Of piracy and ‘modern’ terrorism

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EI SUN OH

I READ with keen interest and high encouragement the news about the Philippines and the United States conducting joint anti-piracy naval patrols in the Sulu Sea which borders my home state of Sabah. As I have mentioned many times before, the main scourge infesting the coastal areas of the Sulu Sea, at least those areas along the eastern sea coast of Sabah, is not terrorism in the modern or contemporary sense, but the essentially old-fashioned piracy and kidnapping for ransom. In the worst years, seldom a quarter or even a month passed without the news that someself-proclaimed “fundamentalists” of a certain religious strain had trespassed into Sabah waters, landed onshore or onto ships or other marine structures, abducted hostages either randomly or sometimes in a targeted manner, held them for months or even years on end, and releasing them only upon ransom money being paid, and otherwise executing them in gruesome fashion.

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This sort of modern saga a la “Pirates of the Sulu Sea” has hurt the livelihood of the common people as well as the tourism industry of both Sabah and the southern parts of the Philippines. I am under no illusion that the above-mentioned joint patrols will put an end to this piratic frenzy, because it will certainly not. Most of the pirates are curiously equipped with small but agile speedboats as opposed to the large patrol boats of both nations’ navies, and the pirates apparently know the water “intricacies” inside and out, and are thus able to play hide-and-seek with the official forces quite “effectively”. But at least it is a start to seriously tackle this perennial problem. I hope a similar joint-patrol mechanism among the three affected neighboring countries in the region – Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia – will be implemented as soon as possible and be complementary with the Philippine-American anti-piracy efforts.

But why the seemingly hair-splitting distinction above between “modern” and “contemporary” terrorism (both of which, as I argued above, are again dissimilar to what is essentially a piracy problem affecting us all)? Well, I think the fine line, blurry as it is, can be drawn some time in the 1990s, with the first World Trade Center attack in New York and the bombing of the US warships and embassies in the Middle East and Africa. Before that period, so-called “modern” terrorist acts were often committed with “pragmatic,” somewhat “achievable,” albeit ideological and political, goals in mind. Terrorists then seldom attacked with a profit motive, but rather to effect some immediate ends, such as the release of their “comrades” from the custody of major or hostile national powers, and they often struck across national boundaries and cultural lines, sometimes going way out of their way to come to the “assistance” of their “fraternal” terrorist groups, only because they all share some very vague ideological beliefs.

An example of these “modern” terrorists was the Japanese Red Army, which was (and some argue still is) an armed and dangerous band of ruthless terrorists with a radical communist ideology who saw themselves as part of the international “united front” to turn the world system into a communist one, starting with their homeland of Japan, but certainly not limiting their “ventures” to that country. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the JRA hijacked planes and ships, and attacked public buildings to take hostages. Their demands were usually the release of not only their comrades from Japanese jails, but often also Palestinian terrorists (freedom fighters in their eyes) from Israeli or other prisons, in exchange for the hostages.

Why this somewhat esoteric solidary between the JRA and the Palestinians? It has of course a lot to do with the then prevalent Cold War environment pitting the Eastern camp dominated by the Soviet Union against the Western camp led by the United States.Ironically enough, the Soviet Union was the first country which officially recognized the then fledging State of Israel upon the latter’s proclamation. This was because the Soviets thought that Israel, with its then predominantly socialist though Zionist national ideology, would become a strictly socialist country. But Israel became very close to the US, and in line with the Soviets’ then strong support of armed elements around the world, the aspiring armed Palestinians pitched their lot with the more socialist camp, and thus became in a sense comrades with the similarly situated JRA.

But as I recall, the sort of hostage exchanges that occurred then were not done in a straightforward, tit-for-tat manner, but actually often involved “third parties”, i.e., the “victim” country where the hostage situation took place, as well as a third, often supposedly neutral but actually sympathetic (to the Palestinian cause) North African country. As in the case of JRA incidents in Malaysia and Singapore back then, typically the civilian hostages would be exchanged for senior politicians or civil servants of the “victim” country, who then flew with the terrorists to a North African country where the just-released “comrades” of the terrorists awaited. The exchange would take place there, with the terrorists and their comrades later granted either asylum or safe passage by the “exchange” country. If anything went wrong in the process, the hostages, civilian or civil servants alike, would typically be killed, sometimes along with the terrorists, as when special forces stormed the hijacked vehicle, or when the slow or intermittent communication tools then (telex was a common mode of communication) led to unintended miscommunication. These sorts of almost surreal “modern” terrorist acts are indeed rare nowadays.

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