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Weak states, Islam and terrorism : examining causal connections in Southeast Asia Aiken, Ciaran Thomas


Since 9/11, terrorism has become one of the top strategic concerns for the international community. At present, this phenomenon is often attributed to two main factors. First are 'weak' states, whose internal conditions provide an opportune environment for the development and facilitation of terrorist groups. Second is Islam fundamentalism, a religious ideology seen as particularly vulnerable to extremism. It is further assumed that many local militant Islamist groups are part of a larger ideologically congruent network coordinated by Al-Qaeda; in other words, a 'second front' of international terrorism. While there is little doubt that weak states and Islam play some role in the path to terrorism, initial investigation reveals that the assumed bi-causal relationship between either of these factors and terrorism is poorly grounded. The 'weak' state remains conceptually vague, while evidence suggests that Islam in a political context cannot be automatically associated with religious extremism. Using a proposed conceptual framework, this thesis argues that political violence stems from grievance felt within a particular group. This grievance is a result of specific dimensions of weakness found within states. The move from 'standard' political violence to terrorism requires an ideological bridge: a 'higher' justification that permits the use of exceptionally violent or destructive acts as a means to an end. I apply this framework to Southeast Asia and in particular three cases where Islam and terrorism coincide: Aceh, Indonesia, the southern Philippines and southern Thailand. I ask: what are the causal connections between dimensions of weakness, Islam and terrorism in these cases? Is Southeast Asia a 'second front' of international terrorism? Examination of the cases reveals that terrorism is more clearly attributed to grievance felt by a particular Islamic community as a result of concentrated structural weaknesses within the regions they reside. Terrorism also appears less driven by religion than assumed. The motivation for local militant Islamist groups to use terrorist acts is derived predominantly from a need to preserve a particular ethnic identity that also happens to be Islamic. Finally, evidence reveals that these conflicts remain largely local in character, with little or no outside influence from international Islamic terrorist groups, weakening the theory that Southeast Asia is a 'second front' of international terrorism.

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