jemaah Islamiya, al Qaeda's Southeast Asian franchise. Rumors that Thailand-based terrorists have smuggled in surface-to-air missiles from Cambodia do nothing to relieve the agents' anxiety.

Thais share their concern. The threat level is so high the host nation has deployed 20,000 troops to bulk up conference security and blacklisted 500 potential evil-doers from entering the country.

But just getting to the conference looked dicey from an agent's perspective. En route, POTUS slated a quick dinner with President Arroyo in the Philippines, a country still struggling with the Abu Sayef Group and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front - both with al Qaeda ties.

Then there's the three-hour post-APEC stopover to meet with Indonesian President Megawati in Bali, where Jemaah Islamiya killed over 200 in last year's nightclub bombing - the worst terrorist attack since 9/11.

In short, this trip takes President Bush deep into the belly of the terrorism beast. Though the bulk of U.S. anti-terror efforts have far concentrated on Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East, Southeast Asia remains on the forward edge of the War on Terror.

So even though APEC is an economic forum, global terrorism will be the dominant topic in Bush's agenda in Bangkok. (Not that terrorism is divorced from trade and commerce; since 9/11, global gross domestic product has dropped 1 per cent.)

Concerns about North Korea's nuclear program will also come up, especially the troubling idea that North Korea has threatened to share its nuclear know-how with "other groups", meaning other rogue states or terrorists. (Yesterday Bush said America might join Pyongyang's neighbors in offering it a non-treaty assurance of security if it ends its nuke program.)

The president knows fighting terrorism alone is a lot like punching a pillow: You can hit it and hit it until you're exhausted, but all you do is move the feathers around. Only working together can defeat the plague of terror.

So expect Bush, while in Southeast Asia, to push a more cooperative, aggressive approach to waging the war, including:

* Bolster Southeast Asian police forces. The region needs terrorism police intelligence units and improved police training. Weak law enforcement has proved fatal.

This July, for instance, Australian and Indonesian police raided Jemaah Islamiya safe houses in Indonesia. The Indonesian police recovered documents outlining future plots, including a plan to bomb the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, but failed to share this with the Australians (or the Americans.) A month later, the hotel was bombed, killing 12 people.

* Encourage the Philippines and Indonesia to do a much better job of pre-empting terrorist financing. Without cash, terrorists can't undertake operations, fund agents or pay protection money. Yet Indonesia, especially, is considered a significant source of terrorist funding.

* Establish a common framework to protect maritime commerce. Shipping containers move about 90 percent of the world's freight traffic. Unfortunately, they are also ideal for moving weapons, funds (e.g. money, gold, diamonds) - even terrorists themselves.

* Improve monitoring of visa and passport programs. In the hands of terrorists, false documents become weapons. Forged passports (and legal visas) married with simple box cutters cost this country 3,000 lives two years ago.

POTUS is right to travel half-way (literally) around the world to seek solidarity with APEC nations on the issue of terrorism. He is not the first wartime U.S. president to understand the importance of cooperating in a great global struggle. In his fourth inaugural address in 1945, FDR said: "We have learned we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations, far away."

However far away the War on Terror takes us, it's worth the trip.

Peter Brookes is a senior fellow for National Security Affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Asia

Reprinted with permission of The New York Post