An “Indirect” Strategy for Trumping Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia”


By Kumar Ramakrishna


Now that the American campaign against Al Qaeda and its Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan is all but over, intelligence analysts are focusing on Southeast Asia as the next theatre in the global war against terrorism.  In this respect Rohan Gunaratna, a well-known terrorism expert based at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, has argued that, since the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, the center of gravity of terrorism has shifted from the Middle East to Asia.[1]  Moreover, following the security crackdown by U.S. and European governments in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Western intelligence analysts believe that Al-Qaeda operatives have been seeking refuge in Southeast Asia, a region notorious for its porous borders, large populations of urban and rural poor, and armed extremist groups, both Muslim and non-Muslim.  This ominous assessment has been vindicated recently as regional governments   confirmed that clandestine radical Islamic groups such as Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM) and Jemaah Islamiah (JI) were plotting to carry out terror attacks within the region.  It has been reported that JI, which operates in Singapore, Malaysia Indonesia and the Philippines, and KMM, which focuses on Malaysia and Indonesia, have close links as well.[2]  More worryingly, it has also been confirmed that, apart from its long-established links with the Filipino radical groups Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Al-Qaeda has also had  direct links with JI and provided support to the Indonesian extremist group Laskar Jihad in its battles with Christians in Poso, central Sulawesi in late 2001.[3]


This paper argues that to root out the terrorist network within Southeast Asia requires first of all a correct understanding of this so-called “new kind of war”.  In short, the war against terrorism must be understood as an ideological and political war for the hearts and minds of the borderless, transnational Muslim nation, or ummah. Hence, instead of pursuing a predominantly military approach to wiping out Al Qaeda cells worldwide, military power must be carefully controlled and ideological and political measures emphasized.  Following Andre Beaufre, the great French strategist, we may say that we have to use an indirect strategy against Al-Qaeda if we want to defeat it.


Deconstructing the “New Terrorism”


As is now known, Al-Qaeda’s political objective is to set up Islamic states committed to the unequivocal observance of Sharia law in Muslim lands from the Middle East to Southeast Asia.  It intends to do so by first deposing moderate Muslim governments, and this in turn requires eliminating the American support that helps sustain such regimes.  It is against this wider political background that we must examine more carefully the so-called “new terrorism” and discern what is indeed “new” and what isn’t.  In this respect, it must be noted that in military-strategic terms, Al-Qaeda is waging a guerrilla war against the West and in particular the United States.  This guerrilla war has a transnational character and is not confined to any particular state because the constituency which bin Laden seeks to win the support of is not a specific Muslim population but rather the 1.2 billion-strong Muslim ummah or nation, which transcends state and ethnic boundaries.  However it must be emphasized that while this transnational guerrilla war may be quite unlike a conventional geographically delimited guerrilla conflict as theorized by Mao and Giap, it nevertheless remains in essence a guerrilla war: like Vo Nguyen Giap before him, Osama bin Laden knows that he cannot engage American forces directly as he does not have the military strength to do so.  Hence, like Giap, he intends to defeat America by targeting not its military might but rather what he perceives to be its critical vulnerability or soft underbelly: the American public.  However, while bin Laden and Giap shared similar views about what Clausewitz called the “centre of gravity” of the United States, there is a critical difference between the operational strategies both used to target this weak spot, as we shall shortly see. 


