Southeast Asian governments are trying to track down suspected members of al-Qaida, the international terrorist organization. Officials in the region and in the United States suspect that several people with links to al-Qaida may be hiding in Indonesia. But Rodolfo Severino, the Secretary-General of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, dismisses criticism that Indonesia is not doing enough to combat terrorism.
Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines have arrested dozens of radical Muslims suspected of involvement with al-Qaida. Many are believed to be members of Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant Muslim group based in Indonesia and suspected of plotting attacks against U.S. embassies and other western installations in Southeast Asia. The United States is considering designating Jemaah Islamiyah a terrorist organization.
The governments of Singapore and Malaysia want Indonesia to arrest two Muslim clerics reported to be leaders of the group, Abu Bakar Bashir and Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali. Mr. Bashir denies he has any links with terrorist organizations and has filed a lawsuit against the American magazine Time for reporting that he is a terrorist leader.
Indonesia says it does not have enough evidence against Mr. Bashir to justify his arrest.
ASEAN Secretary General Rodolfo Severino says each country has to act according to its own laws. He points out that Malaysia and Singapore have internal security laws that allow them to detain people based on suspicions, but Indonesia does not have that kind of law. "This is not the first time countries disagree on an assessment of a particular threat or a particular crime. And those who have the information and the evidence, I assume, are providing in this case Indonesia with that information and that evidence, and Indonesia has to be convinced that under its legal system there is enough grounds for it to make a move," Mr. Severino said.
Another possible complication is the lack of extradition treaties between the various Southeast Asian countries, making it difficult for one country to turn over a suspect to another for prosecution. Mr. Severino says Indonesia and the Philippines are the only two countries in the region to have such a treaty.
"But I am not aware of any extradition treaties between any other pair of ASEAN countries. So this has to be handled at both the judicial and the diplomatic level. One thing is clear, and it is that the intelligence services, the security services are cooperating quite closely on these matters," he said.
Indonesia has arrested a German citizen with suspected links to al-Qaida and is reported to have turned over another suspect to U.S. authorities in June.
Mr. Severino dismisses reports that the U.S. government may be disappointed with Indonesia's anti-terror cooperation so far. "That is not my impression of the U.S. attitude. I have seen statements of the American ambassador to Indonesia. I have seen statements of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and I do not get this impression at all that the U.S. is impatient with Indonesia's efforts," Mr. Severino said.
Mr. Severino says the countries of Southeast Asia have been dealing with various forms of terrorism for a long time. He says the attacks in September last year against the United States prodded ASEAN's 10-member states to increase their cooperation. "What the events of September 11th did was to focus on a specific source of terrorism and the international dimension of terrorism. And also, it brought home the vulnerability of societies to this kind of thing because it reached even the homeland of the most powerful coutnry on earth. So, this gave ASEAN's efforts in combatting terrorism added urgency and immediacy," he said.
After the attacks, Southeast Asian countries reached agreements to share intelligence on terrorism, to train law enforcement units in bomb detection and airport security, and to stop terrorist financing. Mr. Severino praises the steps ASEAN has taken so far. "Certainly, the heightened cooperation among ASEAN in combatting terrorism is most welcome. It doesn't mean that we have done everything that we can. We have to improve things. We have to keep on trying to cooperate more closely, being more alert," Mr. Severino said.
He says terrorism does not exist in a political, economic and social vacuum, so ASEAN is taking steps to to make sure people have jobs and to raise their incomes, reducing the frustrations that can be exploited by radical militants. That, he says, will help shore up regional security.
Mr. Severino's five-year term as ASEAN secretary-general ends in December. He was interviewed in Washington during his recent visit to attend meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.