Philippines: Australia mulls 'pre-emptive' strikes on southern Philippine terror bases


Kit Collier

In the wake of the 9 September bombing outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta, government and opposition leaders in Canberra have sought to outbid each other in a series of aggressive counter-terrorism proposals focusing on the Philippines. As with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's strident criticism of Manila following Filipino withdrawal from Iraq in July, this partisan manoeuvring has again frayed Australia's relations with a key regional security partner. Yet the debate, clearly spurred by the 9 October national elections in Australia, does highlight the need for more systematic thinking about the nature of sovereignty in the 'age of terror'.

The bidding war began two days after the bombing, when opposition leader Mark Latham announced that the key to breaking up Southeast Asian terror networks is maritime surveillance and interdiction, and that the Australian navy should target the southern Philippines in particular. It has become increasingly clear with the arrest of more than 300 Jemaah Islamiyah operatives across the region over the last three years that Mindanao plays a central role in training Southeast Asian jihadists and replenishing their losses. Yet JI's sanctuaries in the southern Philippines remain untouchable while peace talks continue between Manila and the insurgent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

As it emerged that the likely mastermind behind the embassy bombing was Malaysian-born Azahari Husin - also thought responsible for building the Bali and Jakarta Marriott Hotel bombs, and a veteran of the Mindanao camps - the Australian Coalition government upped the ante. Prime Minister Howard announced on 20 September that, if re-elected, he would create anti-terrorist 'flying squads' to be deployed in the region, and, more controversially, would launch pre-emptive strikes against overseas terrorist bases to prevent an attack on Australian interests.

Echoing the Bush doctrine in Iraq, this statement provoked most disquiet in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, and Downer promptly clarified that the policy spoke only to 'failed states' such as the Solomon Islands. But there has never been any evidence that regional terror groups look to the Pacific islands for operational bases, while all regional states other than the Philippines enjoy effective monopolies of military force within their territories. Only in Mindanao are significant swathes of territory off-limits to the notional sovereign authority, and exploited by terrorists. This, together with the acute sensitivity to western intervention of majority-Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia, suggests that Howard spoke primarily with the southern Philippines in mind.

That the Philippines is neither a hostile state, like Baathist Iraq or Taliban Afghanistan, nor a failed state, like the Solomons, yet still harbours terrorist facilities which can be used to wage a campaign against Australian interests, indicates a need to reconsider the nature of state sovereignty in an age of non-state terror. It is not enough to dismiss Australia's concerns out-of-hand; we know that JI operatives in Mindanao have at least begun considering the possible use of bio-chemical weapons. This might well be the kind of scenario in which the use of pre-emptive force would be contemplated, if Philippine authorities were unable or unwilling to act alone.

The limits of unconditional sovereignty are already being acknowledged with respect to massive human rights violations, as in Kosovo. In an era of failing, if not failed, states, encompassing impenetrable enclaves where non-state terrorist actors find sanctuary, new mechanisms are needed to address the concerns of worried neighbours like Australia, lest they be pushed into precipitate and unilateral action - electorally motivated, or not.

WATCHPOINT: Will ambitious proposals for stepped-up maritime surveillance (Labor) or Federal police flying squads (Coalition) outlive Australia's 9 October polls?


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