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With the recent arrest of scores of alleged al Qaeda operatives who want to set up an Islamic state comprising Indonesia, Malaysia and some islands in southern Philippines, the United States might be tempted to extend its war on terrorism more aggressively to Southeast Asia. But getting a foothold in the region's hotbeds of Islamic extremism will not be easy.
The White House is certainly itching to jump onto the scene. "Going after al Qaeda in Indonesia is not something that should wait until after al Qaeda has been uprooted from Afghanistan," U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary and former envoy to Jakarta Paul Wolfowitz told Newsweek recently.
Wolfowitz will have to wait. Unlike the Philippines, where more than 600 U.S. Special Forces are helping to quash the Abu Sayyaf extremist gang, Indonesia and Malaysia -- though threatened by Islamic radicalism -- won't welcome U.S. troops. Neither wants the domestic backlash. Both say they can quell homegrown extremists on their own.
Extensive al Qaeda operations in Southeast Asia came to light with the arrest in Singapore of 13 suspected members of the Indonesian Islamic radical group Jemaah Islamiyah in January. The militants allegedly planned to bomb U.S. embassies in Singapore and Jakarta. Several more suspects were nabbed in Malaysia. Singaporean intelligence discovered the plot from videotape seized in Afghanistan.
At about the same time, Philippine authorities arrested Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, a Jemaah Islamiyah member who was allegedly plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in Manila. He confessed to the Dec. 30, 2000 bombings in that city that killed 18 people and injured many others. Seized with al-Ghozi were fake passports, $50,000 in U.S. currency, a ton of explosive materials and several M-16 rifles.
Meanwhile, a foiled bank robbery in Kuala Lumpur had earlier revealed the existence of a radical group, Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia, which intended to send the loot to Muslim fighters in Indonesia and the Philippines.
According to regional intelligence officials, al Qaeda's Southeast Asian network was built by Riduan "Hambali" Isamuddin, an Indonesian militant who envisions a radical Islamic state linking Indonesia, Malaysia and some southern Philippine islands. Isamuddin fought Soviet troops in Afghanistan, where he became a close associate of Osama bin Laden. Recruiting followers in Malaysia and Indonesia, he eventually sent fighters to Afghanistan, Indonesia's strife-torn Maluku islands and Mindanao, Philippines.
Chillingly presaging the Sept. 11 attacks, Isamuddin's group plotted to bomb or crash into buildings 12 U.S.-bound passenger jets flying out of Asia. It also planned to kill Pope John Paul II as he visited Manila in 1995. The plots were aborted when the cell's hideout caught fire and Philippine police seized computer files of its plans.
Isamuddin is still at large. Much of his network, authorities believe, is still intact.
To the White House's dismay, President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government hasn't cracked down on suspected Indonesian terrorists, claiming lack of sufficient evidence to make arrests. More likely, it fears a backlash from restive Muslim groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Laskar Jihad, a Taliban-like vigilante movement. Some groups are also backed by Indonesian generals with their own political agendas.
Neither is Megawati likely to follow Philippine President Gloria Arroyo's example by inviting U.S. troops.
"The presence of U.S. troops would only create a lot of controversy with various opposition groups and non-government organizations," Dr. Azyumardi Azra, president of the State Islamic University in Jakarta, said in an interview. "The best way to help is technical assistance in police training," he added.
A high-profile U.S. presence may also revive ugly memories of the 1965 bloodbath that accompanied now-deposed President Suharto's seizure of power. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has admitted playing an active role in the anti-Communist coup.
Meanwhile, in Malaysia, by arresting more than 40 militants and immediately condemning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad regained the prestige he lost in Washington for prosecuting former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on questionable charges.
Still, mindful of possible attacks from opposition parties, Mahathir rejects a direct U.S. military role in Malaysia, where Muslims make up more than half the country's population of 23 million, and widespread anti-Americanism is fed mainly by the strong U.S. support of Israel.
Although Indonesia and Malaysia signed an anti-terrorist cooperation accord with the Philippines, both reject outside help. Unlike the Philippines, which is hungry for U.S. aid, oil-producing Malaysia and Indonesia believe they can control extremism single-handedly.
Citing the long-standing influence of "liberal Islam" in Indonesia, some observers doubt that sparks from a separatist rebellion in Aceh and the Muslim-Christian conflict in the Malukus will spread extremism among the country's 170 million Muslims.
The Mahathir government, meanwhile, is brimming with confidence. After the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Mahathir struck damaging blows against the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) by deftly comparing it to the Taliban. The PAS had won a huge following among Muslims alienated by the jailing of Ibrahim. But voters deserted it in a recent state election, scared away by PAS leaders' calls for an Islamic state.
Indeed, Southeast Asia's Muslim intellectuals tend to reject zealotry. Brought to the region not by conquerors but by traders, Islam was adopted by established elites, who preserved much of their pre-Islamic cultures. Thus, many middle-class Muslims, while critical of their governments and the West, hesitate to embrace al Qaeda's Arab brand of Islam.
Mahathir, for one, has denounced extremist groups for denying the cultural expressions of Malaysian Islam. No foreign troops, he has clearly stated, are necessary to defeat such organizations.
Rene Ciria-Cruz ( email@example.com) is an editor of Filipinas Magazine.