MANILA, PHILIPPINES — The Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have been pinpointed by the US as potential future launching pads for attacks by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, and the US is using aid, diplomacy, and pressure to get them to help curtail the threat.
In the mostly Catholic Philippines, the effort is fairly straightforward, with widespread public support for military action against radical Muslim groups. The US is widely expected to dispatch military advisers to Manila. In Indonesia and Malaysia - both predominantly Muslim - governments are struggling to control radical groups amid rising anti-US sentiment and support for Mr. bin Laden.
Though it will play out differently in each, all three Southeast Asian nations are being forced to redefine the way they handle politically interpreted Islam in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the US and the ongoing US-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
This week in the Philippines, the government launched its most successful offensive in years against the Abu Sayyaf separatist group, according to National Security Adviser Roilo Golez. The Philippines has struggled with Islamic separatists in its southern region for decades. "We've ... had some big battles and that's what we've been looking for. We're hoping to finish the Abu Sayyaf off,'' he says, citing a rebel death toll of 21.
The US is now going to help, adds Mr. Golez. He says the US will send 22 high-level military advisers to help coordinate intelligence sharing and provide counterterrorism training - "and maybe provide us with some equipment.''
The US has been worried about the Philippines since 1995, when an Al Qaeda cell led by Ramzi Yousef (later convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) was uncovered here. Officials allege the group was planning to assassinate the pope and bomb 11 US airliners.
Philippine officials also say the cell had ties to Abu Sayyaf, which is fighting for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines. They allege the rebel group was founded with training and financial aid from bin Laden. The group is currently holding 17 hostages, including two Americans.
"Abu Sayyaf is not a long-term threat. They can be handled militarily,'' says Zam Ampatuan, executive director of the government's office on Muslim affairs. "But extremism will remain and create similar groups if we don't take nonmilitary steps as well.''
That complexity in the Philippines is nothing compared with what governments in Indonesia and Malaysia face. Many Muslims in both countries are sympathetic to bin Laden. While President Mahathir Mohamad has denounced US-led airstrikes on Afghanistan, police there on Wednesday arrested six men they allege belong to an Islamic extremist group. There were 10 similar arrests in August. Most of the detainees have ties to the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party, the strongest opposition to President Mohamad.
In Indonesia, police are battling growing numbers of anti-US protestors, who criticize President Megawati Sukarnoputri's silence on the US raids. In the past few years, radical Islamic groups have gained a foothold in the world's largest Muslim country, long considered a bastion of religious tolerance.
Laskar Jihad, another group with links to bin Laden, has been fighting against Christians in the nation's two Maluku provinces for two years, and paramilitary groups have sprung up elsewhere.