AsiaWATCH — When hijackers crashed into the World Trade Center, their primary hope was to inspire a global jihad. Luke Hunt reports.
Under Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organisation Muslims were expected to rise up and support the agenda.
That included an Islamic caliphate covering much of Southeast Asia to be established under local affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) with Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir at the helm.
He had been piecing JI together with Abdullah Sungkar, who died two years earlier, and was already proven in the art of terrorist tactics _ wanted in connection to simultaneous church bombings across Indonesia on Christmas eve in 2000, and strikes on the country’s stock exchange.
Bashir bowed to bin Laden while Riduan Isamuddin _ popularly known as Hambali _ won a seat on al Qaeda’s leadership council based in Afghanistan. The strikes on New York and Washington by 19 hijackers, nearly all from Saudi Arabia, were a cause for celebration.
In a post 9/11 world, the JI leadership set about asserting their demands through bombing campaigns which scared the daylights out of ordinary people. The impact was felt at every level of society.
A counter-terrorism industry was spawned. Biometric access control systems became the norm, with private military contractors, advisers and guards bolstering security at government buildings and airports where tight travel restrictions became the bane of everyday travellers.
Refugee flows also changed after the US led the “Coalition of the Willing” invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia became the transit hubs for thousands of people fleeing war zones to countries such as Australia.
Perceptions of Islam were harshly altered and the “war on terror” provided an excuse for paranoid governments to crack down on any perceived threats, often with US support.
Kamarulnizam Abdullah, associate professor of strategic studies and international relations at Malaysia’s Kebangsaan University, said 9/11 served as a wake-up call for policy makers in the US, forcing them to refocus on Southeast Asia.
“Previously, Southeast Asia was neglected by policy makers,” he told Spectrum.
He said Muslim majority countries like Indonesia and Malaysia had to weigh up their foreign policy needs and an alignment with the US against the demands of a domestic politics where Washington and its Western allies had long been vilified as enemies of Islam.
Indonesia was slow to respond. But that changed as the JI bombing campaigns intensified with the massive suicide attacks of Oct 12, 2002, on tourist bars and restaurants on the popular Indonesian island of Bali, that left 202 people dead.
US and Australian advisers were dispatched to Indonesia and the Americans significantly expanded their reach in the southern Philippines where JI had established bases and forged a close relationship with the cutthroat Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf) which had spent decades fighting for an independent homeland.
In Cambodia, a dramatic reappraisal of relations with the local Muslim community was launched after it was discovered that Hambali _ mastermind of the Bali bombings _ had found sanctuary there among the normally moderate ethnic Chams who were converting to Wahhabism.
Wahhabism, which counted bin Laden among its adherents, was introduced by firebrand missionaries from Saudi Arabia through charities that arrived after Cambodia’s civil wars drew to a close in 1998.
Chhorn Eam, the Cambodian deputy minister for cults and religions, said relations had since normalised and Chams were free to study in Saudi Arabia where they learn Arabic and how to recite the Koran.
“Some come back with different beliefs such as using a piece of cloth to cover their face,” he said, adding concerns remain. “What we are worried is that they might bring something that would cause problems in general society and their communities.”
Hambali was eventually captured across the border in Thailand. But in the country’s South near the Malaysian border a Muslim separatist rebellion was launched in January 2004 which the authorities in Bangkok have struggled to quell and has so far cost the lives of more than 4,700 people.
Mr Abdullah said rebels in southern Thailand were of a similar ilk to the Milf as they were fighting for an independence that was wrapped up in Islam, alongside political rights and a sense of ethnic pride and this was providing the authorities with another set of issues.
In countries like Malaysia _ where JI was founded by Indonesian fugitives and exiles _ Indonesia and Singapore, the use of internal security acts and controversial detention powers had enabled the authorities to weed out terror cells and substantially reduce JI’s ability to network, he said.
“Terror attacks were like a mirror of Islam in Asia,” Mr Abdullah said.
Throughout Southeast Asia, mosques were divided between the moderates and those that became venues for the fiery orators _ Islamic militants and their students who openly supported, funded and carried out a jihad against all things Western.
Mohan Malik, professor of Asian security at the Asian-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu, said the US had endured setbacks in countries like Pakistan, which has been transformed from an ally to a battleground in the war on terror and this was also reshaping relations with India and China.
