Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Understanding Terrorist Threats in Southeast Asia: Globalist, Regionalist and Nationalist Perspectives

By Rommel C. Banlaoi

Terrorism in Southeast Asia predated the seminal events of 9/11.    The region has confronted several local armed rebellions, which used terrorism as a favored tactic. Most of these armed rebellions were in the form of communist insurgencies, ethnic conflicts or wars of national liberation.[1]  In recent years, Southeast Asia has seriously encountered terrorist threats emanating from violent extremist Islamic groups.  

Several studies have shown that the current terrorist threats in Southeast Asia have evolved from a complex mix of indigenous and external origins that date back to the colonial era.[2]  From the existing scholarly literature, there are three basic approaches that attempt to explain the evolution and dynamics of terrorism in the region: the globalist, the regionalist and the nationalist perspectives.[3]

The globalist or the international terrorism approach traces the evolution of terrorism in Southeast Asia from the threat emanating from Al-Qaeda.[4]   This approach regards Al-Qaeda as the cornerstone of any meaningful analysis of terrorist threats in the region. It rests on “Al-Qaeda-centric paradigm” that strongly links terrorism in Southeast Asia with Osama bin Laden who provides the global leadership.    The Afghan War of the 1980s was the turning point in the formation of Al-Qaeda’s global network of terror that included Southeast Asia.

Rohan Gunaratna has been recognized as the foremost exponent of the globalist approach.  In his book, Inside Al-Al Qaeda, Gunaratna pinpoints Al-Qaeda as the determining factor in the emergence of new terrorism in Southeast Asia.[5] Gunaratna regards terrorist groups in Southeast Asia as integral parts of the global network of terror with Al-Qaeda as the hub.[6]  Maria Ressa may also be considered as a globalist when she highlights the role of Al-Qaeda in her analysis of terrorist threats in Southeast Asia.[7] Ressa even describes JI as the Al-Qaeda of Southeast Asia indicating her Al-Qaeda centered analysis.[8]

From the globalist perspective, in short, the evolution of terrorism in Southeast Asia can not be fully understood without a full grasp of Al-Qaeda’s origin and global expansion.[9]  Gunaratna argues that Al-Qaeda’s influence in Southeast Asia spread from the Philippines “where its network is long-standing, well-entrenched and extensive.”[10] Through the machinations of Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Al-Qaeda penetrated the region in the mid-1980s using the Philippines as a springboard and logistical center.  Gunaratna writes, “After establishing a logistics network in the Philippines from 1988-1993, Al-Qaeda launched Oplan Bojinka in 1994.”[11]  It is believed that Oplan Bojinka provided the blueprint for 9/11.  Ressa will echo this view in her writings.

The regionalist or regional security perspective, on the other hand, regards the evolution of terrorism in Southeast Asia as part and parcel of the evolution and development of JI.  Though JI has established global links with Al-Qaeda in the 1990s, the regionalist approach regards JI as “home grown” that pre-dated Al-Qaeda and 9/11.  Southeast Asian rebels founded JI long before Al-Qaeda reached the region.  JI emerged in Southeast Asia not because of Al-Qaeda’s global plan but in response to regional conditions and local grievances that existed even before Al-Qaeda was formed.  In other words, JI, with its vision of Pan-Islamism in Southeast Asia, has evolution and dynamics of its own separate from Al-Qaeda.   The regionalist approach in Southeast Asian terrorism studies is therefore JI-oriented rather than Al-Qaeda-centered.

The well-known disciple of regionalist approach is Zachary Abuza who adopts a more JI-oriented paradigm in grappling with the evolution and development of terrorism in Southeast Asia.  In his book, Militant Islam in Southeast Asia:  Crucible of Terror, Abuza explains that terrorist groups in Southeast Asia are indeed homegrown but “have effectively linked up with transnational organizations like Al-Qaeda.”[12]  The hub of terrorist groups in Southeast Asia is JI and not Al-Qaeda.  However, Abuza also carries a globalist tone when he asserts that “JI must be seen as an integral part of Al-Qaeda.”[13]  Indeed, it was through JI when Al-Qaeda expanded its network in Southeast Asia.[14]  Understanding terrorism in Southeast Asia, therefore, requires a comprehension of JI origin, ideology and organizational dynamics.[15]
Finally, the nationalist approach or country studies perspective is challenging the Al-Qaeda-centric and JI-oriented paradigms in Southeast Asian terrorism studies.  It contends that terrorism in Southeast Asia can be best understood by analyzing the underlying domestic conditions and national state failures that provide fertile environments for the emergence of terrorism.  This approach regards terrorism as a symptom of state failure to address the domestic roots of various armed rebellions in the region. 

Sydney Jones and Kit Collier[16] are staunch advocates of the nationalist or country studies approach.[17]   They pay attention to “local realities, not externally imposed organigrams.”[18] Collier, for example, underscores that JI is “not an integral part of Al-Qaeda” but its roots “are thoroughly Indonesian” with the ultimate objective of establishing an Islamic state in Indonesia.[19]   Collier also argues that terrorist and insurgent groups in Southeast Asia “resemble bundles of personal associations more than integral corporate bodies.”[20]  Their ties to Al-Qaeda “are incarnate in individual associations, not bureaucratic flow charts.”[21] 

John T. Sidel may also be categorized in the third approach when he offers an “alternative” and more “country specific” perspective in analyzing Islamist terrorist threats in Southeast Asia.  He vehemently rejects the alarmist views of the globalist and the regionalist for being exaggerated and fundamentally misleading. [22]  He presents a “more balanced, nuanced, and properly contextualized analysis” of terrorism situation in Southeast Asia by paying attention to local conditions rather than external influence.[23]   Sidel examines terrorist threats in Southeast Asia in the context of domestic dynamics in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. Sidel contends that the turn towards terrorist violence by Islamist militants in Southeast Asia must be understood as “a symptom of and reaction to the decline, domestication, and disentanglement from state power of Islamist forces in the region.”[24]  In his study of Indonesia, Sidel argues that the recent terrorist bombings in Indonesia is not a product of external influences but as a result of domestic conditions and a recurring theme in Indonesian history.[25] 

