Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ring of Fire

Secretary of State Condolezza Rice is touring the Far East, and she offered a warning to regional leaders about terrorism:

"Groups like Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah want to destroy this region's dynamism and tradition of tolerance and turn South-East Asia into literally a ring of fire," Rice said in a speech at an Indonesian international relations forum at the conclusion of a two-day visit to Indonesia.

Abu Sayyaf is a Muslim rebel group based in the Philippines while Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an al-Qaeda-linked regional terrorist group, has been blamed for a string of bombings in Indonesia in the past several years that have killed hundreds of people.

Dr. Rice's concerns are well-founded. There is increasing evidence that Al Qaida is attempting to re-invigorate its Far Eastern operations, through increased cooperation with Abu Sayaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. Despite periodic bombings and other attacks (such as the 2003 blast at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta and last October's attack in Bali), Al Qaida's local affiliates haven't pulled off a "spectacular" operation since the 2002 bombing at a Bali disco, which killed more than 200 people. Increasing terrorist operations in the Far East would put more pressure on local governments and the U.S., which provides military aid and support to such critical allies as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Reading between the lines, Dr. Rice is also encouraging our regional to do more about their home-grown terrorist problem. But accomplishing that goal may prove difficult; the Filipino military is already stretched thin, and worries about a possible coup limit political and military options. The Thai military is also hampered by a growing insurgency in southern Thailand, and needs more U.S. military assistance. In Indonesia, fighting terrorism is complicated by religious and ethnic differences and sheer geography. The vast size of the Indonesian archapeligo provides numerous hideouts and staging bases for terrorists.

Terrorists in the Far East suffered a severe blow following the 2004 Tsunami, when the influx of western aid (and helpful military personnel) generated tremendous goodwill, and improved relations between regional governments and the U.S. Al-Qaida has recognized this setback, and is determined to reassert itself in the Far East, through its local affiliates. If we can achieve greater stability in Iraq, you'll see more U.S. forces rotate to the Southeast Asia, to assist local military forces with the terrorism problem. Southeast Asia may be a secondary front in the War on Terror, but it's a vital front, nontheless.

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