Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Second Front

While the main focus of public attention has been on Iraq, the Congressional Research Service's Terrorism in Southeast (its an older version of the newest report a copy of which I can't find on the Web) reminds us the second front against terrorism is in Southeast Asia particularly "the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore".

Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States has considered Southeast Asia to be a “second front” in its global campaign against Islamist terrorism. ... Since the early-to-mid 1990s the Al Qaeda terrorist network has made significant inroads into the region. Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian operatives -- who have been primarily of Middle Eastern origin — appear to have performed three primary tasks. First, they set up local cells, predominantly headed by Arab members of Al Qaeda, that served as regional offices supporting the network’s global operations. ... Second, over time, Al Qaeda Southeast Asian operatives helped create what may be Southeast Asia’s first indigenous regional terrorist network, Jemaah Islamiyah ... Third, Al Qaeda’s local cells worked to cooperate with indigenous radical Islamic groups by providing them with money and training.

The stakes on the second front are considerable. "By 2002, according to one prominent expert on Al Qaeda, roughly one-fifth of Al Qaeda’s organizational strength was centered in Southeast Asia." Most of the agitational activity has been carried out through Saudi funded madrassas, of which the pesantrens which largely hatched the Jemaah Islamiyah are are archetypical. At stake is what Ralph Peters called the "future of Islam".

We have been looking in the wrong direction, because that is where we have been conditioned to look. ... Our focus on the Middle East has been so exclusive that we have come to see Islam largely through an Arab prism. ... In terms both of population density and potential productivity, wealth, and power, Islam’s center of gravity lies to the east of Afghanistan, not to the west. The world’s most populous “Muslim” countries stretch far to the east of the Indus River: Indonesia, India, Bangladesh . . . Pakistan . . . and other regional states, such as Malaysia, make this the real cockpit of crisis.

Whatever the military gains in the area, "public diplomacy" still leaves much to be desired. The CRS report notes that "the United States’ popularity amongst Indonesians has dropped significantly in recent years. According to polling data, 79% of Indonesians had a favorableopinion of the United States in 1999, 61% did in 2002, and only 15% did in 2003. Another poll stated that 83% of Indonesians took an unfavorable view of the United States in 2003." Leftist pressure groups in the Philippines have effectively prevented the United States from training that country's army to the fullest or even an adequate extent. Whatever may be said of the "second front", it is not won. In subsequent posts, I hope to sketch out who the players are and what the dynamic of the struggle consists of.