While the essence of the Al-Qaeda strategy of avoiding strength and attacking weakness is familiar enough, there are nonetheless precisely three features of the terrorism it employs which can be considered as novel: the enhanced capacity of the terrorists to plan and carry out attacks; the increased vulnerability of modern societies to terrorist strikes; and the religious-ideological motivation of the terrorists.   The first two characteristics of the new terrorism are a direct consequence of globalization – what Anthony McGrew calls the “multiplicity of linkages and interconnections between the states and societies which make up the modern world system”.[4]   Globalization has augmented terrorist capabilities in several ways.    First, the rapid proliferation and decreasing cost of communications technology such as satellite telephones, email and faxes have enabled terrorist organizations to control and co-ordinate their operational activities more efficiently than before.  Second, satellite television channels such as CNN and Al-Jazeera in Qatar not merely enable terrorist groups to evaluate the political and economic impact of their violent acts, they also help terrorists closely monitor the government policies and strategies formulated in response, thereby providing them with the opportunity to keep one step ahead of the authorities.  For example, because reports of the plans of American law enforcement agencies to adopt racial profiling of terrorists circulated quickly round the globe, it would seem that Al-Qaeda may simply resort to using non-Arabs for future strikes on American soil and at American targets.[5]  Third, globalization processes also enable terrorist groups to secure the liquidity needed to sustain their operations.  For instance, the Internet enables terrorist organizations to arrange funds transfers around the world far more efficiently than before, while also expediting the traditional clan-based hawala system of moving money between countries, a practice still found in Middle Eastern and Asian societies.  The illicit sale on global markets of drugs and diamonds is similarly facilitated.  In fact Michael T. Klare has observed that modern terrorist organizations, in opening offshore banking accounts, establishing foreign offices, transmitting instructions via fax and satellite phones, and wiring monies across borders, resemble conventional multinational firms.[6]  Fourth, globalization processes have also enhanced access to weaponry and technical expertise.  Using state-of-the-art encryption technology, terrorists can make secure on-line purchases of explosives as well as small arms such as rifles, machine guns, land mines, man-portable antitank weapons, light mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).  In addition, through accessing the voluminous information available on the World Wide Web, terrorists can plan effective operations involving ‘kidnapping, bomb making and assassination’.[7]  


Globalization has also enhanced the vulnerability of modern societies to the new terrorism in two ways.  First, states have increasingly porous borders.  People movements in and out of countries in recent decades have been greatly facilitated by the increasing convenience and affordability of air travel, and this has had direct implications for the current conflict with Al-Qaeda:  on the one hand, Muslim diaspora communities incorporating small but significant minorities of radical elements have sprung up in America and European countries.  Moreover, in the case of the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the movement of thousands of radical Muslims between these regions and the centers of radical Islamic teaching in South Asia both during and after the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, have resulted in the exposure of scores of moderate Muslims from Morocco to the Philippines to radical Islamic ideas.  Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that the Internet also contributes to the ideological permeability of modern societies, as the tenets of radical Islamic thinking can be disseminated effortlessly across national boundaries via cyberspace.  Apart from what James Rosenau once called the “penetrated” nature of the modern state, moreover, globalization processes have rendered modern societies extremely vulnerable to the new terrorism in another critical way.  As Thomas Homer-Dixon has argued, a modern state represents not merely an extremely complex and densely packed network of cities, highways, railways, airports, and power grids, but more importantly, a “tightly coupled, very unstable, and highly nonlinear psychological network”.  This network is wired together tightly by “Internet connections, satellite signals, fiber-optic cables, talk radio, and 24-hour television news”.  These tight interconnections greatly expedited the rapid outward spread of the shock of the 11 September attacks.  Consequently, Al-Qaeda’s strikes had their “biggest impact” on the “collective psychology” of Americans and their “subjective feelings of safety and security”.  In other words, the complex psychic network that makes up modern societies “acts like a huge megaphone, vastly amplifying the emotional impact of terrorism”.[8]   Because Al-Qaeda, as we have seen, seeks to attack the will of the American public, this novel feature of modern globalized societies significantly enhances its potential impact.


Apart from the enhanced capacity of latter-day terrorist organizations to wreak havoc, and the increased vulnerability of modern societies to such attacks, a third novel characteristic of the new terrorism is its religious-ideological content.  As David Rapoport argues, we are witnessing the “fourth wave” of terrorism.  While terrorist groups in the first wave, which lasted from the 1880s to the 1920s, sought political and civil reforms within authoritarian political systems like Czarist Russia, the second wave which encompassed the 1920s to the 1960s was characterized by terrorist organizations like the Irish Republican Army and Irgun in Palestine, seeking national self-determination and freedom from colonial domination.  Like the first and second waves which overlapped, the latter wave also intersected to a degree with the third wave of terrorism in the 1970s, which was defined by left-wing revolutionary organizations such as the Red Brigades and the Japanese Red Army faction, which saw themselves as vanguards for the Third World masses.  Following the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan ten years later, however, it appeared that “religion now provided more hope than the prevailing revolutionary ethos did”.[9]   In this context, what Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin call “religiously motivated terrorism”, appears to characterize the latest wave of terror.[10]  


