In Other Words

Asia’s Intelligence Gap

Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 17, No. 4, Winter 2002, London Over the last three decades, many Southeast Asian nations have cemented their reputations as models of authoritarianism, expending seemingly unlimited resources on scrutinizing their citizens. With such a checkered history of spying on their own people, how, then, could the countries’ intelligence agencies have ...

Intelligence and National Security,
Vol. 17, No. 4, Winter 2002, London

Over the last three decades, many Southeast Asian nations have cemented their reputations as models of authoritarianism, expending seemingly unlimited resources on scrutinizing their citizens. With such a checkered history of spying on their own people, how, then, could the countries’ intelligence agencies have failed to detect an Islamic terrorist network burgeoning under these iron regimes? Why were they unable to prevent last October’s terrorist attack in Bali?

The answers, according to David Martin Jones and Michael Smith in an article published in the quarterly Intelligence and National Security, lie in the strictness of the regimes themselves and in the facade of stability and social harmony that such regimes require. With the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) unlikely to abandon their strong-arm tendencies, Jones (University of Tasmania) and Smith (King’s College London) suggest that ASEAN’s response to the war on terrorism will remain ineffective, as governments further curtail civil liberties and alienate fringe groups.

Their hypothesis is intriguing. ASEAN governments do prefer to "save face" and publicize stability and harmony rather than address Southeast Asia’s simmering racial and religious tensions. And ASEAN intelligence and security agencies are also often heavy-handed. But the article misidentifies the culprits: First, Jones and Smith wrongly blame Southeast Asian journalists and academics for failing to report about growing Islamic radicalism because they were captivated by the countries’ economic boom. Second, the authors single out ASEAN countries for blame.

As a Western-educated Muslim living amongst others with the same background, I would argue that ASEAN’s Muslim intelligentsia simply has little exposure to fringe radical groups. Being mesmerized by economic development has little to do with this lack of awareness. In my own Indonesia, a nation with a rich history of religious tolerance, radicalism is often frowned upon and difficult to understand.

Also, the rise of radical Islam was not ignored by the media or academics, particularly after the fall of Indonesian President Suharto in 1998. I was a journalist in Jakarta during the last years of the Suharto era. Judging by how many of my colleagues in Indonesia and neighboring countries were banned or arrested for not touting political harmony and economic success, it’s a wonder that the protesters continued to speak out. Jones and Smith write, "The prosaic reality was… that for twenty years, economic growth and the rhetoric of regional harmony had obscured the underlying tectonics of Southeast Asian politics." But they are just repeating what journalists and academics in the region already knew and what the daring had reported.

The reality is, yes, Islamic radicalism was growing in popularity in Indonesia, at least amongst communities with a history of Islamic movements, such as the South Sulawesi province. Figures now pursued by the authorities have links with firebrands from the 1950s and 1960s. These radicals are almost impossible to ignore because they are vocal and organized. But they are not representative of the majority, as the authors acknowledge when they write, "a moderate and civil Islam is an established feature of regional politics."

Second, to single out ASEAN countries as incapable of rooting out extremism is overly simplistic. Many Latin American countries also have pervasive military structures, but terrorist groups still maintain bases in the Triple Frontier region that includes Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. U.S. intelligence agencies are immortalized in countless books and films, yet they were also unaware of the terrorist networks living in their midst — are U.S. media and academia also partly to blame for this failure?

The extent of the al Qaeda network worldwide — from Sudan to the United States, Pakistan to Spain — took much of the world by surprise. It is folly to expect ASEAN governments, burdened by food riots and pro-democracy protests, to be steps ahead of the rest of the world in sniffing out terrorism.

ASEAN is a flawed organization, both in concept and in implementation. However, ASEAN’s rigid non-interference policy — whereby each state deals with its own internal security matters — is a direct product of the politics of the day, i.e., dictatorships. It’s no surprise, then, that ASEAN nations regarded "unresolved Islamic challenges" as "purely internal matters"; in this regard, radical Islam is no different than the challenge of tackling corruption, environmental degradation, or separatism.

Recent arrests further weaken the argument that strict regimes can’t tackle terrorism. ASEAN has hardly liberalized, yet five months after the Bali bombing, many suspected plotters have been caught in a dragnet that governments worldwide concede is the hard work of the Indonesian police, assisted by Australian forensic experts and the region’s intelligence agencies. Like it or not, ASEAN authorities are doing something right.

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