International Herald Tribune
The fog of 'war on terror'
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

HONG KONG: On the face of it, the "war on terror" is going well in Southeast Asia. But in this murky world, intelligence and propaganda easily become interchangeable.

Meanwhile the much larger, bloodier problems of the Muslim separatist insurgency in southern Thailand and the Philippines continue.

The good news from Indonesia was the recent arrest of the alleged top two leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah. This was claimed to be a body blow to the organization, which is said to have been behind the Bali bombings in 2002 and the attacks on Western targets in Jakarta in 2003 and 2004.

Caution is needed, however. There are many Indonesians - including some in the government - who doubt that Jemaah Islamiyah is an organization with a structure, rather than a concept with which zealots are to varying degrees affiliated. Thus, while the arrest of dangerous individuals is a success, decapitating a headless movement would be of limited value.

In any event, there has not been a significant terrorist act against Western targets in Indonesia for two years, which could be variously attributed to good police work, public disgust at the violence, or the end of links between Islamic militants and those with different agendas.

National pride is a stronger force than religion in Indonesia. If anything gained sympathy for Jemaah Islamiyah it was not bombings, but the attempt to pin the Bali bombing on its supposed spiritual leader, Abdul Bakar Bashir. Though found guilty, his light sentence reflected widespread skepticism about his purported role.

Likewise the fact that another leading militant, known as Hambali, was whisked off to Guantánamo after being caught in Thailand in 2003, rather than being tried in Indonesia, rankles with Indonesians.

Sporadic violence will doubtless continue in Indonesia, including assassinations of Christians by Muslim zealots in regions of traditional communal friction. But it is seldom noted in the outside world that Indonesia's worst communal violence in recent years has been the massacres of Muslim migrants in Borneo by non-Muslim indigenous groups.

The other purported anti-terror "success" last week came from Singapore, where the authorities announced that between November 2006 and April 2007, five alleged militants had been detained under the Internal Security Act .

Four were said to be members of Jemaah Islamiyah. The fifth, a Singaporean Malay law lecturer, was said to have been converted to radicalism via the Internet and to have been planning to go to Afghanistan via Pakistan. The five were apparently detained elsewhere before being "rendered" to Singapore.

The problem with Singapore's claim is that it has a long history of Internal Security Act arrests - including journalists for well-known publications - accused of Marxist, "Euro-Communist" and other dubious conspiracies. Their release has sometimes been contingent on "confessions," some televised.

There have been no recent public confessions, but the authorities did say last week that five Islamists detained previously had been released on June 1 after being "successfully rehabilitated."

In the past, the government has shown an interest in playing up Communist threats. Now many local critics, as well as Malay neighbors, argue that Singapore maintains the sense of a Muslim threat in order to justify domestic oppression and to enhance Chinese solidarity.

The bottom line is that without open court appearances and a free media, one can only guess as to what extent terror cases are real, and to what extent they are a propaganda tool.

Singapore is not unique. In the West, agencies that combat terror are also often the ones that use misinformation either as a weapon against their opponents or in pursuit of some political objective.

As the Iraq war has shown, journalists with no independent means of confirming official assertions are easily led. The preference of supposedly law-abiding governments to lock up suspects rather than try them in open court merely thickens the fog of war.

Meanwhile the much bigger problem - that of Malay/Muslim southern Thailand - goes from bad to worse.

This is as much about ethnic and language differences as about religion, and has little to do with Jemaah Islamiyah or Al Qaeda. It has become a significant factor in Bangkok's turbulent domestic politics and has the potential to create very serious problems with Malaysia.

Killings have been multiplying, yet there is no sign of a group with which Bangkok can negotiate, or of any willingness on the part of a traditionally centralizing Bangkok to confer autonomy on the region.

The danger of escalation is not so much that the conflict will spawn jihadists, but that the militants will extend their reach from the south to Bangkok or Phuket, just as the IRA once extended its reach from Belfast to London.