Experts gathered at the Philippine Counter-Terrorism Experts' Conference in Cebu last week had this warning in common: governments confronting terrorism could be dangerously underestimating the capabilities of terror groups and their linkages with each other.
Veteran international journalist Maria Ressa told security experts and diplomats that many governments, including that of the United States and those in Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, appear to remain in denial as to the extent of the threat posed by militant groups operating in many countries. Philippine Ambassador-at-large for Counter-Terrorism Benjamin Defensor said authorities often underestimate militant groups' capabilities to stage attacks or propagate fanaticism. Ressa added there is a trend among governments to think that their domestic insurgent problems are purely internal and links with the al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) are not clearly established.
Similarly, counterterrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna of Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies said some domestic conflicts had become breeding grounds for militant cells, and warned that this may be the case for southern Thailand as Muslim insurgents there shift from a nationalist to a more jihadist orientation. He told reporters that the complexion of the local domestic conflict in southern Thailand is changing because other Islamic militant organizations in the region are becoming involved; noting that insurgents there are increasingly talking of external assistance and have even launched an Arabic website.
While counterterrorism experts can provide no hard evidence that JI had assisted Thai insurgents, Thai government officials on the other hand, maintain that most intelligence reports showed that there is no evidence that Thai insurgents are receiving support from foreign militant groups. Somwang Khruasuwan, a counselor at the Thai Foreign Ministry in the Philippines disagreed with Gunaratna’s assessment, saying that Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand are not extremists and that there has been no increase in violence in Thailand's south in recent years. The Thai government sees the insurgency as domestic and solvable in the near future. But Gunaratna insisted Thailand cannot portray its problem as an isolated case that could not be "infected and infiltrated" by jihadist groups, as the problem of terrorism is one of regional concern.
While the threat of terrorism is as real as the need to crush it “with all the military force at every level globally, that should be handled with care” said Director General of National Crisis Management Cell of Pakistan's Ministry of Interior, Javed Iqbal Cheema. He said anti-terrorism strategies can only work if governments "objectively identify and address" the conditions that breed extremism. "Since terrorism is not confined to a single country or one region, there is a need for evolving consensus at global level on a strategy incorporating both short-term and long-term measures that work in tandem," he said.
Security experts and diplomats warned that an anti-terrorism drive by Asian governments risks alienating moderate Muslims and pushing them towards extremism. They called on nations to work together to find a "middle way" amid hard and soft approaches to fighting terror. Gunaratna called on the Philippines, Thailand,Indonesia and Malaysia to seek help from moderate Muslim clerics and community leaders to solve their problems with militants to reverse the "ideology" of hatred.
Experts also warned that widening gaps and rising barriers among governments are hampering global counterterrorism efforts, such as the fact that developing countries have strong commitments to fight terrorism but often lack the capability to do so. Governments and organizations also have differences on what engenders terrorism and extremism, and how these can be dealt with. Further, Ellen Margrethe Loj, chairwoman of the UN's counterterrorism committee, notes that progress has been slow in relation to laws criminalizing the financing of terrorism, with more than half of the countries of Southeast Asia yet to enact such laws, and almost half not having yet ratified the international convention concerning the financing of terrorism.
'Southern Thailand is new terror ground' (The Philippine Star, 23 April 2006)
Asian anti-terror drive risks alienating Muslims -- experts (AFP, 22 April 2006)
Southeast Asian nations urged to do to more to cut terrorist funding (AP, 20 April 2006)
Widening gaps among gov'ts hamper anti-terror fight (The Philippine Star, 23 April 2006)
'Terror groups' capabilities underestimated' (The Philippine Star, 24 April 2006)