The study of the history and origins of support for Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia is highly relevant in the contemporary world. From a study of the rationale and motive of such groups, we can arrive at the security implications for the Australian government and the preventative measures that could be taken to thwart any possible terrorist attacks.
To begin with, the term ‘terrorist organization’ should not be interpreted to mean a formal hierarchy of personnel who are assigned fixed responsibilities and duties. On the other hand they imply propaganda and support mechanism whose aim is to recruit willing individuals from the Islamic world to participate in the holy war, also known as ‘Jihad’. Consistent with this fact, the term ‘Al Qaeda’ was not Christened by Osama bin Laden; rather, it was the United States intelligence agency CIA that referred to the Islamic activists led by bin Laden in this manner in the mid-1990s. Al Qaeda, translated from Arabic, literally means a “foundation or precept’. The term Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist outfit that has its roots in Southeast Asia is translatable into “Islamic community” (Shuja, 2006, p.447). Hence, the employment of terrorism is not an intrinsic aspect of these organizations. Terrorism is only a tactic that was adopted during the last decade or so, but there is nothing inevitable about it. This fact should be kept in mind by Australian security agencies, while drawing awareness campaigns and security measures, for far too often western intelligence tends to portray these Islamic groups to indulge in terrorist activities for terror’s sake. This is not true. The Jihadists’ objective is to defend their faith and their way of life, which they feel is threatened by the western cultural and military interventions in the Islamic world (and there is sufficient proof to support this assertion).
To understand how Al Qaeda gained support in Southeast Asia, it is important to gain cognisance of its founding principle, i.e. Al Qaeda was founded on universal Islamic precepts of jihad and brotherhood. And the present wave of Islamic revivalism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Southeast Asia originated during the 1970s. The movement started as a reaction to the disillusionment and failure associated with modern neo-liberal economic policies. The first world has had longstanding association with Muslim-dominant nations that are oppressive, authoritarian and dictatorial. A prime example of this would be Saudi Arabia, with whom the United States and its allies (including Australia) don’t seem to have a problem, in spite of copious evidence of severe human rights violations within its borders (Smith, 2002, p.34). This apparent hypocrisy of the west had induced a sense of discontent and anger within the wider Islamic community. That is when influential Muslim thinkers such as like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb involved themselves in social activism, which later spawned militant outfits like the Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah. This point is illustrated succinctly in the following passage:
“Islamic radicalism in Southeast Asia is not a sudden and recent phenomenon. In reality, it has been in the making for more than 20 years; its roots originate in events in the Middle East, the effects of which have reverberated worldwide. This in turn was facilitated by the impact of globalization and technological advancement. However, the catalytic role played by Al-Qaeda, especially since the early 1990s, is perhaps the single most significant factor in the global terrorist threat confronting the world today.” (De Castro, 2004, p.194)
To gain a deeper understanding of the rise of Islamic militancy in Southeast Asia, we need to delve into its instigating causes. The first and the seemingly perennial of the three is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Ever since the installation of Israel in 1948, a status of second-class citizenship was imposed on the native Arab Muslims in the region. American interference in Iran, where it deposed democratically elected government and handed over the reigns to the Shah. The subsequent dilution in Islamic values in Iran as a result of Shah’s inclination toward modernity and his apathy toward declining economic conditions had enraged Iranians – a radical section within its population has pledged participation in Jihad. And thirdly, when the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union played out their Cold war conflict in Afghanistan, its people felt “used and exploited” by the hegemonic western powers (Smith, 2002, p.33). These blatant political indiscretions on part of the First World and the more subtle cultural imperialism in the form of capitalism and material consumerism have provided sound rationale for organizations such as Al Qaeda (in Afganistan and the Middle East) and Jemaah Islamiah (in Southeast Asia) to fight for their right to self-determination. Any action on part of the Australian government to tighten security should be historically informed. Otherwise, the primary causes for Islamic militancy will continue to provide more emotional and intellectual fodder for violent responses (De Castro, 2004, p.194).