BEYOND MADRID: WINNING AGAINST TERRORISM
The terrorist attacks in Madrid in March this year could become a turningpoint in the war against terrorism. Unless we make the right moves, Ifear the turn could be for the worst.
The choice of the targetand the timing of the attack were strategic. The Spanish SocialistParty had made the withdrawal of troops from Iraq part of its electionplatform. Attacking Madrid just before the election was obviouslycalculated to achieve a strategic effect; as indeed it did when the newgovernment so quickly confirmed its intention to pull out of the US-ledcoalition in Iraq.
This will only encourage the terrorists toexploit political differences within countries and divisions betweenthe US and Europe. We must not let them succeed.
Any lingeringdoubts about the terrorists' strategic intentions should have been putto rest by a statement attributed to Osama Bin Ladin in April whereinhe offered a "truce" to Europe if it stopped "attacking Muslims orinterfering in their affairs including [participating] in the Americanconspiracy". And, notwithstanding what some critics of the war in Iraqhave alleged, this statement also demonstrates that Osama Bin Ladinhimself sees the war in Iraq as part of the larger struggle againstterrorism. He pointedly said "the killing of Europeans came after theirinvasion of Iraq and Afghanistan".
The war against terrorismcould shape the 21st Century in the same way as the Cold War definedthe world before the fall of the Berlin Wall. To win, we must firstclearly understand what we are up against. I am grateful to the Councilon Foreign Relations for the opportunity to share my views on thisimportant subject.
Terrorism is a generic term. Terroristorganisations such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or ETA in Spain areonly of local concern. The virulent strain of Islamic terrorism isanother matter altogether. It is driven by religion. Its ideologicalvision is global. It is most dangerous. The communists fought to livewhereas the jihadi terrorists fight to die, and live in the next world.
Myperspective is formed by our own experiences in Southeast Asia whichpost-9/11 has emerged as a major theatre for terrorist operations. InDecember 2001, Singapore arrested 15 people belonging to a radicalIslamic group called the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). They were plotting evenbefore 9/11 to attack American and other western interests inSingapore. In August 2002, we arrested another 21 members of thisgroup. Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand have also mademany arrests of terrorists.
The JI regional leadership spannedIndonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Southern Philippines. Itstentacles even probed into Australia. JI's objective was to create aDaulah Islamiyah, an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. This was to becentred in Indonesia but would include Malaysia, Southern Thailand,Southern Philippines, and, inevitably, Singapore and Brunei.
Butthe most crucial conclusion our investigations revealed was this: theexistence of a transregional terrorist brotherhood of disparateSoutheast Asian groups linked by a militant Islamic ideology to eachother and to Al-Qaeda. Whatever their specific goals, these groups werecommitted to mutual help in the pursuit of their common ideology: theyhelped each other with funds and support services, in training and injoint operations.
In 1999, JI formed a secret caucus called theRabitatul Mujahidin, meaning Mujahidin Coalition, to bring togethervarious militant Southeast Asian Islamic groups. Between 1999 and 2000,Rabitatul Mujahidin met three times in Kuala Lumpur. It was responsiblefor the bombing attack against the Philippine Ambassador to Indonesiain Jakarta in August 2000. The brain behind the attack was Hambali, thelink man between Southeast Asian terrorism and Al-Qaeda. Fortunately,he is now under arrest.
But the threat remains. It stems froma religious ideology that is infused with an implacable hostility toall secular governments, especially the West, and in particular the US.Their followers want to recreate the Islam of 7th Century Arabia whichthey regard as the golden age. Their ultimate goal is to bring about aCaliphate linking all Muslim communities. Their means is jihad whichthey narrowly define as a holy war against all non-Muslims whom theycall "infidels".