Apart from the religious-ideological source of motivation, the new terrorism is quite unlike the previous waves of terrorism in its willingness to perpetrate mass casualties and indiscriminating terror.  Previous terrorist organizations, whether motivated by political, nationalist anti-colonial, or revolutionary goals, were careful to refrain from indiscriminate attacks on civilians, precisely because they recognized that ultimately, they needed popular support to attain their political aims.  In this respect, although Vo Nguyen Giap, like bin Laden today, sought to achieve his political aims within South Vietnam by undermining American public support, nevertheless, he did not try to break the resolve of the American people by sponsoring mass-casualty terror attacks on them directly.  Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, because it is ideologically predisposed to see all Americans, civilian and combatant alike, as infidels, seems to have little compunction in targeting noncombatants.  Moreover, the messianic orientation of the Al-Qaeda leadership appears to explain their lack of discrete, negotiable political demands apart from the stated intent to eliminate Western and American influence from Muslim lands as a prelude to setting up truly Islamic governments.  Hence, as Simon and Benjamin argue, the worrying new characteristic of the new, religiously-motivated terrorism is “the absence of a plausible political agenda” which is correlated with the “increased lethality of attacks” due to the “absence of constraints on violence”.[11]  This lack of concern for mass civilian casualties is one key reason why the horrific 11 September strikes were mounted.  Nevertheless, despite a messianic, primordial hatred of infidels that justifies the use of virtually unlimited force against them, bin Laden remains an experienced commander who possesses considerable operational experience from the Afghan jihad against the Soviets.  In this context, bin Laden, judging the American public to be unwilling to bear major sacrifice – an assessment which he appears to have arrived at as a consequence of President Clinton’s decision to withdraw US forces from Somalia in 1993 following the combat deaths of 18 servicemen – is likely to also want to generate very high levels of fear and anxiety amongst the American public in the belief that at some point in the campaign – probably after another series of spectacular mass-casualty strikes - the people will compel the American government to disengage from the Muslim world.  The desire to directly target and break the will of the American people by employing extra-normal means of destruction against them is also precisely why Al-Qaeda has sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD).


The Real Challenge: Killing a Hydra


In sum, while the essence of the Al-Qaeda terrorist strategy of avoiding American strength and hitting American weakness is in fact familiar to us, the enhanced capacity of terrorists to rain death and destruction on societies, the increasingly pronounced vulnerability of such societies to such attacks, and the messianic religious-ideological zeal of the terrorists and their predisposition to mass-casualty terrorism, are what makes this phenomenon quite distinct from previous terror waves.  It would seem that while a great deal of action can and should be taken to blunt the offensive potential of Al-Qaeda, as well as improve homeland security, these measures in and of themselves are unlikely to eliminate the existential Al-Qaeda threat.  Even if the Coalition succeeds in disrupting Al-Qaeda cells across the world; even if the transnational terrorist funding flows are interdicted, and even if radical Muslims are somehow denied capabilities to produce and deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the threat would not necessarily be eradicated. Globalization has expedited what Thomas Friedman calls the “democratization” of finance, technology, and information. Consequently a fanatically-determined radical Islamic core that is scattered throughout the world — but leveraging on communications technology to coordinate activities and manpower movement —can, over time, generate new cells, reconstruct disrupted logistics and funding networks while clandestinely restoring access to WMD capabilities.


The basic problem is that as long as sizable pockets of disgruntled, anti-American young Muslims remain in countries from Nigeria to the Philippines, there will always be a radical Islamic movement posing an existential threat to Western and especially U.S. interests. For this reason, Robert A. Levine is absolutely correct in characterizing Al-Qaeda as a “living organism that generates new cells as old ones die,”[12] while Duncan Campbell rightly compares the network to a “many-headed hydra.”[13]  It should not be forgotten that while most Muslim governments supported the Coalition’s air campaign against the Taliban, which began on October 7, 2001, considerable disquiet was still palpable among Muslims in both the Middle East and Southeast Asia. To wit, in Malaysia, PAS called on Malaysian Muslims to wage a jihad against the U.S,[14] while Jakarta was hit by waves of anti-American demonstrations.[15]  Hence, if after Afghanistan additional military campaigns are undertaken elsewhere in the Muslim world— accompanied by more civilian deaths, however collateral — the potential remains for significant Muslim unrest in Southeast Asia. Hence Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s comment soon after September 11 retains its prescience: victory over the radical Islamic threat in general and in Southeast Asia in particular will ultimately require the West to “drain the swamp” of disgruntled, anti-Western Muslims. The West needs to kill the radical Islamic hydra, not interminably snip at its many heads.


