Jumbo in the Jungle

Is Southeast Asia a haven for hijackers, pirates, and terrorists?


Since Malaysian Airlines flight 370 (MH370) disappeared on March 8 on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, commentators have worried that it could be the result of terrorism. Two passengers had boarded the plane using passports stolen in Thailand, and of the 153 Chinese passengers aboard the flight, one was reportedly of Uighur ethnicity — a Muslim minority heavily concentrated in northwest China’s troubled region of Xinjiang. The flight is still missing; much remains unknown and many of the details circulating, including those hinting at terrorist involvement, are unconfirmed or incorrect. But Southeast Asia, with its often poorly managed borders and extensive smuggling networks — for weapons, drugs, contraband, and people — has long concerned foreign governments and international terrorism experts.

The ease of illicit cross-border travel in Southeast Asia helped make the region a second front in George W. Bush’s War on Terror in the early 2000s. Back then, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terrorist group with links to al Qaeda, was the poster child of a transnational extremist threat in Southeast Asia. Established in 1993, JI eventually organized terror cells in five countries across the region, with Malaysia serving as a safe haven for the organization’s two Indonesian founders. JI, whose name means "Islamic Congregation," became notorious after organizing the 2002 nightclub bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali, which killed 202 people, nearly half of whom were Australians, and injured 240. (Before that, authorities had foiled an attempt to bomb embassies in Singapore in 2001 using explosives smuggled through the Philippines.) Bali bombing mastermind Riduan Isamuddin, now detained at Guantanamo Bay, moved between safe-houses across maritime and mainland Southeast Asia before his 2003 arrest in Thailand.

In part because of the threat from JI and other extremist groups, many Southeast Asian nations have strengthened security at established border crossings and airports, and tightened visa and customs procedures. Steady pressure from foreign governments and intelligence agencies, including the United States, to mitigate the threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia also helped to spur improvements. There is now little credible evidence that the region remains a haven for international terrorists, who can much more easily operate out of countries in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

But the large, often remote maritime and land borders between Southeast Asian nations remain relatively porous and are exploited by insurgent groups with a domestic focus. Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand all face domestic armed threats facilitated by nationals working across the border. Southern Thai insurgents, including the Patani United Liberation Organization, the National Revolutionary Front, and other ethnic-Malay separatist groups, run extensive smuggling networks into Malaysia. Armed forces along Myanmar’s frontiers, such as the Karen National Liberation Army and the Kachin Independence Army, regular cross international borders for safe haven and supplies, though some also smuggle drugs and weapons across borders. And the nexus between the southern Philippines’ Sulu Archipelago and the island of Borneo, split primarily between Malaysia and Indonesia, is a hotbed for trafficking in weapons and persons, as well as an area of contestation among governments, criminal organizations, and extremist groups.

Southeast Asia’s insecure borders do not just threaten the region’s own prosperity, but also hinder efforts at stability in neighboring countries. Separatists from the Indian province of Nagaland have long used bases over the border in Myanmar for sanctuary and support. Bangladesh, meanwhile, houses more than 200,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority who have fled violence and persecution in neighboring Myanmar. Bangladesh could face a destabilizing flood of refugees should that violence grow worse.

Perhaps the biggest regional threat is that Southeast Asia could be used as a staging area for extremists attacking China. There is evidence that the decades-old resistance to China’s heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, which has traditionally been confined to the region itself, might be morphing into an extremist threat aimed at China as a whole. Beijing accused Uighur radicals of committing an Oct. 2013 vehicle attack on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the symbolic center of the capital, and of committing a gruesome knife attack in the southwestern city of Kunming on March 1 that killed 29 people and injured more than 140. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, which borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, and Dru Gladney, an expert on Western China at Pomona College, told the Telegraph that the attackers may have been influenced by Southeast Asian groups.

Malaysia’s borders are relatively secure. But Kuala Lumpur still has trouble controlling illicit traffic of goods, people, and occasionally armed groups. The disappearance of MH370 may not have been caused by a terrorist act, but the speculation that has erupted serves as a reminder that Southeast Asian borders are extremely porous, often poorly managed, and that smuggling networks remain well and alive throughout much of the region.

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