The Arabs call this religious ideologySalafi. Our experience in Southeast Asia is not without wider relevancebecause of what the Salafis themselves believe. This is what one ofthem, an Algerian named Abu Ibrahim Mustafa, has said:
"Thewar in Palestine, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Algeria, in Chechnya andin the Philippines is one war. This is a war between the camp of Islamand the camp of the Cross, to which the Americans, the Zionists, Jews,their apostate allies and others belong. The goal of this war, whichthey falsely called a War on Terror, is to prevent the Muslims fromestablishing an Islamic state.....".
Likewise, JI's ultimategoal is a Caliphate, by definition not confined to Southeast Asia. Thedream of a Caliphate may seem absurd to the secular mind. But it willbe a serious mistake to dismiss its appeal to many in the Islamicworld, though the majority do not believe in killing and dying for it.
Butthere are radicals and militants who do. The terrorist brotherhood inSoutheast Asia and its links to Al-Qaeda were first forged through thestruggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Ibrahim Maidin,the leader of the Singapore JI cell, underwent military training inAfghanistan in the early 1990s. His encounters with the Mujahiddendeeply impressed him. Maidin wrote several letters to the TalibanSupreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and to Osama Bin Ladin. He askedwhether Mullah Omar was to be regarded as the Caliph of the IslamicWorld. After returning to Singapore, Maidin arranged for JI members tovisit Afghanistan and to undergo training there.
When one ofthose convicted of the October 2002 Bali bombings was sentenced todeath, he thanked the prosecutors and said that this would bring himcloser to God and "the death penalty would mean nothing exceptstrengthening my faith."
Islamic militancy is not new toSoutheast Asia. But what is new is this type of fanatical globalideology (including the phenomenon of suicide bombers) that has beenable to unite different groups and lead Southeast Asian groups tosubordinate local interests to the broader struggle.
IbrahimMaidin has confessed to a senior Singapore intelligence officer that inretrospect he had made the mistake of moving too quickly and shouldhave waited for Malaysia, Indonesia, the Southern Philippines andSingapore to become an Islamic state before acting against USinterests. But he still believes that his side would ultimately win. Healso said that as long as the US was "doing things against theMuslims", the JI would continue to attack the US.
From our experience in Southeast Asia, I draw three principal conclusions that I believe have a wider relevance.
First,the goals of these terrorists make the struggle a zero sum game forthem. There is no room for compromise except as a tactical expedient.America may be the main enemy but it is not the only one. What Osamabin Ladin offered Europe was only a "truce", not a lasting peace. Thewar against terrorism today is a war against a specific strain ofmilitant Islamic terrorism that wants, in effect, a 'clash ofcivilisations' or in the words of the Algerian I earlier quoted, "a warbetween the camp of the Islam and the camp of the Cross".
TheJI has tried to create the conditions for Christians and Muslims inSoutheast Asia to set against one another. In December 2000, itattacked churches in Indonesia, including one church in an Indonesianisland off Singapore. It has sent its members to fight and stir uptrouble in Ambon against Christians. At the trial of those responsiblefor the Bali bombing of October 2002, one of the defendants, Amrozi,dubbed by the media as the "smiling terrorist", said that he was notsorry for the westerners killed in the Bali attacks. He said, "How canI feel sorry? I am very happy, because they attack Muslims and areinhuman". In fact, he wished "there were more American casualties".What was most chilling is that this hatred is impersonal.
Oneof those we detained in Singapore was a service engineer with anAmerican company. He confessed that he actually liked his Americanfriends and bosses. He was nevertheless involved in targeting Americaninterests. We have a sense that he had struggled with this. Heeventually decided to testify against the spiritual leader of JI, AbuBakar Bashir, but only because he felt betrayed by Bashir's denial ofthe very existence of the JI organisation which Bashir headed and towhom he and other members had sworn allegiance.
