Terrorism in Southeast Asia predates the American post-9/11 war on terrorism. But since 2001, terrorist groups in Indonesia and the Philippines have emerged as significant security challenges within these states, as well as indirect threats to U.S. national security. The United States has made substantial direct and indirect contributions to the counterterrorism (CT) efforts within these states, with varying returns on investment.

Despite differing responses to terrorism, Indonesia and the Philippines are both commonly viewed as CT success stories, as terrorist groups have been degraded and links to al-Qa’ida have been weakened. But while terrorist operations in Indonesia have declined in the post-9/11 era, attacks have increased in the Philippines. Last month, an operation targeting international terrorists on the southern island of Mindanao resulted in the death of 43 Philippine national police commandos.[1]

Between 2002 and 2013, the U.S. provided $262 million in security assistance funding to Indonesia, and $441 million in security assistance to the Philippines.[2] The U.S. has also provided direct military-to-military support in the Philippines, advising and training Philippine CT forces over the last decade. Due to differences in culture, institutions, capabilities, and U.S. assistance, the Indonesian and Philippine governments have implemented distinctive CT strategies. Indonesia has relied on national police to degrade terrorist networks, while the military has been the primary CT force in the Philippines.

This article evaluates CT efforts in Indonesia and the Philippines in order to compare and contrast host-nation approaches and corresponding U.S. support. This article also highlights American best practices, which may be transferrable to U.S. support for CT in other parts of the world.

Our research has led to two significant conclusions. First, based on several quantitative measures of effectiveness, the law enforcement-based Indonesian CT approach has been more effective than the military-based CT approach of the Philippines, although the multi-faceted nature of terrorism within the Philippines arguably makes the task of CT in the Philippines more difficult. And second, the U.S. can be most effective when providing tailored CT support, based on the nature of the terrorist threat and host nation culture and national capabilities.

Terrorism in Southeast Asia
Prior to 9/11, Southeast Asian states viewed terrorism as low-level, localized threats, with little impact on their national security interests. The United States, meanwhile, was largely preoccupied with Middle Eastern terrorist groups.[3] But following 9/11, as linkages between al-Qaeda and Southeast Asia emerged, the United States started to pay more attention to terrorism in the region—specifically in Indonesia and the Philippines.[4] The Bali bombings on October 12, 2002, however, were a wake up call for Southeast Asia. Ambassador Alfonso T. Yuchengco, the Philippine permanent representative to the United Nations (U.N.), said that “10/12” was to Indonesia and Southeast Asia what 9/11 was to the United States and the West, “awakening Southeast Asia to the threat of Islamist terrorism.”[5]

Three types of terrorist groups exist in Southeast Asia: global, regional, and national.[6] Southeast Asian terrorist groups are interconnected, however, often sharing leaders, members, tactics, and objectives. Global terrorist groups such as al-Qa’ida have recruited and trained operatives throughout the region, and have maintained connections to Southeast Asian terrorist groups since the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Regional terrorist groups, such as the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), seek to create an Islamic state throughout Southeast Asia. And nationalist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)in the Philippines seek an Islamic separatist state in the southern islands of Mindanao. Al-Qa’ida’s persistent presence in Southeast Asia and its connection to regional and nationalist terrorist groups in Indonesia and the Philippines have prompted the U.S. to proactively support Indonesian and Philippine CT efforts over the last decade.[7]

Terrorism and CT in Indonesia
Jemaah Islamiyah—aligned with al-Qa’ida and overlapping in leadership and membership since the 1990s[8]—gained international attention through the Bali nightclub bombings in 2002, which were the most deadly terrorist attacks in the world since 9/11.[9] Among the approximately 500 casualties were Americans, Australians, Canadians, Europeans, Japanese, and Indonesians.[10]

JI followed the Bali bombings with annual high profile bombing attacks in Indonesia over the next three years, to include the bombing of the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta on August 5, 2004, which killed 11 and wounded 150; the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta on September 9, 2004, which killed 11 and wounded 160; and another Bali bombing on October 1, 2005 which killed 20 and injured 129.[11]

In the aftermath of the 10/12 attacks, the Indonesian government accepted American and international assistance to combat terrorism, and initiated a thorough reform of the Indonesian national security apparatus.[12] Key aspects of Indonesia’s CT evolution since 2002 include legal reform to enable the prosecution of terrorists, improved domestic CT forces, and the deradicalization of convicted terrorists.

