Thursday, February 24, 2005

Austin Bay on Terrorism in Southeast Asia

One of my favorite military writers Austin Bay--"author and syndicated columnist. Soldier, developmental aid advocate, war game designer, lecturer, and radio commentator" (in fact, you can link to his blog from my blogroll, under "Blogosphere") once wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard in 2003, "Dire Straits--The war on terror's Singapore front" that was recently discussed on Belmont Club. Some highlights and comments.

On the possibility of a "super Cole" attack on a super carrier transiting in Singapore:
AN AMERICAN OFFICER familiar with U.S. Navy security concerns in southeast Asia first tipped me to the aircraft carrier scenario. "Singapore's a logical choice for a 'super Cole' operation, or something similar," he said. That was October 2001. We sat in a CENTCOM office, a world map tacked to the wall (U.S. Central Command is responsible for our security interests from the Horn of Africa into Central Asia). "The Straits of Malacca are a chokepoint. The U.S. has log[istics] support on Singapore, to an extent replacing what we lost when we moved out of Subic [Bay, Philippines]. It's a nice place, First World in the Third World. Even if it wasn't a U.S. ally, Islamists don't like the island. It's Chinese--that's what the radicals say. They don't like it. Not because it isn't Muslim, but because it's a wealthy Chinese island dumped between two predominantly Muslim nations, Malaysia and Indonesia." [HC: now that, is a succinct summary of our geo-strategic situation in the 21st century.]

The officer and I explored several "ship assault" scenarios, including a tanker scuttled in the straits (this was a year before al Qaeda attacked a French tanker off Yemen). Our Malacca incident had the plot of a novel, with Indonesian or Malaysian pirates assisting al Qaeda operatives. The broken tanker spills a million barrels of crude, creating an eco-disaster, Exxon goo lapping pristine south sea beaches. The attack has iconic qualities, underlining Western and Japanese reliance on Mideast oil, producing the sort of propaganda bonanza a terrorist zealot literally dies for.

Then I said, "Sink a super carrier? The armor? U.S. Navy damage control? And we're watching for these guys." "Yeah," he replied. "But after September 11, the far out's too real..."
According to this next informant, the war is not new in this corner of the world, not by a long shot.
A new kind of war? Maybe, but for Mr. Chang it's not so new. His real name isn't Chang--not even close. Getting cops and counterterror intelligence officers to talk exacts a price, and that price is strict anonymity. I can say Chang has worked with a sophisticated group of intelligence officers and cops, drawing on assets from Malaysia, the United States, and Singapore's Internal Security Department (ISD). Their common foe is Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), al Qaeda's branch operation in Southeast Asia, headed by radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.

Chang taps the map I've drawn, a black wriggle indicating strait and channel. "JI members discussed this attack, but they discuss much. They talk. But planned it to the point of carrying it out?" He shrugs.

I mention having heard that JI has reconned the approaches to Changi. That would suggest JI's naval operation has moved from talk to active consideration.

"Then you go find open sources who can confirm chatter," Chang says. "What I am trying to say to you, from my experience, is that American vessels and foreign embassies are not necessarily their only targets, Colonel."

Colonel. A careful investigator, he'd been to my website and elsewhere. I tell him I'm just a reservist.

"Yes," Chang smiles. "Yes, Mr. Bay." He amuses himself.

"But you agree a U.S. Navy ship is a prime target. Big headlines?"

"There are other attractive targets," he says, "from their [JI's] perspective. Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia--this region's been with this longer than you. We've been targets longer than you. I don't say this to insult. . . . America has joined our war."
JI's game plan:
[E]vidence gathered by Singapore's ISD over the past five years also makes Chang's point: Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia lie first and foremost in JI's geo-strategic kill zone. JI has large plans for the whole of Southeast Asia, plans dating from well before 9/11. Drawing on cadres schooled in past radical political movements that used Islam as both a wedge issue and a rallying cause, JI seeks to establish a grand "Islamic state" stretching from southern Thailand through Malaysia, the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagoes, and Australia. Indeed, JI produced a "green map" where the reach of sharia, as interpreted by JI leadership, extends into the Australian continent and New Guinea. Fanciful? Megalomaniacal? After 9/11 only the willfully blind can dismiss the motivating power of such an imperial eschatology.

