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Islamist Terror - 3

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

For Australia the trajectory of terrorism in Southeast Asia is of particular concern. And in many ways developments in Southeast Asia mirror those globally. Considerable progress has been made in counter-terrorism efforts. The political will to deal with terrorism is stronger today than in the aftermath of the first Bali bombings in October 2002. Better cooperation is occurring among security forces and intelligence agencies.

Capacity building programs by Australia and others are bearing fruit. Key leaders have been arrested or killed. I have mentioned the arrest of Hambali, the main link between Jemaah Islamiyah and Al Qaida and a key player in the first Bali attack. Last year Azahari — also closely involved in the Bali 1 bombing — was killed. And around 300 Jemaah Islamiyah members have been arrested in Indonesia. Nevertheless, Jemaah Islamiyah remains a capable and resilient terrorist group. It retains links with Al Qaida but it is not dependent on Al Qaida for either funding or operational support. Under pressure it has become more decentralized in its structure and operational planning. But its strategic objectives and its targeting of Australia and the West are unchanged. Jemaah Islamiyah has continued to carry out attacks, most recently the second Bali bombing which targeted Westerners including Australians, but actually killed many more Indonesians. Jemaah Islamiyah can draw on a pool of trained bomb makers and a larger pool of sympathizers who can provide logistical support for a core of operational planners. This situation will not change soon, despite the general abhorrence of the overwhelming majority of Indonesians towards Jemaah Islamiyah’s methods and goals. There are several other issues to which we must play close attention in Southeast Asia. One of the key elements of Al Qaida’s method has been to globalize what are essentially local disputes and portray what are nationalist or ethnic conflicts as being part of a more important, and strategic global jihad. So we need to be alert to whether Al Qaida or Jemaah Islamiyah are succeeding in injecting themselves into the separatist conflicts in the southern Philippines and southern Thailand.

In the Philippines this is already the case with Jemaah Islamiyah’s links into the southern Philippines giving it a longer strategic reach. In return for safe haven and a certain strategic depth, Jemaah Islamiyah has provided groups in the south with terrorist training. This relationship has extended the capabilities of all participating groups. In contrast we have seen little evidence so far that Jemaah Islamiyah or Al
Qaida has managed to inject itself into the separatist conflict in southern Thailand, although the longer the conflict continues, the greater opportunity there will be for outside groups to interfere.

The war against terror is a misleading metaphor because it suggests there will be a decisive moment when we know whether we face victory or defeat. The reality is that this will be a long and incremental struggle waged on many fronts. Part of the struggle will involve finding and eliminating terrorists and constraining their support bases. But at a broader level it will also involve blunting the appeal of violent extremism by giving potential recruits a greater sense of hope than the nihilism which lies at the core of terrorist psychology.

It is in this area that economic and political factors intersect with the drivers of terrorism. Open societies delivering on the economic aspirations of their citizens are not a guarantee against terrorism. But they will go a large way towards blunting the appeal of extremists. Democracies are more likely to be responsive to the grievances that can lead people to adopt violence. They are more likely to implement the economic reforms which will not only increase the size of the pie but share it more equitably. In the long run democracy can break the political and economic hold of narrow elites, allow the kind of civil society that permits free expression, and reduce the corruption that plagues authoritarian societies. But democratization cannot be an immediate panacea. Firstly, groups like Al Qaida are not going to lay down their arms and participate in a democratic process. For Zawahiri and Zarqawi, democracy puts human law ahead of ‘God’s law’ and is therefore abhorrent. They hate Islamist groups that participate in the democratic process as much as they hate the Middle East’s current regimes. Terrorists would probably still target those governments — even with such Islamist groups in power — just as they target the democratically elected government in Iraq. Since new democracies would probably be supported by the West, then the West too will remain a target.

Secondly, democratization can in the short term increase strategic uncertainty. Due to the lack of secular or liberal political parties in the Middle East, it is probable that Islamist parties of some stripe would win many elections. And we simply don’t know what a group like the Muslim Brotherhood would be like in power. The recent success of Hamas in the Palestinian elections illustrates these points. Certainly one can argue that the responsibility of governing should be a moderating influence in the long term. But whether this turns out to be the case in the short to medium term in the Middle East is by no means certain. And thirdly, radicals can exploit political space in democracies, especially newly emerging ones: space which authoritarian regimes would deny them. A militant Islamist fringe is now present in post-Suharto democratic Indonesia; a fringe which seeks to intimidate mainstream Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and parts of which is feeding recruits to Jamaah Islamiyah. Few Indonesians agree with their ideology, and even fewer with their methods. But enough are at least sympathizing with the Islamists’ narrative of Muslim victim hood and “Western conspiracy” to make counterterrorism co-operation with Western countries politically sensitive.

While terrorism - even in the form of suicide attacks — is not an Islamic phenomenon by definition, it cannot be ignored that the lion’s share of terrorist acts and the most devastating of them in recent years have been perpetrated in the name of Islam. This fact has sparked a fundamental debate both in the West and within the Muslim world regarding the link between these acts and the teachings of Islam. Most Western analysts are hesitant to identify such acts with the bona fide teachings of one of the world’s great religions and prefer to view them as a perversion of a religion that is essentially peace-loving and tolerant. Western leaders have reiterated time and again that the war against terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. It is a war against evil.

Modern international Islamist terrorism is a natural offshoot of twentieth-century Islamic fundamentalism. The “Islamic Movement” emerged in the Arab world and British-ruled India as a response to the dismal state of Muslim society in those countries: social injustice, rejection of traditional mores, acceptance of foreign domination and culture. It perceives the malaise of modern Muslim societies as having strayed from the “straight path” and the solution to all ills in a return to the original mores of Islam. The problems addressed may be social or political: inequality, corruption, and oppression. But in traditional Islam — and certainly in the worldview of the Islamic fundamentalist — there is no separation between the political and the religious. Islam is, in essence, both religion and regime and no area of human activity is outside its remit. Be the nature of the problem as it may, “Islam is the solution.”

The underlying element in the radical Islamist worldview is a historic and dichotomist: Perfection lies in the ways of the Prophet of Islam and the events of his time; therefore, religious innovations, philosophical relativism, and intellectual or political pluralism are anathema. In such a worldview, there can exist only two camps — Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb — which are pitted against each other until the final victory of Islam. These concepts are carried to their extreme conclusion by the radicals; however, they have deep roots in mainstream Islam.

While the trigger for “Islamic awakening” was frequently the meeting with the West, Islamic-motivated rebellions against colonial powers rarely involved individuals from other Muslim countries or broke out of the confines of the territories over which they were fighting. Until the 1980s, most fundamentalist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood were inward-looking; Western superiority was viewed as the result of Muslims having forsaken the teachings of the Prophet. Therefore, the remedy was, first, “re-Islamization” of Muslim society and restoration of an Islamic government, based on Islamic law [Shariah]. In this context, jihad was aimed mainly against “apostate” Muslim governments and societies, while the historic offensive jihad of the Muslim world against the infidels was put in abeyance [at least until the restoration of the caliphate]. To be continued