The U.S. has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in security funding to support CT in Indonesia, but little direct support in the form of military training and advising. The Australian government—motivated by the Bali bombings, Jakarta embassy bombing, and persistent terrorist threats throughout the region—has provided trainers and advisors to Indonesian CT forces. American funds and Australian direct support enabled the creation of the Indonesian national CT force, known as Detachment 88, in 2003. Detachment 88 is responsible for investigations, intelligence, and hostage rescue, in addition to traditional CT operations, and has distinguished itself as an elite CT force. It has had success in targeting and dismantling terrorist organizations throughout Indonesia.[13]

The evolution of the CT apparatus in Indonesia has yielded tangible results, including the detention and prosecution of a significant percentage of JI leadership, and a successful start to a deradicalization program and legal reforms. However, governmental corruption, prison over-crowding, and a recent wave of ISIS propaganda will lead to future terrorism challenges, despite the short-term successes against JI. Continued progress is required to maintain the success that Indonesian CT forces have achieved in the past decade.

Terrorism and CT in the Philippines
January’s tragic clash between members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) and members of the Islamic separatist group, known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), highlights several notable security trends in the Philippines. The 12-hour firefight ensued during a raid to capture Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian-born operational leader and bomb maker within Jemaah Islamiyah, who had reportedly been in the Philippines since 2003 training ASG bomb makers. This incident highlights the long-standing connections between Southeast Asian terrorist groups, the continuing instability in the southern Philippines, and the new and increasing role of the Philippine National Police in the CT mission that had been dominated by the Philippine military until 2010.

The Philippines is confronted with the most diverse set of internal security challenges in Southeast Asia.[14] The Philippine communist insurgency, known as the New People’s Army (NPA), has existed since 1968,[15] and is—in the eyes of the Philippine government—the most significant internal security threat, because of the NPA’s dispersed disposition and ability to influence the Philippine capital region on the island of Luzon.[16] But in recent years, the most newsworthy security challenge within the Philippines has emerged in the southern island region of Mindanao, where Muslim separatist groups have sought autonomy for centuries.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has transitioned from separatist terrorist group to political party, as the peace process has achieved fragile autonomy for the MILF.  But radical factions such as ASG and BIFF seek a completely independent Islamic state under Sharia law. ASG has proven to be the most nihilistic terrorist group in the Philippines, conducting a bombing at the Davao International airport on March 5, 2003, which killed 21 and injured 148; and conducting a bombing on a Philippine super-ferry on February 27, 2004, which killed 116 and injured 300, the worst terrorist attack in Asia since the 2002 Bali bombings.[17]

In contrast to Indonesia, the Philippine government had been in conflict with terrorist groups for decades before the start of the so-called global war on terrorism. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has the structure, the aptitude, and support of both the government and the populace to pursue the terrorist groups. Philippine law enforcement forces, however, lack capacity and public support, based on a history of ineptitude and corruption.[18]

CT in the Philippines, therefore, has been traditionally a military responsibility, and while the military CT forces can effectively clear terrorist safe havens, weak local governments and law enforcement units are incapable, and often unwilling, to hold and build in isolate areas such as Mindanao.[19] Since 2010, the Philippine government has made an effort to pass the domestic CT mission from the military to the national police, but the transition has been slow and beleaguered by distrust and competition between the two organizations.[20]

American CT support has arrived in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars of security funding, as well as the continual deployment of U.S. troops to the Philippines to train and advise the Philippine CT forces. Due to the links between Abu Sayyaf Group and al-Qa’ida, ASG has been the primary focus of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P) for the United States. Through OEF-P,American advisors have enabled the Philippine security forces to contain and severely disrupt ASG to the point where the group no longer poses a significant threat to the Philippine capital region in Luzon. But despite the commitment of the Philippine government and the support of the United States, ASG and other Islamic separatists groups remain persistent security challenge within the Philippines.