But How Do we Drain the Swamp, Exactly?


If we accept that the real key to this war against the new terrorism requires killing the radical Islamic hydra, it follows that questions of reducing homeland vulnerability, improving Coalition intelligence-sharing, planning of military operations, maintaining the multinational diplomatic momentum against terror and drying up Al-Qaeda finance, while important, are in reality second-order issues.  The first-order questions relate to what strategies are needed to drain the swamp of recruits for Al-Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist organizations in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.   One school of thought in this respect argues that governments in the Middle East and Southeast Asia ought to improve the delivery of social welfare and economic opportunities, so as to prevent their growing young male populations from falling prey to radical Islamic propaganda excoriating decrepit governmental performance.[16]  In this connection it should be noted that radical organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and even Al-Qaeda have won support in poorer Muslim countries through their social welfare activities.  It should also be conceded that another powerful attraction of such radical groups is that they meet not just the material needs of young people but also through Islam, they make a deliberate attempt to satisfy the spiritual quest of restless young men for a sense of meaning, personal dignity, and a powerful sense of group identity.  


The search for meaning brings us to the second school of thought concerning how exactly to drain the swamp of disgruntled young Muslims willing to rally to the messianic Al-Qaeda cause.  Scholars like Daniel Pipes feel that it is not true that the radical Islamic terrorists are from the lower income groups in Muslim countries.  In fact it appears that many of the leading figures in Al-Qaeda for instance are well-educated, with university backgrounds and holding professional positions.[17]  This suggests that Adrian Karatnycky may have a point when he argues that like “the leaders of America’s Weather Underground, Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang, Italy’s Red Brigades, and Japan’s Red Army Faction, the Islamic terrorists were university-educated converts to an all-encompassing neo-totalitarian ideology”, who have “grown contemptuous of ‘soft’ and corrupt elites and are drawn to the romance of revolutionary guerrilla movements”.[18]  Hence what is needed is not merely socioeconomic reform but more importantly political reform aimed at eliminating corruption, enhancing democratic accountability and ensuring greater social justice, in line with Islamic teachings.


Now if all Islamic fundamentalist agitators want is greater socioeconomic and political reform so as to move closer to actualizing the ideal of a good Islamic government under God, this would not necessarily be a bad thing, as at least there is a basis for accommodating these demands.  As Mark Huband notes, while Islamic fundamentalists seek to Islamize Muslim society, they are quite willing to accept a variety of methodologies for doing so.  Thus “variations exist as to whether the political power they are seeking should be held by authoritarian theocrats, influential imams making firm but diplomatic suggestions to open-minded secularists, or Muslim democrats relying on a parliamentary system to Islamize society”.[19]  The problem only arises when certain Islamic factions consider it spiritual anathema to even dialogue with secular Muslim political leaders and seek therefore to Islamize society at the point of a gun.  This virulent ideological strain is what Al-Qaeda represents.  Thus, it is argued that while democratic and socioeconomic reforms do help to alleviate the pool of Muslim discontent that might be exploited by the Al-Qaeda, the real root of the new terrorism is ideological and as far as anti-Americanism goes, political.  Hence to counter Al-Qaeda requires a powerful strategic information campaign comprising ideological and political elements. 


The Ideological Component of an “Indirect Strategy” against Al-Qaeda


To be sure, the strategic information campaign needed to kill the radical Islamic hydra cannot be conducted in vacuo but rather as part of an overarching indirect strategy.  According to the great French strategic theorist Andre Beaufre, while a direct strategy involves the application of a military force as the primary means of imposing one’s will on an enemy, with diplomatic, economic and propaganda instruments orchestrated in support of the main military thrust, in indirect strategy, military force is carefully calibrated to support and not scupper the primarily non-military means to impose one’s will on the enemy.[20]  The 1991 Gulf War, where the centre of gravity was the Iraqi armed forces in Kuwait, illustrates direct strategy well.  In the current war against Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, the centre of gravity remains the hearts and minds of the transnational Muslim ummah, which implies that primarily ideological and political means – with military power and other policy measures playing a strong supporting role- in short, an indirect approach - is required.


