Search Friday September 5, 2003

Philip Bowring: Behind the Hambali hype, tension rises
Southeast Asian anger
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Tuesday, August 19, 2003

HONG KONG: Governments in Southeast Asia have reason to be pleased by recent successes in arresting Islamic militants, notably Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, the supposed operations leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, an Islamic extremist group. But Hambali's importance may have been overplayed, and there is evident resentment across Southeast Asia at the United States assuming the role of "regional cop" and disregarding legal extradition procedures.

Talk of terrorism having been "decapitated" and the Australian prime minister's description of Hambali as the "mastermind" and "main link to Al Qaeda" appeal to those who like to believe there is some highly organized, Leninist-style structure at work in the region - a view that has been successfully peddled to the Western media by friendly intelligence sources ever since the Bali bombing. At the top, so the story goes, quietly sat the organization's ideologist, the Indonesian cleric Abu Bakr Bashir, while Hambali, chief operations officer and Al Qaeda's top man in Southeast Asia, contrived plots to be carried out by loyal foot soldiers, often trained at camps in the southern Philippines.

The reality is murkier, more amorphous. Far from being an organizational genius, Hambali had a mediocre terrorist track record in Malaysia. As the Bali bombing indicated, and the evidence of a convicted bomber, Amrozi, the groups linked to Jemaah Islamiyah are small, decentralized and not necessarily following a common cause. Amrozi seems to have been motivated as much by deep hostility to white foreigners as by commitment to the pan-Islamic state of Jemaah Islamiyah dreams. Earlier bombings in Indonesia were aimed at Indonesian Christians. Jemaah Islamiyah itself still seems more an umbrella for like-minded groups than an actual organization.

Elsewhere in the region, militancy predates Al Qaeda and the Afghanistan war. In the case of the Philippines, the main Muslim group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, remains focused on its local struggle for independence. The Philippine government's effort to get more U.S. aid by portraying the front as part of some vast conspiracy linked to Al Qaeda has been damaged by the claims of mutinous military officers that some "terrorist" bombs had been planted by the military itself. Any links between the front and Al Qaeda or Indonesian militants appear to have been mostly casual.

Any arrest of genuine terror plotters reduces the likelihood of further attacks. But the decentralized nature of the cells and the variety of motives and objectives behind them suggests that the arrest of Hambali, while important symbolically, will of itself do little to reduce regional threats.

Although various national agencies claimed a cooperative role in Hambali's capture, the fact that he has been spirited away to U.S. custody in a secret location has not been well received. Thai sources first announced that he had been extradited to Indonesia. In fact he should have gone either to Malaysia, which has been looking for him for longer than any other state, or to Indonesia, his home country, which has also been seeking him.

The U.S. claim on Hambali seems tenuous by comparison, and U.S. actions have been seen as an example of bullying and support of arbitrary and extralegal means. Hambali's removal from Thailand without due process was made easier by executive decrees issued Aug. 5 that give the Thai government sweeping new powers to bypass Parliament and the courts in the name of fighting terrorism. Civil rights groups, lawyers and opposition parliamentarians have attacked the decrees themselves as threats to civil liberties and the subservience shown to the United States over Hambali has been condemned as a violation of Thai sovereignty. If, as the Thai government says, he was planning an attack within Thailand, why was he not charged there?

While Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand may all have reasons for giving in to the United States, Hambali should be prosecuted fairly and openly in Southeast Asia, where his crimes were allegedly committed. As with Amrozi, a transparent trial in his own country would itself undermine the advocates of bombs. Locking him up and quite possibly torturing him in Guantánamo is more likely to add recruits to the tiny number of Southeast Asian Muslims whose militancy extends beyond local separatist issues such as Aceh and Mindanao.