Effectiveness of CT Responses
Two quantitative measures can help explain the CT effectiveness of these two states from 2002-2013. The first is an assessment of the trends in terrorist attacks according to the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Global Terrorism Database (GTD).[21] The data clearly indicates that terrorist attacks have declined in Indonesia while increasing in the Philippines.

From 2002-2007 the relative number of attacks for the two countries are similar, with the Philippines experiencing slightly more attacks throughout this period, which is understandable due to the diversity of Philippine terrorist groups. In 2002, Indonesia suffered 43 terrorist attacks compared to 48 attacks in the Philippines. In 2007, terrorist incidents in the Philippines spiked upward to 65 attacks, while attacks in Indonesia fell to only two attacks.

Attacks increased in both countries over the next six years, but overall, attacks in the Philippines increased 13-fold between 2002 and 2013 (from 48 attacks to 652) and fell by 26 percent in Indonesia during the same time period (from 43 attacks in 2002 to 32 in 2013). Although one could argue that the uptick in the Philippine attacks is due to the relative strength of the various terrorist groups that operate there, another plausible argument is that Indonesian CT has been more effective than Philippine CT.

The second quantitative measure of effectiveness is an analytic tool that measures national responses to terrorist activity. This tool was first featured in a 2014 article that evaluated the relative effectiveness of CT operations in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailan.[22] The model determined the average time between CT operation and a subsequent terrorist attack to be eleven days in Indonesia, as compared to eight days in the Philippines. Thus, a CT intervention such as an arrest, indictment, or imprisonment had a larger magnitude of effectiveness in Indonesia.[23] Although there are several factors that could explain the lag in a terrorist group’s ability to operationally respond in these cases, this model provides a second quantitative indication that Indonesian CT efforts may have been more effective than Philippine CT efforts.

American Lessons Learned
There are several lessons to be learned from American CT support in Indonesia and the Philippines. These conclusions, though germane to the terrorism threats and responses within these specific states, may also be applicable to other international situations where the United States must assist a host-nation with CT efforts.

1. When planning a CT strategy, the United States must consider the unique history, culture, and capabilities of the host nation. These factors, combined with effectiveness of the host-nation’s military, law enforcement, judicial system, and local governance, must be understood to properly tailor CT strategy. The Indonesian law enforcement-based CT approach has been more effective than the military-based Philippine CT approach, but Philippine culture and national capabilities would not have supported an Indonesian-style CT program in the Philippines in 2002. So the United States was wise to tailor support through the Philippine military, while concurrently working with Indonesian law enforcement for CT purposes. Properly tailored American CT support will best contribute to the effectiveness of the collective CT strategy.

2. Local governance, to include effective legislative and judicial systems are prerequisite ingredients if the host-nation military is to be the leading CT force. The Philippine military-led CT model had effective results against the terrorist groups, but weak local governments and law enforcement were not prepared to follow up on the security gains achieved by the military. If an initial military-based CT response is required, then the host nation should employ a dual-track approach to develop the capacity of the host-nation’s civil institutions. Transitioning the CT mission from the military to the police requires national support, and the military must be willing to share intelligence and tactics, techniques, and procedures with law enforcement. Friction remains between Philippine military and law enforcement, due to many years of military-led CT in the Philippines.

3. Technical and tactical training to support CT functions such as investigation, intelligence, and targeting are more helpful than blindly-sent financial aid. For example, in Indonesia, the investigative and forensic training provided to Detachment 88 greatly enhanced its targeting effectiveness in recent years, and the training of a cyber investigation team led to a new means of gathering intelligence and prosecution of terrorists that otherwise would have been unavailable.[24] Cyber team training and integrated targeting methods for Indonesian CT practitioners provided more of an impact than purchased equipment alone.