And just asOsama bin Ladin is trying to drive a wedge between Europe and America,in Southeast Asia, JI was plotting to do the same thing by blowing upthe pipelines that supply water from Malaysia to Singapore. The JI knewthat water from Malaysia is a matter of life and death for Singapore.They knew that race and religion have historically been the major faultlines within and between both countries. The JI's intention was toprovoke a conflict between Singapore and Malaysia and portray a'Chinese Singapore' as threatening a 'Muslim Malaysia', and use theensuing confusion to try and overthrow the Malaysian Government andestablish an Islamic state in Malaysia.
That particular plotfailed. The Governments of Singapore and Malaysia could not haveallowed it to succeed. We know only too well what is at stake.
Thefavourite tactic of terrorists of all stripes has always been to try toprovoke a backlash to serve their cause. When news of the JI arrestsbroke, my immediate concern was to maintain social cohesion inSingapore. Singapore is a multi-racial society with a 15-percent Muslimpopulation. They are well integrated in our schools, housing estatesand the workplace. Nevertheless, misunderstandings could easily arise.We met with Muslim leaders in a number of closed-door sessions to sharedetails of the investigations and to explain that the arrests were nottargeted against the Singapore Muslim community or Islam.
Ialso held dialogues with several thousand grassroots leaders of allethnic groups and religions to make clear that I viewed the Muslimcommunity in Singapore as peace-loving and to stress that the JIarrests should not cause fault lines to develop in inter-racial andinter-religious relations. We formed inter-racial confidence circles inschools and workplaces to promote better inter-racial andinter-religious understanding between the different communities.
Buton a global plane, I sense that the beginnings of a backlash mayalready be upon us. Antagonism against Muslims has risen in Europe andthe US since 9/11. A number of senior European politicians have spokenagainst admitting Muslim Turkey into the EU. The municipal Governmentof Rotterdam wants to change the city's racial profile and an all partyreport to the Dutch Parliament recently concluded that 30 years ofmulticultural policy had failed; yet Holland is one of the most liberaland tolerant of European countries. In Britain, the Chairman of theCommission for Racial Equality has dismissed multiculturalism as out ofdate and no longer useful. Muslims are feeling this unease with them.Perhaps as a response, many of the younger generation of Muslimseverywhere are increasingly adopting the symbols of religiosity.
Mysecond conclusion is that it is only through absolute and unsentimentalclarity about the threat we face that we can define, differentiate andtherefore, isolate militant Islamic terrorism from mainstream Islam. Itis not sufficient to repeat, mantra-like, that the majority of Muslimsare peaceful and do not believe in violence. Unfortunately, we toooften sacrifice clarity to be politically correct.
In April, theMuslim Council of Britain, a government-linked organisation, provoked astorm of protests when it asked the authorities of some 1,000 mosquesto preach peaceful Islamic doctrines, be vigilant against Islamists andcooperate fully with the police. Baroness Uddin, a Labour peer ofBangladeshi origin, condemned it as "entirely unacceptable that 1,000mosques were written to as if they were all harbouring terrorists" andaccused the Council of supporting a witch-hunt. But who would be betterthan the Muslims themselves to make the necessary distinctions? If wepretend in the name of political correctness that distinctions oughtnot be made, it is inevitable that all Muslims be viewed withsuspicion.
This brings me to my third and perhaps mostimportant conclusion. Just as the Cold War was an ideological as wellas a geopolitical struggle, the war against terrorism must be foughtwith ideas as well as with armies; with religious and community leadersas well as police forces and intelligence services. This ideologicalstruggle is already upon us. The terrorist threat has moved beyond anyindividual or group. It has become a global menace. Unless we win thebattle of ideas, there will be no dearth of willing foot soldiers readyto martyr themselves for their cause.
This ideologicalstruggle is far more complex than the struggle against communismbecause it engages not just reason but religious faith. You and I asnon-Muslims have no locus standi to engage in this struggle for thesoul of Islam. It is a matter for Muslims to settle among themselves.
