ASEAN needs to start combating ISIS

Here's my latest piece from The Edge Review, on why ASEAN needs to start taking the threat from the Islamic State, or ISIS, more seriously -- and join the US in the battle.

©The Edge Review

     When I first read the news earlier this year that Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein wanted to create a new Southeast Asian joint peacekeeping force, I thought it was a laugh out loud funny idea.

     But now I have to admit, the idea is growing on me — and I hope it is on the ASEAN leaders, too.

     There’s nothing like a common threat to focus the mind, and in this case, there is one; the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, a terrorist group so brutal in its methods that even al-Qaeda has seen fit to denounce its tactics and its wanton violence as inhumane.  How else to describe a group that revels in beheading innocent civilian captives and then posting the videos online?  Or setting fire to a captured Jordanian pilot while he is locked in a cage?

     ISIS perversely uses “Islam” as part of its name while violating every tenet of the faith, and flouting every law of human decency.  It’s not a “caliphate” but a collection of sick, nihilistic individuals drawn together from society’s alienated, forgotten margins.

     Some of those disaffected drifters joining the ISIS ranks are coming from Southeast Asia, particularly from Malaysia and Indonesia, possibly the southern Philippines and southern Thailand, very likely Myanmar, and from any place where young Muslim men are feeling victimized and marginalized, a pool from which ISIS can effectively recruit.  According to one report, as many as 300 Chinese Uighers from the Muslim western province of Xinjiang may have ventured to Iraq and Syria to sign up and fight with the Islamic State.

     Eventually, many of those disaffected young drifters will return home as battle-hardened terrorists.

     We saw how America’s ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created a new generation of jihadist recruits, some from Southeast Asia, who returned home with training, skills and a hatred of Western values, pro-Western governments and fellow Muslims who they consider apostates.

     We also saw how global jihadists in the past have used Southeast Asia, with its porous borders, as kind of a terrorism testing ground. That happened with “Operation Bojinka,” the ambitious three-stage1995 Manila-hatched plot by Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheik Mohammed to assassinate Pope John Paul II, blow up eleven American jetliners over the Pacific, and crash a plane into CIA Headquarters.  The plot was foiled by Philippine police, but is widely now seen as a precursor to the 9/11 attacks that Khalid Sheik Mohammed masterminded and carried off 5 years later.

     And of course we have seen Southeast Asia become the target of terrorist attacks, like the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005.

     Yet Southeast Asia’s response to the terrorist threat has been at best ambiguous.

    Governments, particularly those with Muslim majorities, seem reluctant to speak out too forcefully against violent Islamic extremism, presumably because they fear alienating their own Islamicists who they count on for support. They are far too willing to countenance anti-American tripe.  Jailed terrorists like Abu Bakar Bashir in Indonesia are still able to exhort new recruits from prison.  There is little effort to de-radicalize young extremists, and no effective measures to prevent young people from traveling abroad to join foreign jihadist groups.

     An ASEAN defense force, modeled on the European Union’s “Eurocorps,” would focus minds on the existential common threat — Islamic extremism — and force leaders to move beyond their strict “noninterference” doctrine and recognize that the region faces a global problem that doesn’t respect borders.

     ASEAN doesn’t need a strictly peacekeeping force, but an interoperable military with offensive capabilities and firepower that can join the US and Arab coalition now battling ISIS.  Moderate and democratic Muslim nations like Indonesia need to be at the forefront of the global effort to destroy ISIS.  And a regional army battling a regional threat would provide the cover wary Southeast Asian leaders need.

     China of course would look askance at any ASEAN regional army, viewing it as a threat to its military hegemony in the region and a direct challenge to its claims on the South China Sea.  But China, too, faces a real threat from Islamic extremism, not a perceived threat from Southeast Asians joining forces for their collective security.

     China could be invited to join in military exercises and training with ASEAN, so they can operate together against their common enemy, ISIS.   That would serve a dual purpose— getting China off the fence and into the fight against ISIS, while defusing tensions in the South China Sea.  Armies that train together and conduct joint missions have a lot harder time firing shots at each other either in anger or accidents.

     So a joint ASEAN military force? At first, I laughed. Now I’m all for it.  I think it’s needed — and fast.

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