Friday, January 21, 2011

Terrorist Cells in Southeast Asia

By Rommel C. Banlaoi

The US State Department identifies only three groups in Southeast Asia listed as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs):  JI (Indonesia), ASG (the Philippines) and the Communist Party of the Philippines/New Peoples’ Army (CPP/NPA , the Philippines).[1] 

This blog will not cover terrorist organizations emanating from communist parties and non-Islamic insurgent groups.  This piece limits its analysis on militant or radical Islamic groups accused of terrorist acts:  JI and ASG.

Among the listed terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, JI has established various terrorism cells in Southeast Asia.  JI received international notoriety because of the involvement of its members in various terrorist attacks in the region.  The well known terrorist attack perpetrated by JI was the 12 October 2002 Bali Bombing considered as “the most devastating terrorist strike in the world since 9/11” having killed 2002 civilians most of whom were Australians.[2]  The 2002 Bali Bombing was, in fact, JI’s Plan B.  Its Plan A was the bombing of Western targets in Singapore in December 2001.[3] \

JI also masterminded the 5 August 2003 car bombing of J.W. Marriot Hotel in Jakarta where 11 people died and 150 others injured.  The bombing of Australian Embassy in Jakarta on 9 September 2004, which resulted in the death of 11 Indonesians and wounding of 160 others, was also blamed on JI.    On 1 October 2005, JI bombed Bali once again and this killed 20 persons and injured 129 victims. 

Though JI originated in Indonesia, it has established networks with groups and sleeper cells in Southeast Asia accused of various terrorist acts.  Because of its existing regional networks, JI is said to be behind the “Talibanization of Southeast Asia” and as such “has become an important and even key element of the discourse on terrorism in Southeast Asia.”[4]  JI is closely connected with Islamist extremist groups in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. 

The Table below shows JI’s regional partners and linkages that form terrorism cells in Southeast Asia.

Terrorism Cells
Majilis Mujahidin Indonesia, Laskar Jihad, Laskar Jundulla, GAM, FPI, DI, Jammah NIII, Laskar Mujahidin, Mujahidin KOMPAK, ABB, AMIN, and RP11
Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, Al-Muanah
Arakan Rohingya National Organization
Abu Sayyaf Group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Misuari Breakaway Group (MBG), Balik Islam/Rajah Solaiman Islamic Movement (BI/RSIM)
Gerakan Mujahidin Pattani Islam

Source:  Bilveer Singh, The Talibanization of Southeast Asia:  Losing the War on Terror to Islamist Extremists (Connecticut and London:  Praeger Security International, 2007), p. 86.

Common among these so-called terrorism cells in Southeast Asia associated with JI is a fanatical adherence to a shared ideology called in various ways by different scholars as Islamic radicalism, Islamic extremism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic revivalism, Islamic renewal, Muslim radicalism, Muslim extremism, radical Islamism, militant Islam and others.[5]  All these terms have acquired pejorative, derogatory and sometimes anti-Muslim meanings in the Western world because these terms have been mistakenly associated with political violence and terrorism. There is no doubt, however, that these terms are loosely lumped within the broad universe of political Islam.[6]

The origin of these terms is often attributed to the Islamic preaching of Muhammad ibn Abd-al Wahhab, a Muslim scholar who popularized a theology that would later be called Wahhabism. Abd-al Wahhab teaches the ‘purification’ of Islam based on Salafi faith. The word ‘Salafi’ means ‘righteous ancestors of Muslims’ in traditional Islamic scholarship. Salafism advocates a return to a Sharia-minded orthodoxy that aims to purify Islam from unwarranted accretions, heresies and distortions, which Abd-al Wahhab avidly preaches.

