Transnational Crime and Terrorism as Security Challenges in the Asia-Pacific Region
Terrorism and transnational crime are arguably some of the greatest challenges facing societies today, including the Asia-Pacific region. The region covers much of Oceania, South East Asia and East Asia, and generally comprises of the entire Australasia, Asia and Pacific islands. These are areas that have in the past been characterized by serious problems arising from powerful organized criminal groups that in some instances have links with terrorist organizations. Although there has been considerable progress in the fight against terrorism and transnational crime, the two remain to be significant security threats that are worsened by globalization trends in the Asia-Pacific region. This paper discusses terrorism and transnational crime as security challenges in the region, arguing that globalization promotes their growth at the expense of peace, social and economic progress hence the security threat remains.
The challenge of transnational crime is a reality. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the revenues from such activities in East Asia Pacific alone amounts to tens of billions of dollars every year. Transnational crime is prevalent in Southeast Asia and the Far East, a trend which is traceable to the mid-1990s. The networks in Hong Kong, Japan and China have also significantly expanded in Western countries. As South Asia increasingly develops its market economy culture, there is the possibility that organized crime will grow even more. Terrorist groups mainly get their financing from cooperation with organized crime. They often provide protection to traffickers, directly engage in the narcotics trade and obtain funds from charities, sympathizers and front business enterprises.
As long as there is demand and transportation networks for commodities, transnational crime still remains as a security challenge. The trade always seeks to match demand with supply and exploit the differences that exist between regulations, profits and risk. The differences arise due to the presence of supply in some areas which can be matched to demand in far off places. For instance, narcotics can be transported from Afghanistan to the United States. Criminals also always want to exploit the differences that naturally arise in business regulations for instance anti-money laundering laws and banking secrecy regulations. Risk levels in business also determine such business flows because where risk is high; there is the attraction of more profits.
Rapid globalization is facilitating growth of terrorism and transnational crime. Easier access to communications enables politico-religious and secular Asian extremist groups to network more easily at the transnational level with others who share their ideals. Communication makes it easy for rag-tag terrorists in the Asia-Pacific to transform into more sophisticated operations. International travel is getting cheaper while information technologies have facilitated communications, command, intelligence and control amongst networks both domestically and globally. To increase their impact, some of the Asia-Pacific terrorist organizations have taken up multi-dimensional characteristics in which they take part in assassinations, guerrilla warfare, propaganda, sabotage, trade investments and electoral politics simultaneously.
The Asia-Pacific region has transnational criminal groups that have traditionally been associated with it, and therefore are difficult to ignore. For instance, there is the Japanese Yakuza, made up of gangs that take part in human smuggling, prostitution rings and drug trafficking. The group operates mostly in South East Asia and, Japan, with its business extending to the United States. Latin American and especially Colombian drug cartels also have their operations in the region. These are made up of specialized groups that engage in different stages of production and distribution of marijuana, heroin and other drugs from Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia trough Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America into the United States. There are the Chinese Triads. These operate from Taiwan and Hong Kong, engaging in extortion, human trafficking, prostitution, gambling and drug trafficking. The group operates using the Chinese Diaspora at the international level. Russian criminal cartels are also notorious for transnational crimes and they extend their activities to Western Europe and the United States.
Transnational crime is well organized and at times gets support from some leaders. Some of the groups are highly organized, for instance the Japanese Yakuza and Chinese Triads. Others are however informally structured and tend to form tactical alliances with others. The Chinese Triads for example incorporate approximately 17,000 people spread out in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Burma, Thailand and Malaysia. The Japanese Yakuza is conservative and ultra-nationalistic, making it a favorite for some right-wing politicians hence a close involvement in Japanese politics. Gang activity also exists in Vietnam and its diaspora; engaging in heroin trafficking, document counterfeiting, money laundering and extortion activities, with a presence as far as Australia, Canada and the US. South Korea is also faced with the challenge of criminal groups which are heavily involved in the production of crystal methamphetamine. They are also heavily involved in protection rackets, extortion, gambling, product counterfeiting, credit card fraud and illegal immigration.
