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September 11 two years on - has our region woken up to terrorism at home?

By Greg Barton - posted Thursday, 11 September 2003

Like all such grandiose claims the assertion that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 "changed the world" is easy to refute. America and the West may have been rudely awoken to the harsh realities of the world but for most of the globe the attacks only confirmed what was already known. And what was true before September 11 remains true today. This simple line of argument, however, is dangerously reductionist and makes the same error of over-generalisation as the one it seeks to rebut. The causal links might be debatable but it is clear is that for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq September 11 did change everything. In "our" region the changes are not so dramatic but there is no denying that terrorism is a part of our reality in a way that it never used to be before the Al Qa'ida attacks of 2001.

In the year that followed September 11 there was restless speculation about the extent to which Al Qa'ida style radical Islamist terrorism had penetrated South East Asia. By the end of October 2002, in the wake of the Bali bombing, this speculation had given way to a series of increasingly disturbing revelations about the degree to which this was a problem for our part of the world.

So, two years on from the horror of watching the twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapse in real time, how has our part of the world changed? Should we be "alarmed" as well as "alert" or can we safely assume that the worst has now passed? Like most truly important questions there are no simple, definite and conclusive answers to these questions. The best we can do is take stock of what we do know and accept that if things are not as good as we would like them to be then they are by no means anything like as bad what they could be.


This summation, reasonable though it may be, however, is too much of a truism to be an adequate response. Breaking down the paradox into the following half dozen discrete points at least gives us a feel for the underlying issues that need to be watched:

1. Since the attacks of September 11 we have seen that radical Islamist terrorism does not enjoy mass support anywhere in the Muslim world. This finding was resoundingly reinforced in Indonesia in the wake of last October's bombing. Over the past eleven months it has become clear that mass-support for radical Islamism has suffered a significant reduction as ordinary Indonesians, horrified by the indiscriminate violence of the bombings, have become much less inclined to accord radical Islamists any "benefit of doubt". On the other hand, however, there are disturbing signs that the Indonesian authorities are feeling uneasy about dealing systemically with terrorism, presumably for fear of provoking a social or political backlash in the run up to the April 2004 general elections. Cleary it is one thing to sentence the likes of Amrozi to death by firing squad but it is quite another to take on Abu Bakar Baasyir, his (above ground) organization Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia and his Jemaah Islamiah-linked pesantren and its graduates. How else can you explain the fact that the one county in the world where Jemaah Islamiah (JI) is not officially banned is Indonesia, the very nation which has suffered most from JI's indiscriminate terrorist violence?

2. The attacks of September 11 in the USA, of October 12 in Bali and now the bombing of the Marriott hotel have raised awareness about the scale of the threat presented by radical Islamist terrorism. In Indonesia, and across South-east Asia, information that as emerged from interviews with dozens of arrested JI operatives has provided an extraordinary picture of the extent and nature of a threat previously ignored or dismissed. At the same time, however, lingering denial persists, especially among the political elite of Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia, where resurgent nationalism and a weakness for blame-shifting conspiracy theories threaten to dangerously sap political will for decisive action at a time when it is most needed.

3. The eleven months since the bombing in Bali has seen unprecedented police advances and encouraging evidence of very fruitful inter-regional cooperation. Nevertheless, incidents such as the August escape of JI master-bomber Fathur al-Ghozi from a "high-security" cell in Manila, and the ongoing operation of terrorist training camps a little further south in the Philippines, are reminders of the extent security concerns in the region. Semi-dysfunctional states and incompetent and corrupt security institutions provide ideal conditions for terrorist groups to operate in.

4. Good initial police work in Bali has lead to the rapid dismantling of JI. Unfortunately, however, we still have no way of knowing how large JI is and what proportion of its operatives have been detected and arrested. Nor do we have any way of accurately gauging its capacity to regenerate. What we do know is that the situation today looks very much worse than we imagined it to be prior to the October 12 attack. Not only does JI's network now appear to be more extensive and sophisticated than was previously thought, its capacity to regenerate remains completely unknown.

5. The past two years have seen extraordinary global cooperation but we continue to face difficult and dangerous circumstances and influences across the globe. What has become clear is that such issues can no longer be considered in isolation. Radical Islamist terrorists are just as effective at exploiting globalization as any Fortune 500 corporation, a reality that for too long has been overlooked.


6. The 21st century promises to be Islam's democratic century. We are fortunate to be living in the day of democracy and in our lifetimes we can expect to see great advances across the world and especially in those nations where most of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims, largely poor and often downtrodden, are struggling for democratic reform. Unfortunately, at this moment, we are also living in the hour of radical Islamist terrorism. It will pass but a struggle lies ahead.

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This article was first published in The Age on 9 September 2003.

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About the Author

Dr Greg Barton is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Deakin University and is author of Abdurrahman Wahid, Muslim Democrat, Indonesian President: a view from the Inside, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2002.

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