Dealing with Islamic Fundamentalism in Southeast Asia

Updated On: Jan 23, 2007

On 18 January 2007, the Philippines military killed 9 members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group after a fierce gun fight.

This came two days after the Philippines elite Army Special Forces killed Jaenal Antel Sali, one of the top five Abu Sayyaf leaders wanted by the United States for a series of high-profile terrorist acts. Earlier in January, Army Scout Ranger soldiers killed BinangSali, head of the Abu Sayyaf- Urban Terrorist Group. The Armed Forces Public information chief, Lt Colonel Bartolome Bacarro confidently asserted that the Abu Sayyaf is now a disorganised force after the deaths of several of their leaders.

President Arroyo claimed that the Abu Sayyaf was “nearing the end of the line.” To step up the pressure on the remaining Abu Sayyaf Group, the Philippinesgovernment will be sending an additional 1,500 Marines to the Basilan province.  Since last August, the Philippines government has involved 7,500 Marines and Army soldiers in an all-out effort to eliminate the Abu Sayyafgroup.

Elsewhere, Indonesia has also stepped up anti-terror actions in Poso in Sulawesi, a place where militants have gained a foothold.  The anti-terror squad raided a militant stronghold killing 9 suspected militants in a gun-battle and arresting 18 suspects.  A large haul of bombs and weapons were also found in the hideout and seized. 

While the Philippines’ fight against Islamic terrorist groups seems to be still focused on the military front, and there probably need to be continued military action in other places for some time to come, the other ASEAN members have also started to adopt a more long-term educational approach towards tackling Islamic fundamentalism.

In Indonesia, the leaders of the two largest Muslim organisations Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah agreed to promote a moderate form of Islam and forge national unity. NU’s leader, Hasyim Muzadi explained, “Developing Islam in Indonesia must be conducted within the corridors of moderation, far from extremism, either (of the political) left or right, and atheism. The development of Islam must be made in one breath, in a national movement, so that it is not a diametric between multiculturalism and religious movements.” Significantly, both leaders stated that they opposed any unconstitutional move to topple the government despite the numerous crises in the country.

In another conference in Indonesia, Islamic parliamentarians from 19 countries agreed to establish an international forum, the International Forum for Islamist Parliamentarians. The forum will discuss several key issues such as the relationship between Islam and democracy, freedom and human rights, women and children, economic development, parliamentary supervision and legal reforms. Taufik Wijaya, a participant from the Indonesian’s Prosperous Justice Party said, “Through this forum, we would like to convey to the world that Islam must not always be associated with violence.”

In Singapore, a half-day event was organised by Malay-Muslim voluntary organisation Taman Baccan in collaboration with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) to help Muslims guard against radicalism and to correct misconceptions of Islam. Participants were urged to be critical of information found on the web and to challenge misinformed online views. Briefings of the psychology of militant groups were also provided.

All of the above measures- military, education, frank discussions, briefings and dialogues will have to be taken seriously by the ASEAN governments if the menace of Islamic fundamentalism were to be tackled. This is because despite the capture of Hambali, the Operations chief of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) who had successfully linked Al-Qaeda with diverse Islamic militant groups in Southeast Asia, his legacy remains. In particular, Hambali had been able to institutionalise means and methods to sustain the war for many generations.

Hambali established camps where young students would be schooled in radical religious teachings, military and bombing skills and even network with radicals, militants from the Middle East and other separatist Islamic groups in Southeast Asia. Hambali was also able to recruit from radical Islamic schools and in regions where Muslims-non-Muslims relations was strained.

Only by systematically countering Hambali’s strategy, would the ASEAN members succeeded in eradicating Hambali’s legacy.


Police killed nine militants in shoot-out on Sulawesi (Straits Times, 23 January 2007)

A Lesson on Islamic Extremism for Students (Straits Times, 21 January 2007)

Forum Set Up on Islamic Issues (The Jakarta Post, 21 January 2007) 

More Marines to Basilan  (Manila Standard, 20 January 2007)

Government Forces Score Anew Vs Terrorists, Killing 10 ASG Members (Philippines News Agency, 19 January 2007)

Legacy of a JI Terrorist Leader, Straits Times (20 January 2007)

Related Article