InSingapore, JI members were taught that their loyalty was to Allah andnot any secular authority. This loyalty was above the loyalty to theirparents, families and even fellow Muslims. That is why they werewilling to accept the deaths of innocent Muslims to strike at theirenemies.
They found it almost impossible to break away fromthis mindset. One of those we arrested admitted that he and others hadbeen programmed and manipulated to have a "tunnel vision" of theconcept of jihad. Another detainee told our security authorities thathe hoped an ustaz or religious teacher could come to the detentioncentre to help him "purge" his wrong ideas about Islam and teach him"true Islam". In other words, although he recognised that his religiousteachings were wrong, he would acknowledge only a religious authorityto change his ideas.
We were fortunate that in Singapore theMuslim community and Islamic leaders trusted the Governmentsufficiently to be willing to offer their help. They understood thatunless they acted, all Muslims could have been tarred by a few. Anumber of Islamic religious teachers have volunteered their services toour security authorities to undertake religious counselling andrehabilitation of our JI detainees.
We welcome their help. Butas a secular Government, we cannot and do not tell religious teacherswhat they must preach. As long as they do not espouse violence, we mustbe prepared to risk a certain amount of criticism. Religious leadersthat regarded as too pro-government may not be credible to theirground. Participation in the rehabilitation of JI detainees by Islamicscholars and counsellors gave the Muslim community in Singapore a stakein combating extremist Islamic terrorism. It facilitated the evolutionof self-policing by the Muslim community and helped inoculate itagainst radical elements.
This may seem an obvious point. ARAND report released in March categorised Muslims into fundamentalists,traditionalists, modernists and secularists. The report recommendedthat the West support the modernists first; support the traditionalistsagainst the fundamentalists; confront and oppose the fundamentalists,and selectively support the secularists. Such an approach is a start.But I believe that it oversimplifies the problem by failing torecognise what all Muslims share in common. It overstates thedifferences within the global Muslim community.
It is a factthat there is a living, vibrant Islamic ummah or global Islamiccommunity perhaps more so today than in any time in modern worldhistory. The ummah is not monolithic. But the identification that allMuslims feel for events affecting other Muslims has become real andvisibly stronger and more widespread since global communications havefacilitated the dahwa or missionary activities of the Arab states,especially Saudi Arabia preaching and spreading Wahhabism with its oilwealth. Denying that there is such a globalised Muslim political andreligious consciousness, or trying to argue that a universal ummah is adanger or somehow undesirable, only mobilises all Muslims to dig in asthey feel their religion is under siege.
What we are confrontedwith is a dynamic spectrum and not static categories within the ummah.When we ask why is it that moderates in such a spectrum do not raisetheir voices to challenge extremists, we must acknowledge that onereason is that on many issues they share much common ground even whenthey disagree on particulars.
Do you seek to change the worldby prayer and faith? Do you work with an imperfect reality and strivetowards its perfection? Do you not reject all that is not Islamic andseek to destroy it by force so as to re-establish the perfectCaliphate? These are all questions that vibrate and resonate around asingle axis of faith.
We know that we should work with themoderates and isolate the extremists. But as we seek to separate thewheat from the chaff, we need to recognise that both come from the sameplant. How we seek to engage and encourage the Muslim world to fightthe ideological battle against the extremists must reflect thissensitivity and awareness.
This is complicated but notimpossible. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi fought theIslamic party, PAS, on the issue of the kind of Islamic state thatMalaysia should be. He won a resounding victory in the generalelections. He checked PAS' advance towards an austere Muslim state withSharia laws with his vision of an Islamic state that is Islam Hadahrior "Progressive Islam". He has joined issue not on whether Malaysiashould be an Islamic state but on the nature of such a state; and thestruggle to define Malaysia's Islamic state will continue for a longtime. In Indonesia, Islamic-based parties generally did not do as wellas parties that do not campaign under the banner of Islam in the recentparliamentary elections. But the Islamic parties will remain a crucialswing factor in the presidential elections later this year.
