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Changing terrorism scene brings new risks to Southeast Asia

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During the six-year war on terror, the threat in Southeast Asia has become more diffused and more difficult to combat. Senior al-Qaeda commanders have been killed including its leader Osama bin Laden.  Suicide bombings have become a more frequent occurrence in more countries.  Attacks on tourists have become more widespread.  And, in the Philippines, a new offshoot of militants has made an already complicated array of terrorist groups more complex.

Experts say the al-Qaeda network in Southeast Asia has been weakened by the loss of so many of its leadership cadre.  The terrorist network no longer has the organizational clout it once had, but it continues to provide ideological direction to the young, radical elements in Muslim communities.

Analysts say al-Qaeda keeps the loyalty of several local and regional Islamist militant groups by providing them with finances, training and counseling in target selection. But its support is more diverse now than it has been.  It has regional affiliations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines; Jemmah Islamiyah and Lashkar Jundullah in Indonesia; Kumpulan Mujahidin in Malaysia; and Jemmah Salafiyah in Thailand.  No affiliation appears to be preeminent, and ties with local groups often wax and wane. 

In the Philippines, even without any known al-Qaeda affiliation, a relatively new Muslim militant group has risen to prominence.  Many analysts think that it poses a major security threat to the island nation.  The Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM) is comprised of Filipinos who worked in the Middle East and later converted to Islam.  The group has known links to Jemaah Islamiyah and adds a new element to the diverse landscape of terror groups.

RSM emerged in 2002 from a loose association of converts who call themselves Balik-Islam -- literally, return to Islam.  Concentrated in Manila and northern Luzon, many of its members converted to Islam while employed as overseas workers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

The group has been charged with plotting to bomb high-profile targets, including the U.S. Embassy, and of assisting Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah.  A recent report points out that both JI and Abu Sayyaf are trying to boost their ties with RSM after MILF moved to sever relationships with foreign militants and begin peace talks with the government.  This adds still another wrinkle to the shifting picture of terrorism in the Philippines.

The militant converts also benefit from a wider network of support, including experienced left-wing activists who have moved to the Balik-Islam cause since the splintering of the Philippines’ Communist Party in the early 1990s.  Although the activists do not share RSM’s agenda, they see opportunities for organizing based around perceived injustices of Manila’s urban counter-terror campaign.

The threat of terrorism remains significant in the Philippines and throughout Southeast Asia.  Today, al-Qaeda is less centralized than it was, but the roster of assorted terror groups continues to present a more diffused and thereby greater danger.  Each group may have its own specific goal or aim, but together they share the common rallying call that Islam is under attack by the West, and Muslims must protect their faith and culture.

Governments throughout the region must enlist the support of educational and religious institutions and other influential leaders to build a norm and an ethic against the use and misuse of religion for political purposes.  As the terrorism scene in Southeast Asia becomes more diverse and diffused, it is imperative for local governments to adopt policies that attack the causes that make terrorism possible.

By Menardo Wenceslao




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