4. The U.S. should seek to capitalize on the capabilities, expertise, and positive reputation of allies in the host-nation’s region to assist in CT efforts. In Indonesia, Australia took an active role in providing aid and training to Indonesian CT forces, complementing the financial aid from the United States. Australia provided specialized law enforcement training for Detachment 88 as well as funding for its training facilities.[25] Additionally, Australia still provides forensic assistance to support Indonesian CT operations, enabling Detachment 88 to successfully prosecute the insurgents that are captured.
Australian involvement was also more palatable to the Indonesian population than American involvement. In Indonesia, direct American support would have likely been negatively perceived, while direct support from Australia was not seen as threatening to the Muslim majority. In future situations, the United States should encourage direct support from allies who have similar interests within the host-nation, but might be perceived in a more positive light than Americans.

5. A form of de-radicalization or reintegration should be considered as a part of the legal and judicial reforms within the host-nation. Both Indonesia and the Philippines incorporated de-radicalization programs with varying degrees of success. The host-nation will have to develop such a program based on its cultural norms and national goals, but the United States can assist in this process by providing funding and infrastructure. Deradicalization is essential to reintegrate captured terrorists into the host-nation society.

The United States has made significant direct and indirect contributions to CT efforts in Indonesia and the Philippines, with varying returns on investment. The United States seems to have received a better return on CT investment in Indonesia as terrorist attacks have declined since 9/11, while attacks have increased dramatically in the Philippines during the same time period. It is difficult, however, to determine whether these trends should be attributed to Indonesian CT efforts, or the efficacy and resilience of Philippine terrorist groups (or a combination of both). The United States can learn many lessons, however, from its CT support in Indonesia and the Philippines, and these lessons should be applied to future CT assistance efforts.

Majors Scott McKay and David Webb are currently Wayne A. Downing Fellows pursuing Masters of Arts Degrees at Stanford University in International Policy Studies.  They have served in a variety of conventional and special operations assignments including and most recently with the 75th Ranger Regiment.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] Arlene Samson-Espiritu and Tim Hume, “43 Philippine police killed by Muslim rebels while hunting bomb makers” CNN, January 27, 2015.

[2] Aid data was compiled from the U.S. State Department FY Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations..FY data was taken from the FY +2 request for 2002-2013.  INCLE, FMF, IMET, and NADR funds were included in these figures.

[3] Rommel Banlaoi, Counter Terrorism Measure in Southeast Asia: How Effective Are They? (Philippines: Yuchengco Center, 2009), pp. 23-24.

[4] Banlaoi, p. 24.

[5] Alfonso Yuchengco, “Islamist Terrorism in Southeast Asia,” Issues and Insights, no. 1-03 (Honolulu:
Pacific Forum CSIS, January, 2003), p. 1.

[6] Banlaoi, p. 23.

[7] Bruce Vaughn, “Terrorism in Southeast Asia,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, February 7, 2005, pp. 4-5.

[8] Vaughn, pp. 6-7.

[9] Ibid., p. 11.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Banlaoi, p. 20.

[12] Peter Chalk, “The Evolving Terrorist Threat to Southeast Asia: A Net Assessment,” Rand National
Defense Research Institute (United States: 2005), p. 152.

[13] Ibid., p. 154.

[14] Ibid., p. 33.

[15] Chalk, p. 36.

[16] Virginia Bacay-Watson, interview August 2014, at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in
Honolulu, Hawaii.

[17] Banlaoi, p. 64.

[18] Gentry White, Lorraine Mazerolle, Michael Porter, and Peter Chalk. “Modeling the Effectiveness of Counter-terrorism Interventions.” Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No. 475 (2014), p. 472.

[19] Chalk, p. 144.

[20] Dennis Haney, interview, February 2015, at Stanford University.

[21] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland, Website accessed on December 1, 2014.Number of attacks were documented for each year in both Indonesia and the Philippines.

[22] White, p. 461.

[23] White, p. 468.

[24] Kristen E. Schulze, interview, November 2014, London School of Economics, London, U.K.

[25] Chalk, p. 154.

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