From the location of its training bases and the pattern of its pre-9/ 11 terrorist attacks, Al Qaeda appeared to be but one of many Middle East—based terrorist organizations. That impresson provided useful cover for its involvement with Southeast Asia and helps to explain why many political leaders in Southeast Asia were so slow to acknowledge its presence in their region. All Southeast Asian countries with substantial Muslim populations have large, unprotected, porous borders that facilitate an active trade in smuggling, including goods, contraband, weapons, and people. The political turmoil in the region in the wake of the 1998 financial crisis generated widespread discontent and grievances that could be exploited for jihadi operations. Activist agents could operate with little risk of detection by concealment within Muslim populations, relying on the hospitality that is traditionally extended by one Muslim to another. Finally, the Muslim banking sector in Southeast Asia was very poorly regulated and when combined with the traditional hawala system of money lending and black-market currency traders, the transfer of money from anonymous foreign sources was easily accomplished without elaborate money-laundering schemes. All these factors created a favorable environment for concealing the terrorist operations of militant Islam.
In all of Muslim Southeast Asia, privately supported Islamic schools— pesantren and madrasahs—operate beyond effective government control or supervision. During the first Afghan War against the Soviet intervention, many of these schools had become recruiting centers to secure volunteers for the Afghan mujahideen. When these volunteers returned from Afghanistan, some of these schools were turned into centers for the propagation of radical Islamist doctrines and as recruiting centers for radical Islamist organizations that were founded in the years after 1987. Some idea of the size of this potential constituency canS be gleaned from the number and the student population of these Islamic schools. In Malaysia’s state of Kelantan in 2001, there were 92 madrasahs with a student population of 40,000. Fewer Islamic schools operated in other Malaysian states, but statistics on their number are not available. In Indonesia, 37,362 madrasahs were in operation in 2001, with 81 percent being privately run and funded. These privately run Indonesian madrasahs served a student population of about 5.6 million. In the Philippines, 1,565 privately operated madrasahs served an undisclosed number of students.
About 1984, Osama bin Laden established the first training camps for mujahideen recruits who came from across the Muslim world to participate in the war against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Altogether, some 35,000 recruits from thirty-five different countries joined the mujahideen in the years from 1982 to 1992. How many attended and were trained at about forty military camps first sponsored by MaK and later by Al Qaeda is a matter of much speculation. Western intelligence agencies have produced various estimates ranging from 10,000 to 110,000 recruits between the years 1989 and October 200 While the number of volunteers recruited into Al Qaeda was much smaller, perhaps numbering about 3,000 in the years from 1988 to 1993, Al Qaeda collected information on committed recruits who joined the Afghan mujahideen. After the anti-Soviet campaign ended in 1989, most mujahideen volunteers returned to their home communities, where they could be contacted and recruited once again for Al Qaeda’s post-1993 jihadi agenda. In the years from 1993 to 2002, Al Qaeda is estimated to have expanded its membership to between 5,000 and 12,000, with branches in some sixty countries. From fragmentary evidence, it appears that more than 1,000 recruits from Southeast Asia attended MaK and Al Qaeda training camps before joining the Afghan mujahideen. In addition, between 600 and 800 foreign students who enrolled at Deobandi-run madrasahs in Pakistan came from Southeast Asia. Because of visa-free transit between Muslim-majority countries, immigration records could not be used by security services to track the movements of Al Qaeda volunteers or Deobandi students.
Al Qaeda began to extend its reach into Southeast Asia about 1990, it did so with utmost secrecy and with the appropriate cover of business, educational, or humanitarian welfare activities. Whatever might have been the precise number of-cells and the size of Al Qaeda its membership operating in Southeast Asia can never be known. As part of its strategy to become allied with and infiltrate existing radical Islamist organizations, Al Qaeda, in 1998, established the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Crusaders and Jews at the same time that Zawahiri merged his Egyptian Islamic Jihad into the Al Qaeda structure.5° In the Southeast Asian setting, the organizational tactic of operating through a network of local and regional Islamist organizations allowed Al Qaeda to retain a very low visible profile to avoid heightened surveillance from police and government security agencies.
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