- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

In the war on terror in Southeast Asia, the fight against Islamic insurgents in the Philippines is making progress, a campaign against Jemaah Islamiya in Indonesia has had some success but the outcome is far from certain, and a Muslim uprising in southern Thailand has that nation on the verge of crisis.

That’s the consensus of specialists gathered in Honolulu this week to address a conference of Asian and American leaders of special operations forces who are the tips of spears aimed at terrorist gangs. The audience included military officers, police officials, diplomats, and other government officials from the U.S., the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, India and 10 other Asian nations.

Most of the time, special operations forces, or SOFs, maneuver in the shadows as they seek to disrupt or dismantle terrorist bands. As part of the U.S. Pacific Command, American SOFs are trying to forge links with Asian SOFs to take the battle to terrorists who have ideological and financial ties to the al Qaeda alliance in the Middle East led by Osama bin Laden.

In recent years, said Rohan Gunaratna, who heads a Singaporean research center on terror, Saudi Arabia has financed much of the terror in Southeast Asia. Until 2003, funds went from the Saudis, supposedly U.S. allies, to al Qaeda and through Pakistan to Southeast Asia. After the Pakistan channel was disrupted, funds have been sent directly from Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Gunaratna said terrorists in Southeast Asia are increasingly driven by ideology, which calls for setting up an Islamic state centered on Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. It would include the southern Philippines, Malaysia, and southern Thailand, which have large Muslim populations. “Asian groups,” he said, “are becoming Arabized.”

In the Philippines, Mr. Gunaratna said, American SOFs have helped to train Filipino SOFs, to develop intelligence skills, and to select targets to dismantle terrorist networks. The Americans have also helped build roads, medical clinics and schools to encourage allegiance to the government in Manila.

The U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Kristie Kenney, was even more optimistic. “We are actually winning the war against terror in the Philippines,” she claimed.

Mr. Gunaratna said an Indonesian police Detachment 88 has had “significant successes against terrorist operational cells.” However, he said the political environment there is “permissive,” so “terrorists are able to rest, recover and strike back.” Terrorist training in Indonesia, he said, included instruction on how to avoid having communications tapped, how to break patterns of operational activity, and how to hide secret documents. A captured training manual also told terrorists how to spot disinformation and to prevent penetration of cells by police informers.

If things are going well in the Philippines and are hanging in the balance in Indonesia, they are rapidly falling apart in Thailand. Zachary Abuza, a scholar who analyzes Southeast Asian terror and who has just returned from nearly a year in Thailand, says the situation is “out of control.”

In southern Thailand, along the border with Malaysia, a large minority of Muslims contends that the Buddhist majority has oppressed them. The region is evidently ripe for insurgents who have adopted terrorist tactics to battle with Bangkok.

Mr. Abuza, who teaches at Boston’s Simmons College, said 2,200 persons have been killed in the last three years, over half of them fellow Muslims. Forty were beheaded in gruesome executions. Pipe bombs that earlier held 1 kilogram of explosive are now packed with 25 kilograms. Many Buddhists, including teachers who were seen an oppressors, have fled. “The level of violence is at a crisis point,” Mr. Abuza said.

Sidney Jones, of the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that keeps tabs in conflicts around the world, agreed. “Time is running out,” she said. “We could see a real explosion; we are right on the verge of that.”

Saudi Arabians have been funding the insurgents in Thailand, Mr. Abuza said. Jemaah Islamiya terrorists in Indonesia have been helping Thai Muslims but have not tried to take over their movement.

The Thai government has paralyzed been paralyzed by a lack of bureaucratic cooperation, Mr. Abuza said. After a military coup last September, the ruling council declared martial law, suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament, canceled elections and banned political activity. They have arrested 1,700 people but failed to stop the terror.

Maj. Gen. David Fridovich, who commands U.S. special operations forces in the Pacific, said America was ready to help the Thais. “But it’s for them to ask us.”

Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer based in Honolulu.

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