U.S. Defense Secretary Gates Greets the
Indonesian Military on a February 2008
Visit. (Mark Wilson/ Getty Images)
The area that the U.S. deemed a "second front" in its war on terrorism, Southeast Asia, has been in the spotlight in the last month. Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant group active in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, is at the center of several stories.
First, there was the escape of Mas Selamat Kastari, the alleged head of Jemaah Islamiyah in Singapore, from prison on February 27. He has not yet been located, although he is thought to have stayed in Singapore. Officials continue to search for the fugitive. The search, and the intensive border checks between bordering Malaysia and Singapore and at the airport, have slowed down the country considerably.
Before his apprehension in 2006, Kastari had been hiding out in Indonesia, where JI evolved out of long history of confrontation between secular and Islamist politics, which took a radical and violent turn at the end of the 20th century. Indonesia suffered its most lethal terrorist attack in 2002, when Jemaah Islamiyah exploded a Bali hotel, killing over 200 people.
The latest response in the subsequently stringent crackdown on JI includes an agreement, announced this week, that it will cooperate with Philippine police to establish a DNA databank to quickly identify killed JI members. DNA will be obtained from relatives of suspected militants.
The Philippines has also landed in the news. DNA testing is already taking place on a corpse believed to be that of Dulmatin, an Indonesian reputed to be an important bomb maker for JI. HeŚor someone elseŚwas killed in a gunfight with the Filipino military at the end of January. The U.S. provides training, intelligence and the surveillance hardware to the Philippine military as part of its commitment to have the country combat JI and Abu Sayyaf, a homegrown group believed to be providing haven for JI members in the southern Sulu archipelago.
This assistance, however, may prove to be politically and ethically complicated, as the emerging story of potential U.S. involvement in the death of eight Filipino civilians in February, is making evident. On February 4, acting on U.S. provided intelligence, the Philippine military conducted a raid said to be on Abu Sayyaf. Two soldiers and eight civilians were killed. The Los Angeles Times reported that one man, once a rebel but a member of the Philippine army since 1996, exited his house with a gun when he saw unidentified troops outside. His family says he announced himself as a member of the army and laid down the gun, when he recognized the troops. Nevertheless, he and his family were apprehended, and he was killed with an M-16 shot to the head.
On March 1, a bomb near the site of just completed joint exercises between U.S. and Philippine troops killed two Filipino soldiers and four women. The bombing has been said to have Abu Sayyaf's characteristics. Abu Sayyaf has some characteristics of a Islamist group in the same vein as Jemaah Islamiyah, but it is largely thought of as an insurgent group dedicated to criminal activity.