Irecently travelled to Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain and also met a numberof other Middle Eastern leaders in Singapore. I found them determinedto fight the ideology that feeds the Islamic terrorists througheducational reform and other means. They understand the problem. I amencouraged by these signs and am trying to initiate a dialogue betweenAsia and the Middle East to share experiences and forge understanding.India and Southeast Asia together have more Muslims than in the MiddleEast. It is possible Asian Muslims can make a contribution to theideological fight.
Let me conclude with a few words about therole of the US. Only the US has the capacity to lead the geopoliticalbattle against the Islamic terrorists. Iraq has become the keybattleground. Before he was killed in Saudi Arabia, Yousef Al Aiyyeri,author of the Al-Qaeda Blueprint for fighting in Iraq, said: ifdemocracy succeeds in Iraq, that would be the death of Islam. That iswhy Osama Bin Ladin and others have put so much effort to try and breakthe coalition and America's resolve to stay the course to build amodern Iraq that Muslims will be proud of. Those who do not understandthis, play into their hands. The key issue is no longer WMD or even therole of the UN. The central issue is America's credibility and will toprevail. If that is destroyed, Islamic extremists everywhere will beemboldened. We will all be at greater risk.
But the US cannotlead the ideological battle. The RAND report also fails to sufficientlyacknowledge the deep distrust Muslims across the spectrum feel for theWest and for the US in particular. It overstates the ability of anyexternal force to influence one Muslim group against another. Recently,a Malaysian Muslim academic told one of my officials that whilemoderate Muslims did not condone what the extremists were doing, theywere reluctant to speak up because they felt that this was a westernagenda and did not want to play into the hands of the US and itsallies. They were distrustful that the US would manipulate Muslimvoices for its own agenda.
The sources of Muslim anger anddistrust of the US are complex. At one level, it is perhaps nodifferent from the discomfort many, including US friends and allies,feel about US pre-eminent supremacy. At another level, it reflects theanguish of societies unable to cope with US-led globalisation and itsoccasional unilateralism. But I can think of no Muslim society anywherein the world where the Palestinian issue does not provoke a basic,common emotional response no matter how it may be expressed orintellectually articulated.
I am familiar with and indeed fullyagree with the argument that even if the Palestinian-Israeli conflictwere to be resolved, terrorism would not end. This is only logicalgiven the ideologically-driven motivations of Islamist terrorists ofthe Al-Qaeda strain. But while most Muslims do not approve of suicidebombings, they all do empathise with the plight of Palestinian Muslims.They are angered and disappointed by what they perceive as America'sacquiescence in Israel's disproportionate use of force against thePalestinians and, most recently, its policy of "targetedassassinations". They are critical of what they regard as America'sdouble standards, citing, for example, the US' determination in takingaction against Iraq but not Israel for non-compliance of UN SecurityCouncil resolutions. These are views expressed consistently by leadersof Muslim nations whom I have met, including those most stronglysupportive of America.
The end of the Palestinian conflict willnot end terrorism. But moderating the perception that Muslims have ofAmerica's role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would certainly go along way to moderating their view of the US. And this is essential ifthe ideological battle is to be won. I am aware of the various measuresthat the US has taken to try to win the Muslim mind such as setting upradio and television stations to broadcast alternative views of USpolicies to the Middle East. But the real issue is political policies,not public relations.
Like it or not, the Palestinian issuehas become the lens through which Muslims around the world view the waragainst terror and actions against Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, amongothers. That is why when, for example, one of the convicted Balibombers, Imam Samudra, justified his actions by claiming that "the waragainst America and its allies is a war against evil, against tyrannyand a war against terrorism and this is jihad in the path of Allah", itstrikes a disconcerting resonance in the Muslim community. And that iswhy when the likes of Abu Bakar Bashir claim that the CIA engineeredthe Bali bombing "to discredit Islam", even rational, educated Muslimsdo not speak out to dismiss what they know to be preposterous.
