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
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
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
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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