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August 30, 2011

Asia Faces Diminished Terror Threat 10 Years After 9/11 Attacks

by Brian Padden

The September 11, 2001 terror attacks on America initially inspired some Islamic extremist groups in Asia, but over the last decade the terrorist threat in Asia has either diminished or has been confined to remote areas away from major cities and tourist destinations. The success of the war on terror in Asia is in part due to effective law enforcement, but also because the conditions that sustain terrorist movements do not exist in much of Asia.

After seeing the U.S. military response to the 2001 attacks on America, Indonesian Islamic militant groups shifted their focus from attacking local Christians to joining the al Qaida-led jihad against the West. The change in strategy led directly to the Bali Bombing in 2002 that killed over 200 people, mostly Australian tourists. Other attacks followed. But law enforcement efforts to disrupt and dismantle terrorist groups over the last 10 years have been successful. And public trials have turned popular opinion against groups involved in the killing of innocent people.

Sidney Jones, Southeast Asia security analyst with the International Crisis Group, says the strategy to attack Western targets also proved over time not to be popular in local radical circles.

"The people who got involved in radical movements overwhelmingly got involved for local reasons, even though solidarity with Muslims persecuted overseas was a very important part of the rhetoric, but the drivers were local," Jones explains.

She says Indonesian extremist groups are now shifting back to local targets. The last major terrorist attack was the 2009 bombing of two hotels in Jakarta, but attacks against local religious minority groups and police have been on the rise.

In the Malaysia, the Philippines, China and Thailand, the issues that drive Islamic militant groups are also local.

In southern Thailand, indiscriminate bombings and attacks against civilians have been linked to a Muslim insurgent movement fighting for independence.
Srisompob Jitpiromsri is director of the insurgency monitoring group Deep South Watch. In Thailand, he says, groups who engage in violence have not been linked to international terrorist organizations.  He says the roots of their conflict are based more on discrimination against the ethnic Malays than on religious ideology.

"This kind of identity has been suppressed or subjugated by the central government for over, you know, many decades," Srisompob  says. "You might say that, you know, 100 years ago, it has developed since this area of the southern border of Thailand has been annexed into Thailand or Thai Kingdom."

He says the conflict will continue to simmer until a political settlement can be reached.

There have been incidents of violence and tension in western China's Xinjiang province between Muslim Uighurs residents and Han Chinese immigrates.  Chien-peng Chung, associate professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, says economic problems lie at the heart of this conflict and so far China has not used the threat of terror to crack down on its disgruntled Muslim minority.

"I could not say there is systemic suppression of ethnic minorities or of their grievances. Certainly not until and unless it erupts in violence. Then the Chinese government would most likely take some action,"  Chung says.

He says China is taking steps in the right direction to address the cause of the conflict by providing a number of university scholarships and government jobs to the Uighur minority.

But it was in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, where the terrorist threat after 9/11 was the greatest.
Security analyst Jones says that while dismantling militant groups and addressing real grievances are important, Indonesia's success in reducing terror attacks was due in part to the growth of democracy.

"If you look at where terrorism arises, there are usually three factors," notes Jones. "Either a place is under occupation, i.e. Palestine or Chechnya, or it faces a repressive government, or it has an alienated immigrant community. And Indonesia has none of the above."

While terrorism in Asia has so far been contained, Jones says authorities and the public must remain on guard against even a small number of extremists intent on using violence to impose their will.