What should be the content of the ideological component of the strategic information campaign discussed earlier?  Basically Muslims the world over must be persuaded that Islam can co-exist with modernity, and it is possible and desirable to be both a good Muslim and still be thoroughly engaged with a modern capitalist world system.  The fundamentalist Islamic clerics, particularly of the Saudi Wahhabi and northern Indian Deobandi schools which are amongst the ideological progenitors of both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, basically argue that the reason why Islamic societies have fallen behind the West in all spheres of endeavor has been because they have been seduced by the amoral and material accoutrements of Westernization and have thus deviated from the original pristine teachings of the Prophet.  Hence the fundamentalists want to turn the clock back – in the case of radical fundamentalists like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, by force, if necessary – and re-institute the laws, traditions and practices of seventh-century Arabian Islam.  In other words the Islamic fundamentalists – like the Egyptina Muslim Brotherhood - want a clear and distinct separation between the Dar al-Islam, the realm of believers, and the Dar al-Khafir, the realm of unbelievers.  The radical fundamentalists want to go even further and wage jihad against what the realm of unbelievers, which they would call the Dar al-Harb, or realm of war.  What the West should be doing in this respect is to encourage the moderate Islamic clerics to intensify the call for the right of all Muslims to exercise ijtihad, or rational reflection, which would enable Muslim communities to adopt lifestyles according to conscientious individual interpretations of Islam, rather than slavishly adhere to the authoritarian fatwas of small coteries of radical Islamic clerics who pursue political goals under the guise of religion.  As the leading moderate Malaysian Islamic scholar Farish Noor, puts it, Islam “is simply too important to be left in the hands of the Ulama [religious clerics]”.[21]


In a sense, as far as Southeast Asia is concerned, because of historical reasons, the ideological battlefield is already advantageously configured. Islam came to Southeast Asia by way of traders who engaged in commerce first and preached their faith afterward. Hence, Islam in Southeast Asia was compelled to “accommodate and reconcile with the existing traditions and values” that the “high cultures of Hinduism and Buddhism” propounded. The net result was the gradual emergence of a Southeast Asian Islam, which—in the words of the leading Indonesian scholar Azyumardi Azra —was “basically, tolerant, peaceful, and smiling.”[22] Although the 1979 Iranian Revolution nudged Southeast Asian Islam toward a more fundamentalist interpretation, as it did in other parts of the world, this trend did not necessarily mean that believers became less tolerant. Muslims became more culturally conservative rather than politically militant.[23] Nevertheless, as the Malaysian intellectual Karim Raslan advocates, it is imperative that “moderate Muslims … reclaim center stage”[24] from the radical Islamic clerics. At the moment, as Farish Noor complains, a “moral and ideological crisis” has beset “the collective Muslim mind.”[25] Hence, the former Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, a devout Muslim, laments that the spirit of inquiry—which led Arab Muslim intellectuals of the past to attain great heights of achievement in science, philosophy, and the arts—has long been absent from the faith. He argues that, today, in the religious schools in Southeast Asia, the general principle appears to be “memorization, stop thinking, stop rationalizing.”[26]  Moderate Muslim voices must thus begin to reclaim ideological ground that has been lost. Muslims in Southeast Asia should be exposed to the ideas of contemporary moderate scholars, such as Indonesia’s Nurcholish Majid and Iran’s Abdul Saroush.  As Karim Raslan observes, both these scholars are “trying to extract the prophetic truths from the Koran to show the inherent compatibility of modern-day concerns with the sacred texts.”[27]


