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A Different Tack on Terror

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
June 25, 2008

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Post-9/11, counterterrorism strategy across the globe has drawn much criticism from human rights groups and civil libertarians for relying too heavily on military action. Experts are now pointing to countries in Southeast Asia for effective alternative models which treat terrorist suspects better and keep public support on the government's side. At a recent regional security conference in Singapore, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said: "The governments out here take it very seriously and, in my opinion, seem to be doing a very good job individually and working together to deal with that terrorist threat" (NYT).

Southeast Asia is often referred to as the second front on global "war on terror." Terrorist organizations like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines claim links with al-Qaeda. JI seeks to establish a pan-Islamic state across much of the region. According to a 2007 Congressional Research Service Report (PDF), JI formed close working relationships with other militant Islamic groups in the region and has cells in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand as well as in Australia and Pakistan. "[C]rackdowns by various governments in the region… are believed to have severely weakened the organization," it notes. But counterterrorism specialists warn that challenges remain in terms of better regional cooperation between the countries and potential regeneration of JI and other terrorist networks.

Experts say Indonesia and the Philippines have used soft counterterrorism methods to fight terror. While the Philippines approach is a more militarized one, in Indonesia terrorist suspects are treated well and encouraged to defect or to share information. Joshua Kurlantzick, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes in TIME that Indonesian security forces once reviled for their brutal treatment of suspects have adopted a new approach. Today, Kurzantzick notes, "the Indonesian government successfully prosecutes cases against these militants in court, keeping public opinion on Jakarta's side."

The contrast with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay is obvious and not lost on public opinion abroad, experts say. The trend also has registered in Washington. The U.S. State Department's 2007 Country Reports on Terrorism recognizes Indonesia's successful efforts to curb terrorism by noting a 14 percent increase in the number of tourists to the country. The United States has close military ties with several countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand. These relationships range from arms sales to port facilities to military training. In Indonesia, the United States helped to train and equip Special Detachment 88, an Indonesian counterterrorism police unit launched in 2003 in response to the Bali bombings.

Yet, unlike in Pakistan, where air strikes like the one that went awry on June 10 in Pakistan's tribal areas have stirred anti-American anger (BBC), Southeast Asian countries have had more success convincing their populations that the counterterrorism struggle is being conducted by their own governments on their behalf. In a September 2007 opinion survey conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org in Pakistan, only 27 percent of participants said the cooperation between Pakistan and the United States on security and military matters had benefited Pakistan. Ambassador Dell C. Dailey at the U.S. State Department's office of the coordinator for counterterrorism said in December 2007, "Our most important task in the war on terrorism is not the 'destructive' task of eradicating enemy networks, but the 'constructive' task of building legitimacy, good governance, trust, rule of law, and tolerance."

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