Thus, Wahhabism and Salafism are theologically connected. Wahhabism and Salafism are systems of belief that are said to have vigorously informed the ‘terrorist acts’ of Osama bin Laden and other radical Muslim personalities. They fight for the jihad, seeking to re-create the Muslim umma and Sharia to build an Islamic community worldwide.[7] Wahhabi or Salafi movements are found throughout the Muslim world.[8] After 9/11, Islamic movements and organizations adhering to Wahhabism and Salafism, particularly those associated with al-Qaeda, are labeled inaccurately as terrorists because of their vigorous involvements in a series of violent attacks, the largest of which was the 9/11 assaults on the United States.

Bilveer Singh calls the movement behind this Islamic ideology in Southeast Asia as “Talibanization”, which is a political rather than religious Islamic movement.  It refers to the “growing propensity to adopt extremist religious ideological interpretations and practices in Muslim societies, especially in Southeast Asia.”[9]  

            Talibanization comes from the word, Taliban, a violent extremist militia force based in Kandahar, Afghanistan founded by Mullah Muhammad Omar in September 2004.  The Talibans, which means students or children of Jihad, established an Islamic regime in Afghanistan that promoted rigid interpretation and extreme practice of Islam anchored on Islamic orthodoxy of Sunni Wahhabism and Salafism.  This orthodoxy practices intolerance not only towards non-Muslim but also Muslims who have failed in purifying their Islamic faith. In other words, Talibanization aims for the purification of Islam found in Wahhabi and Salafi faiths.  Thus, Talibanization has become synonymous with extremism, which currently informs JI ideology.[10]

[This piece is taken from Rommel C. Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures in Southeast Asia:  How Effective Are They? (Manila: Yuchengco Center, 2009)].
[1] US Department of State, “List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations” at         (8 April 2008).
[2] Kumar Ramakrishna and See Seng Tan, “Is Southeast Asia a Terrorist Haven?” in Ramakrishna and Tan, After Bali:  The Threat of Terrorism in Southeast Asia, p. 1.
[3] For detailed discussions of Plan A, see Ressa, Seeds of Terror, pp. 143-163.
[4] Bilveer Singh, The Talibanization of Southeast Asia:  Losing the War on Terror to Islamist Extremists (Connecticut and London:  Praeger Security International, 2007), p. 51.
[5] For an excellent discussion on these different labels, see Angel Rabasa, Cheryl Benard, Peter Chalk, C. Christian Fair, Theodore Karasik, Rollie Lal, Ian Lesser and David Thaler, The Muslim World After 9/11 (Santa Monica, California:  RAND, 2004).  Also see Peter Mandaville, Farish Noor, Alexander Horstmann, Dietrich Reetz, Ali Riaz, Animesh Roul, Noorhadi Hasan, Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Rommel C. Banlaoi and Joseph C. Liow, Transnational Islam in South and Southeast Asia:  Movements, Networks and Conflict Dynamics (Seatlle, Washington:  National Bureau of Asian Research, 2009).  For a very useful analysis of major ideological positions in Islam, see Cheryl Benard, Civil Democratic Islam:  Partners, Resources and Strategies  (Santa Monica, California:  RAND, 2003).  For a pre-9/11 discussion of the topic,  see Dilip Hiro, Islamic Fundamentalism (London:  Paladin Grafton Books, 1989); Chandra Muzaffar, Islamic Resurgence:  A Global View, Social Issues in Southeast Asia (Singapore:  Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1988); Lionel Caplan (ed), Studies in Religious Fundamentalism (Hongkong:  Macmillan Press, 1987); John L. Esposito, Islamic Revivalism in the Muslim World Today (Washington:  American Institute for Islamic Affairs, 1985); and, G.H. Jansen, Militant Islam (London:  Pan Book, Ltd, 1979).
[6] See Nazih Ayubi,  Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World (New  York: Routledge, 1991).
[7] Rabasa, et. al, The Muslim World After 9/11.  See also, ‘Salafi Islam’,
[8] Ibid.  Also see Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi,  A Short History of the Revivalist Movement in Islam  (Lahore: Islamic Publication Ltd., 1981).
[9] Singh, The Talibanization of Southeast Asia, p. 11.
[10] Ibid., p. 12.

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