Tuesday Sep 9 2003

Diplomacy softens US war on terror

By John Burton, Shawn Donnan and Amy Kazmin

When John Snow, US Treasury secretary, unveiled last Friday a list of 10 terrorists whose assets Washington was freezing, he dubbed it "another important step" in the war on terrorism.
The list of seven Indonesians, two Filipinos and a Pakistani - named by Mr Snow at the final session of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) finance ministers' meeting in Phuket, Thailand - included important figures now jailed for last year's Bali bombings and other alleged key players in Jemaah Islamiah, the al-Qaeda affiliate waging its own terrorist jihad in south-east Asia.
Missing, however, were 10 Malaysians alleged to have equally important roles within JI and whose assets the US was also freezing. Their names, it emerged, were left off Mr Snow's list and submitted to the United Nations for action with less fanfare out of what a US official called "diplomatic courtesy" towards Malaysia.
It was an act of polite diplomacy. But why that happened and how the final list submitted to the UN was pared down from a much longer one provide important insights into the delicate task the US faces in tackling terrorism and its financing in places like south-east Asia.
Moreover, it is a lesson in how, two years after September 11, the US-led battle against terrorism can be diffused by diverging agendas among Washington's allies and even within the US government itself.
The list of 20 names whose assets member states will have been required to freeze from yesterday began life late last year as a catalogue of more than 300 names of individuals, companies and Islamic charities in south-east Asia.
But according to Zachary Abuza, a regional terrorism expert who has been tracking the list's development closely, what the US Treasury's investigators considered a comprehensive list quickly became bogged down in inter-agency rivalries in Washington and negotiations with allies.
The Central Intelligence Agency argued companies and charities on the list should be allowed to live on so that agents could see "who is drinking from the trough".
The State Department, says Mr Abuza, a professor at Simmons College in Boston, "questioned the overall utility of freezing terrorist assets" when that might anger partners like Malaysia.
When key allies such as Indonesia and Malaysia became involved the consultations became even more complicated. Gradually culled from the list were Islamic charities and companies.
What surfaced on Friday was the end result of this process: a list that Mr Abuza views with derision, largely because it includes only individuals, a third of whom have already been imprisoned. "I was really shocked when I saw it," he says. "I said: 'Where are the companies?'"
Missing were businesses such as MNZ Associates, a Malaysian group that has emerged in court testimony as having strong links to JI. Also absent were Indonesian charities including Kompak, a division of Dewan Dakwah Islam Indonesia, one of the country's most influential Islamic social organisations.
Critics such as Mr Abuza argue that leaving the likes of Kompak off the list will allow key elements of the region's terrorist infrastructure to continue operating. Kompak, analysts say, helped fuel Muslim-Christian violence in Maluku in recent years, an important recruiting ground for JI.
Its leaders deny any terrorist ties. However, key charity officials have been arrested in both the Philippines and Indonesia and linked to JI. Among those whose assets the US froze on Friday was Aris Munandar, one of the organisation's founders.
Kompak, says Sidney Jones, a leading expert on JI, "clearly is not your average Islamic humanitarian agency".
While Indonesia fears a backlash from the Muslim community if it tackles Kompak head on, it is publicity that Malaysia fears as it tries to turn itself into an Islamic banking centre.
Some argue that Malaysia, a prickly yet often effective US partner in the war against terrorism, should be left to wage its own battle quietly.
But those arguments surprise some leaders in the region. "I can't see why we need to be ginger with them [Malaysia]," says Jose Camacho, finance secretary of the Philippines. "They are very vigorous about their own campaign against terrorism."
What the US experience in south-east Asia makes clear is that the war against terrorist financing in some cases is being reduced to tackling what Mr Abuza argues is "the lowest common denominator".
And that bodes badly for the long-term fight against terrorism in the region and elsewhere.