Southeast Asia's counter-terror
industry By Ioannis Gatsiounis
KUALA LUMPUR - In the wake of the terror attacks
of September 11, 2001, Malaysia and the United States
appeared primed to usher in a new era of cooperation,
built on their mutual concern over the spread of
terrorism in Southeast Asia. The US praised Malaysia for
its efficient and resolute response to the scourge and
both governments agreed in principle to fund jointly a
regional counter-terrorism center on Malaysian soil.
Relations became strained, though, with the
US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as
then-Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad stepped
up his anti-Western rhetoric, accusing the US and some
of its allies of state-sponsored terrorism. Leaders on
both sides played down the development and continued to
describe the plans for collaboration as "ongoing".
Last July, however, the Malaysian government,
amid mounting domestic pressure not to assist ostensibly
anti-Muslim countries, quietly set up shop alone. And
now what was once expected to blossom into a hub of
intelligence pooling and terrorism prevention finds
itself little more than an administrative center that
intermittently "holds interdicting seminars, workshops
and training courses", says the center's director
general, Zainal Abidin Mohamad Zain.
that the original plan involved a lot more funding, but
he discounts claims that the lack of US involvement has
hindered the center's efforts. "We are actively inviting
collaboration from all willing countries, and it's
better to collaborate with everyone, not just one
Good in theory, but response to the
invitation has been lukewarm. And while internal
security in Malaysia falls under the responsibility of
the Royal Police, without a fully functioning
counter-terrorism center the nation now finds itself
without a formal system of coordination with neighboring
countries - at least three of which have set up
counter-terrorism centers of their own.
Malaysia] don't have a specially dedicated institution
for dealing specifically with terror," said defense and
security consultant Dzirhan Mahadzir. He added that the
police are, naturally, burdened by other
non-terrorist-related issues of security, and have yet
to issue a national strategy.
Little concern has
been voiced, on the streets, in government, or through
the media. Around Malaysia talk about terrorism tends
toward what hasn't happened, not what might - that no
terrorist incident of consequence has occurred on
Malaysian soil. Last year after an international Formula
1 motor race went over without incident, Mahathir said
it proved Malaysia was safe. And Malaysians commonly
point to the Marriott and Bali bombings in neighboring
Indonesia to distance Malaysia from "terrorist hotbeds".
"Malaysia doesn't see terrorism as much of a problem
because nothing has happened," said one Malaysian
security analyst. "Sad to say, but we'll probably have
to have an incident here before people get serious about
This isn't to suggest that Malaysia
has been indifferent to terrorism. Since September 11,
the government has closed Islamic schools suspected of
preaching hate and has used its tough Internal Security
Act to take down mid and low-level members of terrorist
groups such as Jemaah Islamiya (JI) and Kumpulan
Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM).
Ghazemy Mahmud, editor
of a Malaysian defense journal, says history has given
Malaysia a leg up. "Malaysia has decades of personal
experience in counter-terrorism, first against communist
insurgents and later Islamic extremists."
according to Dzirhan, the methods and targets of
terrorists have changed considerably since then and
Western governments are most equipped to counter them.
He points to the fact that the JI and KMM busts were
made using US intelligence gathered in Afghanistan and
that none of the groups' kingpins have been netted.
"You can't fight terror today without cooperation
with Western countries," said Rohan Gunaratna of the
Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies.
February he opened the International Center for
Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a regional
counter-terrorism center in Singapore that Gunaratna
says is truly transnational in scope; it's collaborating
with disparate government and non-government bodies
around the globe. Gunaratna says he has no formal
agreement with the Malaysian government or its so-called
Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counter Terrorism,
but "we will share information with any country that
wants to fight terror".
Meanwhile, sensing a
vacuum in regional security, neighbors Indonesia and
Thailand have recently opened up "regional" terrorist
centers of their own, leading Malaysian Foreign Minister
Seri Syed Hamid Albar in January to voice concern about
overlapping of functions and wasteful spending.
Thailand's center will reportedly focus on financing of
terrorism through drug trafficking. Indonesia's was set
up with aid from Australia and will be operational
rather than preventive in scope.
however, according to Zainal, the centers have no set
system of collaboration.
The question then is,
to what extent is the fragmentation jeopardizing
One observer says Malaysia
has no more than 20 terrorism specialists, and probably
a lot fewer. "So it's vital for Malaysia to reach out
more to other countries," he said.
that Malaysia cannot afford to underestimate or play
down extremist elements that certainly exist within its
borders. It's not uncommon at universities, say
students, to be courted by extremist campus groups. Many
suspected and arrested terrorists have spent
considerable time in Malaysia, from JI leader Hambali to
leading suspects in the Marriott and Bali bombings. And
Malaysia has undergone a groundswell of conservative
Islam in recent years, particularly in some northern
sates, where the reigning opposition party, known by its
acronym PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia), seeks to set up an
Islamic state run by a strict form of Sharia law. It's
unfair to equate fundamentalist PAS with extremism,
though fundamentalism is known sometimes to be a gateway
US foreign policy regarding the
invasion of Iraq still preoccupies many Malaysian
Muslims. Their ire was roused by a slew of anti-Western
remarks by Mahathir at the time, and continues to find
comfort in the self- and state-censored media's
tradition of demonizing the West. The words may not spur
people to action. But at the least they're playing to a
willing audience, and the message is often one of
Malaysia deserves credit for
avoiding a terrorist attack thus far. It lacks the overt
ethnic conflict ravaging some neighboring countries. Its
history has been mostly peaceful. And many surveyed
tourists say they feel safe in Malaysia.
incident, of course, could change all that. And as
Dzirhan warns, "Sometimes one's very success breeds
That Malaysia has set up a
counter-terrorism center is probably better than not
having one at all. But now there are three in the
region. And one has to wonder, which is speaking to
which, and what exactly are they trying to say?
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