History weighs heavily against foreign intervention

War against terrorism: Abu Sayyaf
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The Independent Online

The tropical islands of Jolo and Basilan are mere specks on the map, but to successive foreign armies they have proved themselves to be among the most brutal, treacherous and inhospitable places in South-east Asia. Kidnapping, slave trading and piracy have been a way of life for centuries. Spain, the United States, Japan, and currently the Philippines have all tried and failed to subdue the buccaneers and gangsters who have made their homes there.

The tropical islands of Jolo and Basilan are mere specks on the map, but to successive foreign armies they have proved themselves to be among the most brutal, treacherous and inhospitable places in South-east Asia. Kidnapping, slave trading and piracy have been a way of life for centuries. Spain, the United States, Japan, and currently the Philippines have all tried and failed to subdue the buccaneers and gangsters who have made their homes there.

Now George Bush has the islands in his sights in his attempts to wipe out Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic bandit group which bases its kidnapping activities there. According to US sources, the Bush administration will also turn its attention to Islamic terrorists in Indonesia and Malaysia . What kind of adversaries will they encounter there? And what reason is there to think that modern America will enjoy any more success than the foreign interlopers in the past?

There is no doubt that many of the associates and allies of Osama bin Laden have support groups and interests in South-east Asia. More than 210 million Muslims live in the region, almost 200 million of them in Indonesia alone, and, although the great majority are peaceful and tolerant their presence provides a cover for activities by violent extremists.

In the Indonesian province of Maluku, formerly known as the Spice Islands, Islamic fighters have fought a bloody internecine conflict with equally fanatical Christian groups, their number bolstered by small numbers of Afghan supporters. In the otherwise stable country of Malaysia, meetings were held between at least one of the hijackers on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon and a suspect in the bombing in Yemen of the USS Cole. But the biggest trouble-spot is the Philippines island of Mindanao and the outlying islands of Jolo and Basilan where the Abu Sayyaf Group has its bases.

The ASG, as it is known, was formed by fundamentalists, educated in the Middle East, who are believed to have close links to Mr bin Laden's network. In the 1990s, Mr bin Laden's brother-in-law, Jamal Mohammad Khalifa, regularly visited Basilan in the name of a Muslim charitable organisation which he led and funded. He was arrested in Saudi Arabia after the 11 September attacks.

Links have been also been made between the ASG's founders and Ramzi Yousef, who made the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Centre. But whatever the truth about ASG's supporters, there is no doubt about its implacable hatred of the West and specifically the United States.

Last year, ASG collected as much as US$20m (£13.7m) in ransom payments after kidnapping Western tourists from a Malaysian resort island. They repeated the stunt this spring and they still hold two American missionaries hostage, having murdered a third. But any attempt to bring them to heel will encounter the formidable obstacles which have frustrated so many before them.

For a start there is the impenetrably jungly and mountainous terrain of the two islands, whose remote coves and islets provide many opportunities for evasion. Above all, the Philippines' endemic corruption frequently makes it impossible to establish a loyal team of negotiators and go-betweens. Policemen, government negotiators, soldiers, and even, it is alleged, generals, can be bought.

In Indonesia, a vast nation of 13,500 scattered islands, still recovering from economic depression, there are even greater opportunities for evading or buying off justice. And even in legitimate governments which maintain friendly relations with the US, nationalist pride and a resentment of American power will require the most delicate diplomatic work by Washington.

In Indonesia for example, the soldiers who authorised the army's rampage through East Timor have still not been brought to justice. How realistic is it, then, to expect Muslim extremists – whom many Indonesians regard with respect – to be handed over?

It is unthinkable that the formidable Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, would grant a free hand to American law enforcers to operate in Malaysia.

If the aims of the war in Afghanistan are cloudy, then in South-east Asia they will be murkier still. Success will be hard if not impossible to judge; historically familiar failures will loom at every turn.

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