Chang shows me a copy of JI's dreamland, pulling the map from his brown notebook and placing it on the counter. It's our second meeting. Chang orders a latte as I study the map. Borneo, Java, Thailand's Krak peninsula, the whole of the Philippines, western and northern Australia shaded in this photocopy. "They believe it," he says.
On why Singapore is such a favored target:
"JI chooses [terror operations] in Singapore for the demonstrative effect," says K. Kesavapany, director of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. We are in his chauffeured car, driving down Napier Road, a toney, tree-shaded boulevard where the U.S., British, and Australian embassies line up like well-fenced bunkers. All three, as well as the Israeli embassy, had made JI's target list. "We in Singapore have our guard up, so if al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah could get it done here, a terror strike, they can get it done anywhere in the region. That is the message." We pass a bus stop across from the U.S. embassy, the spot where a JI recon team videotaped the approaches to the American compound.

"We're an island World Trade Center," Kesavapany adds, as his driver turns the corner to drop me off at my hotel.
On Indonesia's lukewarmness (Singapore Government: we can neither confirm nor deny any such thing) to the terror threat before the Bali bombing:
The Bali bombing killed almost 200 people and injured another 300. It also demonstrated that al Qaeda was still probing Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

"What kind of counterterror cooperation exists with Indonesia since Bali?" I ask Chang, when I see him again.

"Since Bali the Indonesian police have been able to act more readily. Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore--the police cooperate closely."

"But until the Bali mess, the Indonesian government was publicly denying the threat of radical Islamists in Indonesia?" I prod.

Chang doesn't reply.
On the incident at Yishun MRT, and the US taking credit for what Singapore did:
Subways are another choice target. Singapore beefed up its counterterror unit after the 1995 Aum Shin Rikyo sarin nerve gas attack in Tokyo. A December 2000 terror attack on the Manila metro sent shock waves through the region. Indonesian Islamic militants were implicated in that attack. Filipino and other intelligence services had already developed dossiers linking JI to the Philippines' Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Jihadis trained with the MILF in the southern Philippines until the Philippine military began overrunning the camps in 2000 and 2001.

But for the clinching evidence putting JI in al Qaeda's bosom, check out the reconnaissance video of Singapore's Yishun metro station, which can be downloaded from the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs website. Yishun is a subway stop near Sembawang, where U.S. naval facilities are located. The narrator of the video analyzes the arrival of the connecting bus outside the station and discusses the comings and goings of U.S. military personnel. One sequence focuses on a street drain as the voice, in cold sing-song, muses that it could be "useful."

The tape sounds like a bad outtake from "Mission Impossible." But it isn't. The Yishun tape was acquired by "American assets" in Afghanistan.

"Singapore's ISD was already onto the JI cell when U.S. forces picked up the video in an Afghan location," Colter tells me.

"But someone in D.C. took credit for the tape as leading to December 2001's mass round-up of jihadis?" I ask.

"ISD has a legitimate gripe," Colter replies.
And, the last highlight, Bay's encounter with a Gurkha Guard:
As I leave the embassy, a guard with a smile to put a cheshire cat to shame watches, his submachine gun professionally slung.

"What unit are you in?" I ask.

"Gurkha Contingent." Translation: He's a mercenary working special security duties for Singapore.

"The bus stop across the street. I saw a video shot by terrorists from that spot."

"Not now," he replies. No cockiness, lots of confidence.

"That's an MP-5," I say, pointing to his weapon.

"Yes . . . do you know it?"

"When I was in the American Army I had an M-3 .45 caliber sub in my tank. Not as fancy as that MP-5."

"When were you in the Army?"

"Well, I'm still in the reserves."

"Really?" With a quick click he pops me a salute.

I start to tell him I'm here as a writer. But I don't. I salute him, then head down the sidewalk to the street, a stretch of concrete that's as much a front line in this strange world war as Wall Street, or the Pentagon, or a minefield in southern Iraq.
Two years since publication, it still makes for some chilling reading.

Further reading:
- Congressional Research Service Report for the US Congress, "Terrorism in Southeast Asia" (Updated August 13, 2004) (.pdf file)

- Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore, White Paper: "The Jemaah Islamiyah Arrests and The Threat of Terrorism" (Jan 9, 2003) (here)

- Ministry of Defense, Singapore, "The Fight Against Terror: Singapore's National Security Strategy" (2004) (.pdf file)


UPDATE 2: From Jakarta Post (Feb 24):
MANILA (DPA): Two Indonesians and a Malaysian suspected to be members of the regional Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) group have been arrested in the Philippines, officials said on Thursday.

Police chief Director General Edgar Aglipay said the suspects were arrested in the southern port city of Zamboanga along with a member of the Abu Sayyaf rebel group.

Bomb components, some US$7,000 and assorted firearms were seized from the JI militants, who were allegedly plotting bomb attacks in key cities in the Philippines.

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