The Political Component


A concerted strategic information campaign targeted at the hearts and minds of Muslims the world over including Southeast Asia must not only counter the exclusionist ideologies of the radical Islamic clerics, it must also seek to aggressively combat virulent anti-American propaganda by relentlessly projecting the simple message that the West has always been a friend of Islam.  This is of course, easier said that done, as Muslim mass opinion from the Middle East to Southeast Asia has long been conditioned by incessant radical Islamic propaganda into doubting the credibility of Western and American pronouncements.  Furthermore, American public relations gaffes, rapidly transmitted throughout the wired-up Muslim world, have only exacerbated matters.  As Philip Taylor points out, a “photograph of an American cruise missile bound for Baghdad during Operation Desert Fox with the words Happy Ramadan chalked on the side is still widely remembered” in the Muslim world.[28]  The generally poor image of America in the Muslim world helps explain the stubborn belief amongst many street level Muslims that the 11 September attacks were actually the work of the Mossad, and that videotapes of bin Laden all but admitting culpability for the strikes were in fact doctored by American intelligence services.  No matter how daunting the task, there remains an urgent need to rectify such politically damaging perceptions amongst the Muslim ground – where Al-Qaeda recruits the foot-soldiers who carry out the attacks planned by the better-educated leadership.  Hence considerably more publicity must be given to, inter alia, the historical efforts of American Presidents to seek solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the Western contribution to the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi aggression; as well as the humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo in which the aim was to save thousands of Muslims from genocidal slaughter.  In fact the images of joyful Afghanis celebrating the demise of the Taliban in the company of American forces and continuing Western efforts in the political and economic rehabilitation of Afghanistan offers much positive grist for the Western strategic information mill, and have to be exploited. 


However, to mount an effective strategic information offensive embracing both ideological and political elements requires a much-needed augmenting of American public diplomacy capacity.  This should involve a reversal of the short-sighted 1999 decision to collapse the old United States Information Agency into the State Department.  This move alienated many able public diplomacy officers, who felt constrained by bureaucratic red tape and a general perception that they were “second-class citizens”.[29]  In addition, as far as the strategic information campaign in Southeast Asia is concerned, rather than rely on CNN and the BBC World Service to shape perceptions, congressional funding should be increased for both the Voice of America and Worldnet, enabling them to substantially increase broadcasts on vernacular frequencies, on television, and coverage on the Internet in vernacular languages.  


Diplomatic and Military Components


Philip Taylor has correctly argued that “to be effective, propaganda requires image and reality to go hand in hand, and hence Western ‘reality’ has to prevail not just in the short-term but also over the longer haul”.[30]  In other words, in order for the key ideological and political instruments of a Western indirect strategy against Al-Qaeda to have real bite, they need to be strongly supported and not undermined, inadvertently or otherwise, by actual diplomatic and military policies.  In other words, the latter should be orchestrated to buttress the ideological and political thrust of Western indirect strategy in Southeast Asia.  In line with this, what concrete policy measures are then necessary?  It must be said that the first step is the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan. Having defeated the Taliban regime, the United States and its Coalition allies must work together to ensure that a viable and durable post-Taliban administration emerges in Kabul. Moreover, Western governments should work together to encourage foreign investment in Afghanistan as a way to expedite postwar reconstruction.  Second, the West should focus more diplomatic energies on resolving the status of Jerusalem and Palestine. As former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan argued recently, a strong sense of “primordial” resentment exists among “all Muslims around the world, particularly here in Southeast Asia,” that their sentiments about Jerusalem, which after Mecca and Medina is the third holiest site in Islam, have never been seriously accommodated.[31]  As Pitsuwan argues, the failure of the international community to seek a just solution to the problem has resulted in “frustration, inadequacy, the sense of being left out, the sense of being done injustice;” sentiments that have been “overwhelming to the point of desperation.”[32]  Thus, in Muslim eyes, the issue of Palestine and Jerusalem symbolizes the historical arrogance that Western civilization has displayed toward Islam since the Crusades. Consequently, the United States in particular must seek to be viewed as acting justly on the question of Palestine.


Third, and no less important, because of the need to persuade Muslims that the West is a friend of Islam, any necessary military action against other state supporters of radical Islamic terrorism—such as Iraq, Sudan, and Somalia—must be carefully controlled. One cannot overemphasize that badly conceived and executed military operations can utterly derail strategic information efforts aimed at persuading Muslims that the West harbors no ulterior desire to subjugate and devour them - as the radical Islamic movement suggests. In a world dramatically shrunk by globalization, radical Islamic propagandists—aided and abetted by sympathetic television networks like the Arabic-language Al Jazeera in Qatar—can rapidly exploit every errant bomb that kills innocent Muslim women and children to persuade Muslims that, despite its friendly rhetoric, the West is indeed at war with the Islamic nation.  In other words, in conducting military operations, American commanders must not only remain cognizant of operational objectives, but also the potential political consequences of military action.  This applies not merely to combat missions, but also to the behavior and deportment of troops both on and off-duty.  A single ill-advised act by Western troops engaged in operations against Al-Qaeda or its Southeast Asian affiliates can be seized upon by radical Islamic propagandists to further pummel the image of America in Muslim eyes.  By the exact same logic, it is utterly crucial that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners in Western captivity in Cuba are treated – and seen to be treated – in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. 