Iknow that these are sensitive issues. I do not want to bemisunderstood. Singapore is a friend of Israel. Israel helped Singaporebuild up its armed forces and to survive at a time when no othercountry in the world, not even the US or Britain, was confident enoughin us to take the risk of doing so. We will always be grateful.Singapore's relationship with Israel is one of the best in Asia.
Butlike most people in the world, we watch the escalating cycle ofviolence with deep anguish - "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth".We know there are no simple solutions. Still, the Palestinian-Israeliconflict and the cycle of violence fuel the global ideological strugglein which we are now all engaged. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict canno longer be seen only as a regional conflict or a matter of theself-defence of one country. The Palestinians know this. They know thatIsrael's reactions win sympathy for their cause from Muslims all aroundthe world and help the Islamic terrorists.
We are unfortunatelynow in a situation where Muslim friends of the US feel uncomfortableabout speaking out in America's defence and where mainstream Muslimshesitate to condemn extremists lest they be regarded as supporting theWest. Beyond the Palestinian issue, I found many Middle Eastern leadersuncomfortable with the pace at which the US is urging reforms for theregion. They are concerned that their interests and fears are not takenseriously enough by the US. Unless, the US gains the confidence of themainstream Muslims, they will not engage the extremists vigorously. Ifthey do not, I fear the ideological battle will be lost.
Educationand opportunities for further studies abroad, especially for Muslimwomen, are crucial to winning the ideological fight. This is an area inwhich the West can play an important role. There is nothing wrong withthe right type of religious education. But if mental horizons areshaped only by a religious education of even the most mainstream type,it means a limitation of opportunities for jobs and career development.And if opportunities are limited, sooner or later any religion willturn inwards on itself. This will make it easier for deviant ideologiesto take root. In Singapore, we have insisted that the Madrasahs orreligious schools include a secular curriculum that will enable itsgraduates to make a living.
Genuine post-9/11 securityconcerns should not lead the West to shut off or shun the Muslim world.To do so will be self-defeating. But with grants, scholarships,fellowships and investments, the West should seek to create maximumexposure, engagement and opportunities. Once Muslims have been exposedto the modern world as in Malaysia or Indonesia, and have benefitedfrom it without compromising their faith, it will be much moredifficult for the Islamic ideological strain that only harks backwardsto the 7th Century to take root.
I found the Middle Easterncountries I recently visited, in particular Bahrain and Jordan, eagerto build modern economies. We are close to concluding an FTA withJordan and have agreed to start negotiations on an FTA with Bahrain. Weare also pursuing similar initiatives with Egypt and Qatar. Viewed inthe context of the broader ideological struggle, FTAs are strategic aswell as economic choices by these governments. Other Arab countriesshould be encouraged to plug themselves into the 21st Century economy.Education, development, opportunities for employment and careerdevelopment are not only what most Muslims themselves want. They arealso less sensitive areas than democracy, human rights or equality forwomen and can be pushed more vigorously with less prospect ofresistance. Education, including education for women, and betteremployment opportunities which bring about a higher standard of livingare areas in which mainstream Muslims and the West have clear commoninterests. With education will come greater access to news andinformation and knowledge beyond their own borders. Social andpolitical changes will take time but progress will be unstoppable. Agradual approach is more likely to succeed and take root than a "bigbang" strategy which could have unpredictable and unwelcome results.
Ladiesand gentlemen, I have been frank with you because friends should beable to talk frankly with each other. There is too much at stake forall of us to hide behind diplomatic niceties or platitudes. I offer notcriticism but well-intentioned observations based on our experience inSoutheast Asia. If we are to win the war against terrorism, we must, asSun Tze in The Art of War says, understand the enemy. And we must, allof us, Muslims and non-Muslims, Americans, Europeans, Arabs and Asians,unite against it. But we must create the conditions that will make thisessential unity possible.