Some nations are not well secured, yet elimination of the threats to security requires the entire region to be safe. For instance in India, there is the problem of mostly Muslim groups operating from Mumbai and also linked with Pakistani and gulf state criminal groups that have in the past conducted terrorist attacks in India. The country has the reputation of being a major drug transit avenue, and transnational crime is boosted by an underground banking system, the Hawala, which they use. Criminal groups have always engaged in slavery, kidnapping and human body part sales. Pakistani groups on their part dominate narcotic and gold smuggling, among others, operating mostly in the Middle East and Southwest Asia where the proceeds are laundered. With a volatile Afghanistan, their activities are made easier. Pakistani and Indian transnational criminals also engage in terrorism and violence associated with ethnic, religious and political causes. The Russian mafia is on its part highly sophisticated and still controls a significant fraction of both private and public investments. Russian groups work together with the Japanese Yakuza in arms and drug trafficking, and Philippines and Indonesia also experience a lot of challenges related to mafia activities.
The link between terrorism, migration and transnational crime makes the security threat more serious. The transnational nature of terrorism boosts operations for instance through enhancing their ability to network with other groups and drawing transnational support. Many small groups in the region have grown due to factors such as porous borders, availability of cheap tools for communication, increased ease in international travel and saturation of weapon markets. Migrants to western countries worsen the threat to Asia-Pacific security. For instance, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Kashmiri and Sikh terrorist groups get support from transnational migrants to North America, Australasia and Europe. Through the development of a strong Tamil Diaspora, the LTTE grows internationally through building of cells that coordinate the generation of funds, procurement of weapons and operation of fleets of ships used in trafficking arms and narcotics. The migrants are still there and the ideologies prevail. This makes the terrorist security threat present at all times.
Transnational criminals and terrorist groups are working together more than they have done before. Such relationships have enabled terrorist groups to reduce their dependence on state sponsorship, local and international supporters. Many terrorist groups from the Asia-Pacific draw their revenues from phone card business, credit card fraud and video piracy. Transnational terrorism has therefore been complicated by the possible link between organized crime and terrorism itself. Apart from learning from one another, the groups have developed mechanisms at the international level through which they are able to share personnel, intelligence and technology. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-i-Islami, which are both defined by the idea of holy war (jihad) have in the past provided volunteer fighters in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Lebanon and Philippines. The volunteers and supporters drawn from as far as Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Pakistan consider the West as a representation of evil, and have therefore either tried or succeeded in destroying various Western targets.
The fact that terrorist attacks have generally become more lethal in the recent past implies that the threat can not easily go away. With it, there is more internal displacement of people hence concern about humanitarian assistance and human rights within host countries. Migration increases especially that of refugees. Through the penetration of their migrant and diaspora communities, terrorist groups from the Asia-Pacific have come up with complex international infrastructures away from home, and these are used in the dissemination of propaganda, fund-raising, procurement of weapons, training and shipping. For instance, through the use of support networks found in the Middle East, Africa, Western Europe, North America and the Balkans, the LTTE and Al-Qaeda have managed to deeply access their targets from a long range.
Terrorism remains to be a challenge in the Asia-pacific region. It in turn depends heavily on organized crime as a means of survival and way of maintaining their financial viability. There are indications that terrorist groups are increasingly taking the form of organized criminal groups. They rapidly move in their attempts to get new ways of generating funds. State-sponsors are increasingly distancing themselves from the groups, hence creating the impression that they may be declining. However, they are in reality developing broader components of organized crime and increasingly working closely with groups engaged in organized transnational crime. Although most terrorist groups maintain their political orientations, there is generally a greater possibility of terrorist groups changing into transnational criminal groups.
Some progress has been made in dealing with terrorism as a security threat. Generally, countries have managed to weaken the operational abilities of terrorist groups and limit activities of big terrorist outfits such as the Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Jemaah Islamiya (JI). However, there is still a threat especially in Indonesia where in 2013 there were still terrorist attacks. In spite of peace agreements with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Philippines still occasional terrorist attacks. In Indonesia, violent extremists have continuously focused on domestic targets, especially the police. Suicide bombings are still a threat and in Poso, Central Sulawesi, several inmates including those convicted of terrorism managed to escape prison in 2013. Malaysia has on its part been pursuing legal reform, and in 2013 managed to arrest major al-Qa’ida suspects. In Thailand too, there was the conviction of terror suspects in a 2012 plot. The security threat therefore persists.
