Southeast Asia cooperation emerges out of Bali attack

A counterterrorism center opens in Malaysia - with only minor US involvement - reflecting a regional determination to combine resources.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's the house that Bali built.

The opening of a new regional counterterrorism center in Malaysia this month symbolizes how far governments in southeast Asia have come in their willingness to confront terrorism.

Located in Kuala Lumpur, the Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counter-Terrorism will house researchers and host training seminars for regional officials. While the center itself will not be an intelligence agency involved in operations, Southeast Asia's governments have already moved toward deeper intelligence sharing and joint investigations, say analysts.

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"Police forces are cooperating better now, it's really a dramatic improvement that's paying off in terms of arrests," says Zachary Abuza, a professor at Simmons College in Boston and the author of a forthcoming book on terrorism in Southeast Asia.

But it wasn't always this way.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell first raised the idea of an counterterrorism center in 2002 during a visit to the region, critics asked if such a move was necessary.

Would this be a Trojan horse, enabling the US to install a military base? Or an attempt to drag the region into a costly US-led war?

But such doubts were quashed by last October's nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia, and the economic ripple effect caused by fear of more attacks on resorts. Even countries like Thailand, with few visible signs of such extremism, were caught short as Western tourists decided to stay home.

"The bottom line is that unless governments perceive a direct and immediate threat from terrorism, they won't take action against terrorist groups in their territory," says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Singapore's Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies.

Investigators have since dug deeper into the secret networks that allowed Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Al Qaeda-affiliated group behind the Bali attack, to recruit and train followers in several countries. And what they have discovered underscores the need for continued regional cooperation to bring terror groups to heel.

The trial of Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, accused of plotting to overthrow the government as head of JI, recently heard evidence from witnesses in Malaysia and Singapore. But because the witnesses are outside the country, Mr. Bashir's lawyers have tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the testimony as inadmissible in court.

FOR Indonesia, which once spurned offers from its neighbors to help snare Bashir, who spent much of the '90s in Malaysia, such cooperation marks a major turnaround.

Intelligence sharing between other Southeast Asian security forces has also borne fruit: three Thais were arrested in June on a tip from Singapore police, who had questioned a suspected JI operative picked up in Bangkok. Thai police say that two of the detainees confessed to being JI members and alleged that the group had been plotting to attack foreign embassies and tourist resorts.

"We have a lot of work to do in our region against terrorism, but cooperation has definitely increased, particularly between Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines," says KS Nathan, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"For the new antiterrorism center to really take off, though, it will need to involve extraregional players, including the US."

But many Muslims in the region remain suspicious of US intentions in southeast Asia.

Plans to turn the new center into a clearinghouse for regional intelligence and joint operations, using US expertise, have been dropped, at least for now.

At the center's opening, Malaysia Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, pointedly told the assembled diplomatic audience that the center was "not involved in operations nor serves as an intelligence agency."

Western diplomats say Malaysia has steered the center towards broader research and training goals, rather than hard-nosed investigations.

Next month, it will host a seminar on money laundering for regional officials, an event that otherwise would be held at a conference hall.

Far from being an active partner, the US is now playing a minor role in the center, which is locally funded.

Analysts say the shift in emphasis reflects both local concerns about how the US war on terror is impacting the Muslim world - Malaysia has a large Muslim population and the anti-Western jibes of its Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad.

The US will continue to play a strong, if necessarily opaque, role in guiding antiterrorism policies in the region.

"Just about every ASEAN country has strong security ties with the US, and that includes Malaysia. If you look at the track record, the US is an important player in the regional security architecture," says Mr. Nathan.

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