The Governance Component


A final component of a Western indirect strategy to disembowel the Al-Qaeda hydra in Southeast Asia involves the improvement of Southeast Asian governance.  There are two aspects to this: the first basically requires American assistance designed to enhance the organic capabilities of regional governments to neutralize terrorist organizations operating within their own territories, and the second calls for Western support in helping these governments improve socioeconomic performance and political accountability.[33]  The United States must take pains to avoid appearing to hijack the battle against radical Islamic terrorism by governments in the region. As former Western colonies, these governments cannot afford to be seen as handing over responsibility for internal security to a foreign power, or else they would be undermining their political legitimacy. Second, and more important, some countries have sizable Muslim populations that would not take kindly to the sudden injection of significant numbers of U.S. troops on their soil. Thus, helping these governments improve their indigenous capabilities to fight terrorism rather than doing the job for them would be a better option.  In other words, American involvement in particular, while “significant”, ought to be “secondary and nuanced”.[34]   Especially apposite for the Filipino and Indonesian armed forces in particular would be to receive new helicopters, aircraft, and patrol boats, as well as advanced training in counterinsurgency techniques—all required to deal far more effectively with armed radical Islamic groups such as Abu Sayyaf and Laskar Jihad.   In addition, the United States should facilitate the strengthening of intra-regional cooperation in countering the activities of radical Islamic terrorists.  In fact the recommendations of a November 2001 CSCAP Working Group meeting in Jakarta retain their salience: ASEAN governments ought: (1) to cooperate in building a database of terrorist organizations to be used by governments inside and outside the region; (2) to adopt common standards or best practices in investigating terrorist groups and incidents; and (3) to build the expertise needed to conduct strategic work in identifying interregional linkages of terrorist networks and financial links between regional networks and extra-regional sources. 


             Enhancing the organic capacity of regional governments to neutralize the Al-Qaeda threat would be greatly furthered if – especially in the case of the Philippines and Indonesia - they were also aided to revitalize their economies. The socioeconomic dislocations resulting from a decrepit Indonesian economy for instance mean that a very large pool of economically downtrodden young Muslims are easy prey for groups like Laskar Jihad which not only advocate armed struggle but also, and quite importantly, promote social welfare. Thus, the West has a strong incentive to enhance trade, aid, and investment links with Southeast Asian governments in an effort to strengthen their abilities to help regional populations enjoy decent living standards – and thereby diminish the appeal of radical Islamic teaching.   Finally, the West should assist Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world, to make a successful democratic transition, as not only would this buttress the both the stability of the country and regional security, but more than anything project the critical ideological message that Islam can co-exist with democratic modernity.  The significance of this was not lost on Paul Wolfowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, who observed that Indonesia “stands for a country that practices religious tolerance and democracy, treats women properly, and believes Islam is a religion of peace.”[35] Therefore, the world’s largest Muslim country “ought to be a model to the rest of the world [of] what Islam can be.”[36]  




In this paper we have examined the so-called “new terrorism” that is symbolized by Al-Qaeda and argued that while the functional matters of disrupting and thwarting the financing, logistical and operational plans of Al-Qaeda were important, these were in fact less crucial than drying up the pool of disaffected Muslims that could be impressed into Osama bin Alden’s service.  It was argued that to kill the radical Islamic hydra required orchestrating diplomatic, military and other policy instruments so that these supported rather than overshadowed ideological-political measures designed to wean Muslims away from radical Islamic terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda.  To the extent that the West can persuade the Muslim ummah that Islam is compatible with other creeds within the context of globalized capitalist modernity, and that America stands ready to help and not hinder Muslims in their quest to restore Islamic civilization to its former glories, the war against Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia and for that matter everywhere else, will be that much closer to being won. 


[1].              Michael Richardson, “Southeast Asia Bars Help of US Troops,” IHT Online available at, December 14, 2001.