“In terms of the impact of 9/11 on Southeast Asia, I think old insurgences and separatist movements in southern Thailand, southern Philippines and Aceh were all clubbed with terrorist organisations and they suffered a major setback.
“Indonesia’s government was forced to act against JI and that was a positive development for Indonesia and others in the region,” Mr Malik said.
Rogue mosques came under the spotlight in Indonesia, where the counter-terrorism squad Densus 88 was established. During a second Bali bombing in 2005 Malaysian bomb-maker Azahari Husin was killed by US-trained anti-terror police, just as splinters began to emerge within JI’s ranks.
Hard-liners were rebuked by the moderates who claimed too many Muslims were dying. As a result Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) was formed by Abu Bakar Bashir and according to the International Crisis Group it quickly became an important player in the Indonesian jihad network.
However, the regional crackdown was gaining in pace. Hambali was moved to Guantanamo Bay. Imam Samudra, Amrozi Nurhasyim and Huda bin Abdul Haq were executed by firing squad in 2008 for carrying out the first Bali attacks.
Malaysian bomber Noordin Mohammed Top exited JI and began his own strikes that included the July 2009 suicide bombings of luxury hotels in Jakarta. This was widely seen as revenge for the execution of Amrozi and his cohorts.
Soon after, Top was shot dead by police on Java.
In a bid to galvanise themselves, hard-line remnants of JI and an assortment of other outfits regrouped at a training camp in the mountains of Aceh early last year _ among them was JI’s senior leader Umar Patek _ where the next wave of attacks and assassinations were mapped out. But there was a leak.
Another 100 alleged terrorists were captured or killed after that initial meeting including Dulmatin, another Bali bomber. Bashir was then jailed for 15 years and Patek was captured in Pakistan in January. He was living close to bin Laden in Abbottabad who was shot dead in early May.
Security analyst Gavin Greenwood from the Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates echoed Mr Malik’s sentiments, saying US military and intelligence priorities in the region had taken priority, however, this was at the expense of wider US national diplomatic interests.
“The globalisation of local conflicts _ by this I mean the domestic insurgencies in the Philippines and Thailand though interestingly not Burma _ became absorbed into the US war on terror rather than remaining discrete and largely autonomous conflicts,” he said.
“The US has often chosen to ignore or brush aside its previous standards on countries’ human rights records. Indonesia is the best case in point,” he said.
Ten years after 9/11, America’s standing in Southeast Asia remains a thorny issue which Mr Greenwood said had been compromised among the wider population for its support of repressive regimes whose principal concerns are the maintenance of their own privileges, status and wealth.
“This association historically fuels anti-American sentiments among a broad section of society that otherwise may be expected to have seen the US as a source of support rather than a prop for unpopular or inept regimes.”
Of more concern to Mr Abdullah is rooting out remaining jihadists and the rehabilitation of past offenders.
Despite success, no one believes the era of bloody Islamic militant campaigns is over. Cells have become smaller, harder to detect and focused on local targets.
Indonesian police stations have come under attack as a result.
Fanaticism and militancy, driven by ideology remain with radicalisation of prison inmates a continuing sore point. The Abu Sayyaf are far from spent and strife in Thailand’s South continues unabated.
“Tackling religious radicalism not only requires tremendous regional concerted efforts but most importantly the right strategies and programs for rehabilitation process,” Mr Abdullah said.
Malaysia has been at the forefront of rehabilitation and occasionally fallen foul of its neighbours who view such a process as soft. But Mr Abdullah said radical behaviour, militant perceptions and attitudes had to be changed with former militants embracing mainstream values.
“Since 2005, 75 former militants associated with regional terrorist groups such as JI and even al-Qaeda underwent psychological healing processes,” he said. “The government claims that none of those former detainees … returned to terrorist activities.”
Malaysia may have found a way forward, but rehabilitation of offenders is unlikely to get a wider hearing given the success of Indonesia’s much harsher approach and lingering anger over the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians that followed 9/11.
The impact of the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington are still being felt across Southeast Asia a decade later. The bloody insurgencies that came in the aftermath still resonate and final closure still has some way to go.