- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Secretary of State Colin Powell returned Saturday from his tour of Southeast Asia, signaling the administration's concerns over a whole new breed of "Asian tigers." Since the Vietnam War, America has focused on trade with that region. But in the wake of September 11, America has been increasingly wary of a predatory element in the region: the international terrorist.

It's been a while since most Americans thought of killing fields in Southeast Asia, but it appears a new version of these could re-emerge. In Malaysia and Singapore, about 80 alleged terrorists have been arrested. A cell of the Jemaah Islamiya, which is affiliated with al Qaeda, was cracked in Singapore in January, but four tons of ammonium nitrate that the terrorists purchased has yet to be found. In January, police in the Philippines broke up a terrorist cell with explosives powerful enough to level a block of houses. And Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, two leaders of the September 11 hijackings, trained at a flight school north of Manila.

Mr. Powell's tour of the region, therefore, was well-conceived. Last Thursday, while in Brunei, Mr. Powell signed an anti-terror pact with his counterparts from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which groups Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Under the pact, these nations will share intelligence, block terrorist funds and tighten border control. China, Japan and South Korea will be integrated in the effort. Mr. Powell also pledged to give Indonesia $50 million in counter-terrorism aid.

Still, Mr. Powell may not have gotten all he hoped for. Vietnam and Indonesia objected to facilitating any new U.S.-troop deployment. These reservations probably prevented Mr. Powell from forging agreements on U.S. training of the region's forces, as America is presently doing in the Philippines. And policy-makers took pains to demonstrate their independence from Washington. "This is not a case of big brother United States imposing on ASEAN," said Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar. "This is something that both ASEAN and the United States want."

On paper, the U.S.-ASEAN pact covers the most vulnerable areas in Southeast Asia. Although there have been some instances of effective information-sharing between countries in the region, such as a tip-off from Singapore that led to the bust of a bomb-making cell in the Philippines in January, a lack of fluid coordination continues to be a problem. According to Zachary Abuza, who is writing a book on terrorism in the region, a culture of mistrust between countries' intelligence arms has hampered counter-terrorism efforts. Malaysia, which today is one of America's top anti-terror allies, for years alienated its neighbors by turning a blind eye to militant groups infiltrating the country.

America also low-balled the risk these groups pose. When Malaysia requested listening devices to monitor an al Qaeda meeting in January 2001, for example, the United States declined, and Malaysia could only take pictures of it, said Mr. Abuza. Furthermore, he said the CIA has had few people working in the region, and their ability to glean valuable information has been mediocre. "I've seen some intelligence reports that are passed on to the Philippines that really didn't have a lot of information," Mr. Abuza added.

Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has turned international coordination into an art form. Capitalizing on contacts made in Afghanistan during the jihad against the Soviet Union, al Qaeda succeeded in professionalizing and unifying disparate Islamic movements, said Mr. Abuza. Also, Pakistani madrassas, or Islamic schools, which thousands of Southeast Asians studied in, have been a launching pad for al Qaeda networking. In addition, al Qaeda has co-opted existing Islamic groups, many of which want to create a Pan-Islamic state, spanning Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the southern Philippines and Southern Thailand.

Therefore, Mr. Powell's presence was surely a comfort to the governments that are the target of terrorist ambitions. The Bush administration has become aware that its engagement in the region must transcend trade, and together with ASEAN, it is building a network to trap the region's skulking terrorists.

Still, much work remains.

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