[2]               Leslie Lau, “Three Singaporeans among 23 Militants Held”, Straits Times, January 25, 2002, p. 1.

[3]               “Indonesia Vows War on Terrorism After Asserting bin Laden Presence”, available at, December 13, 2001. 

[4]               Anthony G. McGrew, “Conceptualizing Global Politics”, in Global Politics: Globalization and the Nation-State, e.d by Anthony G. McGrew and Paul G. Lewis, eds. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), p. 23.

[5]               Eric Pianin and Bob Woodward, “Terror Concerns of US Extend to Asia”, The Washington Post, January 18, 2002, p. A18.

[6]               Michael T. Klare, “Waging Post-Industrial Warfare on the Global Battlefield”, Current History, Vol. 100, No. 650 (Dec. 2001), p. 435.

[7]               Thomas Homer-Dixon, “The Rise of Complex Terrorism”, Foreign Policy (Jan./Feb. 2002), pp. 54-55.

[8]               Ibid.,  pp. 57-58.

[9]               David C. Rapoport, “The Fourth Wave: September 11 in the History of Terrorism”, Current History, Vol. 100, No. 650 (Dec. 2001), pp. 419-424.

[10]             Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, “The Terror”, Survival, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter 2001-2002), p. 5.

[11]             Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[12]             Robert A. Levine, “A Pair of Sober Questions About the Slog After Early Victories”, IHT Online, available at, December 7 2001.

[13]             Duncan Campbell, “Futile Campaign against the Head of a Hydra”, The Guardian (UK) Online, available at,3858,4303748,00.html, 21 November 2001.

[14]             Michael Richardson, “Mahathir Boosted by Terrorism Stance”, available at, October 31, 2001.

[15]             Atika Shubert, “Indonesia Braces for Friday Protests,”, available at, October 11, 2001.

[16]             For instance, Susan Sachs, “The Despair Beneath the Arab World’s Growing rage”, The New York Times, October 14, 2001.

[17]             Daniel Pipes, “God and Mammon: Does Poverty Cause Militant Islam?”, The National Interest (Winter 2001/2002), pp. 14-21.

[18]             Adrian Karatnycky, “Under Our Very Noses: The Terrorist Next Door”, National Review, November 5, 2001. Available online at

[19]             Mark Huband, Warriors of the Prophet: The Struggle for Islam (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), p. 90.

[20]             Andre Beaufre,  Strategy of Action (London: Faber and Faber, 1967).

[21]             Farish A. Noor, “Who Will Guard the ‘Guardians of the Faith’?”, transmitted to author via email, Feb. 1, 2002.

[22]             Azyumardi Azra, “The Megawati Presidency: Challenge of Political Islam”, paper delivered at the “Joint Public Forum on Indonesia: The First 100 Days of President Megawati”, organized by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore) and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (Jakarta),  November 1,  2001, Singapore.

[23]             Ibid.

[24].            Karim Raslan, “Now a Historic Chance to Welcome Muslims into the System,” IHT Online, available at, November 27, 2001.

[25]             Farish A. Noor, personal communication with author, October 21, 2001.

[26]             Surin Pitsuwan, “Strategic Challenges Facing Islam in Southeast Asia,” lecture delivered at a forum organized by the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies and the Centre for Contemporary Islamic Studies, Singapore, November 5, 2001.

[27].            Raslan, “Now a Historic Chance to Welcome Muslims into the System”.

[28]             Philip Taylor, “Spin Laden”, The World Today, Dec. 2001, p. 7.

[29]             Kurt Campbell and Michelle A. Flournoy, To Prevail: An American Strategy for the Campaign against Terrorism (Washington, D.C: The CSIS Press, 2001), p. 143.

[30]             Taylor, “Spin Laden”, p. 7.

[31].            Pitsuwan lecture.

[32].            Ibid.

[33]             See Barry Desker and Kumar Ramakrishna,“Forging an Indirect Strategy in Southeast Asia”, The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 161-176.

[34]             Dana Dillon and Paolo Pasicolan, “Fighting Terror in Southeast Asia”, The Asian Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2002, p. 6.

[35]             Cited in Michael Richardson, “Seeking Allies in Terror War, US Woos Southeast Asia”, IHT Online, available at, November 29, 2001.

[36]             Ibid.