The forgotten fronts in the war on terror

Dramatic changes have taken place since 9/11 alerted the world to the threat of Islamic terror.

bali bomb blast 88 (photo credit: )
bali bomb blast 88
(photo credit: )
The front in the war on terror has shifted. Five years after the September 11 attacks alerted the world to the threat of Islamic terror, the scourge has spread considerably. Muslim insurgencies, of the kind that have long been raging in the Philippines and in Central Asia, are now rampant in areas like southern Thailand. Jihadist ideology is also inspiring a new breed of bomber in the capitals of Europe, and rubbing off on non-Islamic groups in the global south as well. But with so much attention on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, you'd hardly notice the dramatic changes taking place. "Because of the excessive focus on al-Qaida and similar groups, nationalist groups like the LTTE in Sri Lanka and leftist terrorist groups like FARC in Colombia and the Maoists in Nepal are becoming strong and powerful," says Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, head of terrorism research at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. "Further neglect of non-Islamist terrorist groups means that these groups will grow in strength... and fragile countries will suffer." Fragile countries have already suffered, thanks largely to Islamic terror. The rebellion in and around Thailand's Pattani region has claimed some 1,000 lives in the past two years. Jemaah Islamiyah is blamed for the bombings in Bali that cost hundreds their lives and devastated the vital tourism industry. Islamic terrorism is also partly to blame for the loss of countless lives and the crippling of development in a horseshoe-shaped arc from eastern Africa to western Africa through the northern rim of the continent. The point is, terrorism is no longer solely the purview of the Arab world. But in the Arab diasporas of Western Europe and South America, more trouble is brewing. Europe especially is waking up - too slowly, some would say - to the threat of "homegrown" jihadist terrorists in its midst. These cells of immigrants are unaffiliated and unsophisticated, but in many ways they are more dangerous than the "brand name" terror groups threatening Western society from the outside. Consider Mirsad Bektasevic, better known as Maximus. A Serb who grew up in Sweden, Bektasevic controlled a terror cell that was based in Denmark but stretched from Sarajevo to Canada. He had gotten his hands on 30 kilograms of explosives and was planning an attack on a European embassy when police caught up with him last October. "Maximus" was a feared terrorist leader. But he was also 19 years old - a peer to his followers, who ranged in age from 16 to 22. The Internet was the training base and the command-and-control center for Maximus and his cell. They didn't need months of training in some remote valley or millions of dollars to bankroll their plot. No one does anymore. "After the loss of Afghanistan, the Internet has become a virtual battle space and emerged as the principal source of knowledge for the jihadists," says Gunaratna. "In addition to large-scale politicization of young Muslims, the Internet today provides the recipes for the manufacture of HMDT, TATP and liquid explosives." In South America, meanwhile, terrorists are still doing business the old way: through crime. "It's the ideal environment for terrorists," says Magnus Ranstorp, chief scientist at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College and the former director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "You have the nexus of everything: illicit commerce, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, you name it." Authorities have been leery of a rugged, lawless valley called the Tri-Border Area, where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet. Rumors of extensive fund-raising activity by Hizbullah, Hamas and even al-Qaida have surrounded the region for a few years now, although none of the governments has sent law enforcement officers to the fearsome area. Arab communities across South America are both sizable and influential: More than half a dozen current or former prime ministers, presidents or vice presidents are Arab. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's recent visits to Syria and Iran, during which he labelled Israel's operations against Hizbullah a "fascist outrage," are a sign of where much of the continent's sympathies are headed. In Venezuela, in fact, a new group calling itself Hizbullah has popped up of late. And the oil-rich country, with the anti-American Chavez at its helm, declined to participate in the current multinational exercise called Panamax - aimed at protecting the Panama Canal from terrorist threats - which happens to be led by the US. In addition to the Tri-Border Area, there are parts of the Venezuelan-Colombian border that are ungoverned and, according to security analysts, are also prime areas for beleaguered Islamist terrorist groups to set up training camps. "There's real potential for South America to develop into a new front," says Steven Monblatt, executive secretary of the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism. The committee, a body of the Organization of American States, trains security personnel across the continent to deal with such threats. "I honeymooned in Bali and I vacationed in Cancun," Monblatt continues. "I don't see a whole lot of difference between them... I mean, if every other part of the world has these problems, there's no reason to think that Latin America is immune." At least some are treating the situation seriously. "On September 11, the OAS foreign ministers were meeting in Lima to ratify a democratic charter. During the meeting, they watched on television as the second tower [of the World Trade Center] went down. It had a transforming effect on their attitudes." Five years after that day's events, though, the transformation in attitudes is not complete. And the threat has grown greater. "The vehicle of globalization has enabled anyone to participate in terrorism, for whatever motive," notes Ranstorp. "It just demonstrates the enduring nature of the asymmetric challenge of fighting terrorism. And it is going to have a huge effect on our societies."