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Southeast Asia’s Islamists try the domino theory
A half-century ago, Washington worried about Southeast Asian nations falling like dominoes to an international communist movement backed by Maoist China, and became bogged down in the Vietnam War.
Noordin Top, believed to be the mastermind behind most of the suicide bombings in Indonesia — including the July 17 attacks on two luxury Jakarta hotels — pronounced himself to be al Qaeda’s franchise in Southeast Asia.
Top and his allies in Jemaah Islamiah (JI) aimed to create an Islamic caliphate across Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand and Southern Philippines. Even before the 9/11 suicide airliner attacks, they were trying to spark an Islamic revolution with ambitious plots and attacks.
Their young foot soldiers dreamed these pro-Western nations (which had banded together to form ASEAN under the U.S. military umbrella at the height of the Vietnam War in 1967) might fall like dominoes to the righteousness of an Islamic jihad. Their martyrdom to the cause would given them a blissful reward in Heaven.
But just as Communism was not the monolith it was feared to be in the 1960s — China and the Soviet Union had split for one thing — so too has the Southeast Asian jihadist movement failed to cohere into a singular movement.
Vietnam, it turned out, was fighting what it believed to be a war of national liberation, and was (still is) historically suspicious of China. Al Qaeda’s jihad in Southeast Asia has stumbled over similar misconceptions.
JI’s former military commander, Indonesian Riduan Isamuddin or “Hambali”, tried to pull together various insurgencies in the region under an al Qaeda umbrella before he was captured in Thailand in 2003. He even helped sponsor an “al Qaeda summit” with bin Laden’s lieutenants in Kuala Lumpur in 2000.
He failed mostly because the groups had different agendas and a fragmented leadership. The ideology that animates the movements — Islam — also prevents it from incorporating as well. The religion does not have hierarchies. People can have different views. The jihadist groups don’t do politburos.
Reuters has taken a look at these issues — including for investors in the region — in a package of stories. Click on the headlines below to read more about Southeast Asia Islamic insurgencies.