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Threat of Terrorism Remains Strong in SE Asia - 2003-12-20

This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series

Experts say the threat of international terrorism remains strong in Southeast Asia, which is considered the region under the greatest terrorist threat after the Middle East. Nevertheless, they say that 14 months after the bombings in Bali, Indonesia, some progress is being made.

At a memorial on the Indonesian island of Bali last October, thousands of people commemorated the deaths of 202 people killed in a bomb attack and consoled their families.

Until the Bali bombings, terrorist incidents in Southeast Asia had been viewed as isolated attacks by homegrown groups acting on their own and in response to local grievances. The bombing dramatically revealed the existence of an international terrorist network in Southeast Asia dedicated to creating an Islamic state in the region. And it obliged governments to acknowledge the network as a fact.

Since then, authorities have arrested scores of people for involvement in the Bali bombing and dozens have been convicted.

The network, Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, has been linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group. During the year, several senior JI leaders were captured, including its alleged operations chief, Riduan Isamuddin or Hambali, who was arrested in Thailand in August.

A professor of politics at Australia's Defense Force Academy, Carl Thayer, says the crackdown has somewhat weakened terrorist networks.

"The focus is turning more sharply to Indonesia and the Philippines and networks amongst regional groups," he said. And the international or al-Qaida connection - which is still there - has been diminished by the arrest of high-level operatives."

Experts say several thousand JI members are still at large. The author of Inside al-Qaida, Rowan Gunaratna, says the country most threatened by JI is Indonesia. He praises the government's vigorous pursuit of the Bali bombers and the perpetrators of a more recent attack at the Marriott hotel in Jakarta. But he says despite dozens of convictions, the Indonesian government has failed to go after JI as an organization.

"In Indonesia JI is not a proscribed or a designated organization," said Rowan Gunaratna. "Only JI members who have committed violence have been arrested. JI propaganda, fundraising, procurement, training, JI safe houses, transportation, and other assets are still very much intact."

Mr. Gunaratna adds that a new generation of JI leaders is being trained in the southern Philippines and warns that if this continues, JI will be able to replace its captured leaders. He says there are signs that Jemaah Islamiyah's influence is spreading.

"JI is increasingly looking towards other countries, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, to move its members and its supporter structures," he said.

A professor at the University of the Philippines, Noel Morada, says Southeast Asia is countering terrorism by making good use of its regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

"Particularly in the context of ASEAN, I think there is much improvement because sharing of information and intelligence as well as concerted efforts by the military institutions in the region has actually improved," said Noel Morada.

According to Professor Thayer of Australia's Defense Force Academy, new attacks cannot be ruled out, but he believes the region's support for international terrorism may have peaked because popular support is eroding.

"These are very un-Islamic actions and they are hotly debated and the more they occur, the less meaning that they have because they are not accomplishing anything," said Carl Thayer. "And so I think cheering on the suicide bombers is going to be a fading activity."

Al-Qaida specialist Mr. Gunaratna disagrees, saying the threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia is as great as ever.

"The threat is more diffuse," he said. "There are more, smaller groups now, working with al-Qaida and willing to attack the United States, its allies and friends."

Experts say the international community has learned that to fight terrorism, it must address some of the grievances behind it, such as the Palestinian problem.

They also cite economic grievances like poverty and underdevelopment and argue that social issues, like threats to local identity, can push people to the margins of society where terrorism can breed.