Greg Sheridan | October 14, 2006
A SMALL team of about 20 Australian Special Air Service soldiers has been helping track down Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah terrorists in the southern Philippines.The soldiers have been notionally in joint patrols with Filipino military personnel but in truth the Australians are leading the efforts they are involved with.
For the past couple of months a spasmodically ferocious effort has been waged in Mindanao, in particular on the island of Jolo, to eradicate the ASG, an al-Qa'ida affiliated terror group of extreme violence and cruelty.
The SAS campaign is the nearest the Australian special forces have come to direct combat operations in Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War. The SAS was involved in East Timor but that was peace-keeping rather than combat.
Under The Philippines' constitution, foreign forces are not allowed to have permanent bases or engage in direct combat on Philippines' soil. This has hampered the US, which has the broadest and deepest military relationship with The Philippines.
However, the US and the Armed Forces of the Philippines get around this restriction by having the US provide training and logistical support. As one official puts it, this means the US locates the enemy, transports the Filipino soldiers to the enemy, loads and cocks the rifle and invites the Filipinos to fire. It is a universal judgment that the Filipino forces are much more effective when accompanied by Americans.
According to reliable sources there are about 100 US special forces soldiers involved in the campaign against the ASG, centred on Jolo. This includes Green Berets, Navy SEALS and CIA counter-terrorist forces.
The Australians have operated along similar lines to the Americans. The particular Australian SAS quality wanted in the southern Philippines was their legendary expertise in small boats. The SAS has been using rigid inflatable craft, similar to the boats they used in the Tampa operations, and other slightly larger boats.
Sources suggest a number of JI and ASG terrorists have been caught by the use of fast boats, although it's not known whether Australians have been involved in these captures.
The flow of terrorists between Indonesia and the southern Philippines, and sometimes the Borneo states of Malaysia, has been a great weakness in the campaign against Islamist terror in Southeast Asia. However, the Malaysians have upgraded their maritime police capacity and the Americans and Australians have worked hard to enhance The Philippines' maritime capacity.
As part of its Defence Co-operation Program with The Philippines, Canberra will provide Manila with up to 30 riverine craft, which will be used for shallow water reconnaissance, manoeuvre and interdiction.
This capacity is designed to allow The Philippines forces to easily move a company group of about 150 soldiers around coastal and river waters. This will be a substantial lift in The Philippines' counter-terrorist capacity, especially in their southern waters.
The Australian SAS deployment is small, although 20 SAS men comprise a lethal and formidable force. However, its larger significance is as part of a huge, well co-ordinated and generally low-profile Australian effort across Southeast Asia.
The SAS is involved in a great deal of counter-terrorist training. In The Philippines it carries out an annual hostage rescue exercise as well as other training of Philippines special forces. It is not as operationally forward-leaning in other Southeast Asian nations but it does a great deal of pure training.
So does the Australian Federal Police. The AFP is present all over Southeast Asia. In some countries, such as Thailand, its role has tended to be predominantly liaison, passing and receiving information about terrorism and trans-national crime.
But in other countries, such as The Philippines and Indonesia, the AFP has become deeply involved in investigations and has helped with key police technology.
Overall, the war on terror in Southeast Asia presents a mixed and conflicting picture. Zachary Abuza, a terrorism expert from Simmons College in Boston, visited Australia this week and gave a mixed report on Indonesia's JI.
On the one hand, JI has been badly weakened by the effective police action taken against it. Some 300 Indonesian militants have been prosecuted. On the other hand, some 20 senior JI leaders remain at large. At least some of them are believed to be hiding out in the southern Philippines.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is the biggest terrorist group in The Philippines, many times larger than the ASG, and it controls large portions of territory in Mindanao. It has traditionally given safe haven to JI figures. However, recently it has expelled some senior JI figures from its territory and they have been forced to take refuge with the ASG in Jolo and nearby islands.
Nonetheless, Abuza points out that the MILF remains long term very pessimistic about the chances of concluding a full peace agreement with The Philippines Government. He believes it is still allowing lower and middle-ranked JI figures to hide in its territory but, partly because it does not want to be formally classified as a terrorist organisation, it will at least now distance itself from the most notorious JI leaders, such as Bali bombers Dulmatin and Umar Patek.
Abuza remains relatively pessimistic that the MILF has really severed its links to JI. Perhaps more importantly, Abuza sees JI moving to a new model within Indonesia. This is what he calls the inverted triangle, where most of its activity is above ground and visible, but its terrorist activities remain hidden.
Abuza believes JI will try to transform itself into a Hamas-style movement. It will do this through emphasising charitable and educational works, often carried out through affiliated groups, notionally at some distance from JI itself.
This, Abuza believes, will allow JI to take advantage of the Indonesian Government's understandable desire to wean JI activists off terrorism, in part by encouraging them to involve themselves in community works.
However, Abuza makes the devastating point that all its charitable works have not seen Hamas drop any part of its extremist agenda or its commitment to terrorism.
JI and its front groups have used the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the earthquake earlier this year in Java to re-establish themselves in community eyes by providing volunteers for relief work.
Even though the Indonesian security forces have deeply penetrated JI's pesantren or school network, the building up of this broad JI social infrastructure, some of which still benefits from Saudi funds, will be vital to its ability to continue the terrorist struggle.
There is some speculation over a split in JI, between those who want to keep bombing and those who want to concentrate on social works and indoctrination. But the two strategies are not mutually exclusive. If JI and affiliated groups build up their credibility, support base, financial reserves and membership today, they will be much more devastating when they return full-scale to terrorism down the track.
Meanwhile, the region's other hot spot, southern Thailand, has not so far benefited from the fall of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister. The southern Thai extremists are so far continuing to refuse any significant presence to JI. And they are not yet systematically attacking foreigners. But by Southeast Asian standards they are running an extraordinarily deadly insurgency, perhaps 1700 dead in the past couple of years. And the rate of attacks has not altered one speck with the fall of Thaksin.
Some analysts believe it may be that the US and Australia were too successful in trying to turn the Thai military into a conventional armed force, focused on external threats, because so far it has not waged the low-intensity, counter-insurgent campaign in the south well.
The good guys in the region are working hard. So are the bad guys. Australia is making a huge, mostly quiet, effort, but this struggle has miles and miles to run.