Greg Barton may also belong to the third category of terrorism scholars in Southeast Asia when he examines JI as a manifestation of radical Islamism in Indonesia.[26]  Drawing from the research outputs of Sidney Jones, Barton presents the indigenous origins of JI as an Indonesian-based movement that spills-over to neighboring countries in Archipelagic Southeast Asia.  He underscores that JI is not simply an imported problem but part of the continuation of the DI struggle of the 1950s.[27]

[This piece is taken from Rommel C. Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures in Southeast Asia:  How Effective Are They? (Manila: Yuchengco Center, 2009)].
[1] Andrew T.H. Tan, “Terrorism and Insurgency in Southeast Asia” in Andrew T.H. Tan (ed), A Handbook of Terrorism and Insurgency in Southeast Asia (Great Britain and Massachusetts:  Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc., 2007), p. 5.
[2]Ibid.  Also see Linell Cady and Sheldon Simon (eds),
Religion and Conflicts in South and Southeast Asia:  Disrupting Violence
(London and New York:  Routledge, 2007); David Martin Jones and Mike Lawrence Smith, “From Konfrontasi to Disintegrasi:  ASEAN and the Rise of Islamism in Southeast Asia,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 25 (2002), pp. 343-356;  S. Yunanto,, Militant Islamic Movements in Indonesia and Southeast Asia (Jakarta:  Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, 2003); and Andrew T.H. Tan, “Armed Muslim Separatist Rebellion in Southeast Asia:  Persistence, Prospects and Implications”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 23, No. 4 (January 2000), pp. 267-288.
[3] Carlyle Thayer popularized these three perspectives.  See Carlyle Thayer, “New Terrorism in Southeast Asia” in Damien Kingburry (ed), Violence in Between:  Conflict and Security in Archipelagic Southeast Asia (Victoria and Singapore:  Monash University Press and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005), pp. 53-74.
[4] For a good reference on Al-Qaeda, see Jane Corbin, Al-Qaeda:  The Terror Network That Threatens the World  (New York:  Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002).
[5] Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). 
[6] In my various conversations with Rohan Gunaratna from 2005-2008,  he underscores the role of Al-Qaeda in understanding terrorist threats in Southeast Asia.
[7] Maria Ressa, Seeds of Terror:  An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia (New York and London: Free Press, 2003).
[8] In my conversion with Maria Ressa on May 30, 2009 in Singapore, she admits that she is a globalist for focusing her analysis on Al-Qaeda.
[9] For excellent discussions of Al-Qaeda’s global expansion, see Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda:  Casting a Shadow of Terror (London:  IB Tauris, 2003). Also see Jane Corbin, Al-Qaeda:  The Terror Network that Threatens the World (London and New York: Simon and Schuster and Nation Books, 2002).
[10]Gunaratna, Inside Al-Qaeda., p. 175.
[11] Ibid.
[12]Zachary Abuza, Militant Islam in Southeast Asia:  Crucible of Terror (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2003), p. 1.
[13] Zachary Abuza, “Understanding Al-Qaeda and its Network in Southeast Asia” in Kumar Ramakrishna and See Seng Tan (eds), After Bali: The Threat of Terrorism in Southeast Asia (Singapore:  Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies and World Scientific Publishing, Co., Pte. Ltd., 2003), p. 144.
[14]For more discussions on this topic, see Zachary Abuza, “Tentacles of Terror:  Al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian Network”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol. 24, no. 3 (December 2002), pp. 427-465.
[15] My interactions with Zachary Abuza on April 12-13, 2006 revealed his JI-centered analysis. See International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research,  Terrorism in Southeast Asia:  Threat and Response (Singapore:  Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies and the Office of the Coordinator for Counter Terrorism, US Department of State, 12-13 April 2006).
[16] My meeting with Kit Collier in March 2009 in Quezon City showed his great interests on country-study approach.
[17] Sidney Jones is the project director of various studies made by the International Crisis Group (ICG) on terrorism in Southeast Asia. See ICG Website at  Also see Sidney Jones, “The Changing Nature of Jemaah Islamiyah”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 59, no. 2 (June 2005), pp. 169-178.    Kit Collier, on the other  hand, was also a consultant to the ICG and a research fellow at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University.  He is regarded as one of Australia’s country studies specialists on the Southern Philippines.
See Kit Collier, “Dynamics of Muslim Separatism in the Philippines”, in Kingsbury (ed), Violence in Between, pp. 155-174.
[18]Kit Collier, “Terrorism:  Evolving Regional Alliances and State Failure in Mindanao” in Daljit Singh and Lorraine C. Salazar (eds), Southeast Asian Affairs 2006 (Singapore:  Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2006), p.27.
[19] Ibid., p. 33.
[20] Ibid., p. 34.
[21] Ibid, p. 33.
[22] John T. Sidel, The Islamist Threat in Southeast Asia: A Reassessment (Washington DC and Singapore:  East West Center Washington and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007), p. x.
[23]Ibid., p. 3.
[24] Ibid., p. 54.
[25] John T. Sidel, “It is not Getting Worse:  Terrorism in Declining in Asia”, Global Asia, vol. 2, no. 3 (Winter 2007), pp. 41-49.
[26] Greg Barton, Jemaah Islamiyah:  Radical Islamism in Indonesia (Singapore:  Singapore University Press, 2004).
[27]Ibid., p. 77.

No comments:

Post a Comment