The overall threat posed by terrorism in the Asia Pacific is rather mixed. In South East Asia, Indonesia’s situation has improved as a result of effective counter-terrorism measures established by the state. The Jemaah Islamiya group has so far been considerably weakened. However, the same can not be said of places such as Maluku, Sulawesi and Aceh. In such places, the group retains a significant amount of support from civilians and reconstruction after conflict has not been successful. Major success has however been achieved in Singapore and Malaysia. In Malaysia for instance, authorities have so far been keen on preventive measures and continuous vigilance. They have used the provisions for preventive detention in the Malaysian Internal Security Act to stop militant activity before calamities occur. The Singapore government has also taken up proactive measures in prevention of attacks by use of the law. It has been able to arrest many suspects, and some of these have undergone rehabilitation programs that are modeled on past similar and successful measures against communists in the 1960s. Some of those in it have been released. However, it remains very difficult to change radical views of most detainees, so the terrorist problem still exists.
In southern Philippines, there has generally been an improvement but even though there has been a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which is the main separatist organisation, there are still several small radical gangs that always ensure that violence does not completely stop. The problem with the Moro in the South has therefore remained a persistent challenge. For Southern Thailand, there has been little progress in the elimination of terrorism mainly as a result of mismanagement. There is the constant threat of ethno-insurgent uprisings evolving into jihadist movements thereby compromising the region’s security even further. In the case of China, radical ideologies have consistently been spreading throughout Central Asia, making separatist combatants in the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) much stronger, and there is always the threat of them joining forces with the global Al-Qaeda terror network and causing greater harm to the region’s security. It was reported for instance to have planned a 9/11- style attack on China in 2008.
Terrorism and organized crime is a heavy burden on communities and nations as a whole. This happens through lost revenue and costs arising from criminal justice, health, welfare and social systems. Terror attacks also have implications such as deaths, destruction of property and displacement of people. Industries such as tourism are also heavily affected by bad reputations relating to such activities. Most importantly, the violence and weakening of state mechanisms makes an area highly insecure. The yearly cost arising from organized crime amounts to between $10 and $15 billion in Australia alone. However, Australia remains a leader in the region in terms of anti-terrorism, where it has been pursuing the agenda through international cooperation. Japan on its part actively participates in the efforts.
Even if they exist in the smallest scale, transnational criminal cartels are a great security challenge to any society. This is because they have a lot of negative effect on both individuals and communities through their profiteering activities. Drug trafficking for instance promotes substance abuse, crime and HIV/AIDS transmission amongst intravenous drug consumers. By extension, there is reduced worker productivity, increased accidents at work and a higher yet avoidable public expenditure on health care. There is also the security threat that arises from the illegal transportation of nuclear materials and physical and psychological suffering and human rights violations in human trafficking. The powerful and wealthy criminals that are created undermine democracy, the state and the economy through violence, corruption and investment of illicit money.
In spite of attempts at fighting the two vices, it is not possible to conclude that they are not significant threats anymore. The history of Asia-Pacific organized crime and terror indicates that no country, policy, strategy, law, penalty or law enforcement procedure has ever been able to eliminate or eradicate the challenge of crime. Profits from various forms of trafficking, smuggling and other illegal forms of trade amount to billions. Their proceeds surpass the Gross Domestic Products of most economies within the region. The challenges are worsened by corruption, extortion, violence and money laundering which have the ultimate effect of threatening and undermining politics, commerce and governance. Basic human rights are also violated and public livelihoods destroyed in the process. The fact that they affect livelihoods, human safety and entire economies always makes them significant threats to security at any given time.
In conclusion, the Asia-Pacific region has, just like any other part of the world experienced various new technologies, threats and actors as far as security is concerned. Transnational crime continues to grow, and globalization has especially facilitated the expansion of crime across borders. There have been efforts at eliminating the various groups engaged in these activities. However, it is not easy to deal with them as they keep evolving, and in some cases are so deeply rooted in the society that removing them is a challenge. Factors such as corruption and cooperation between terrorist and criminal cartels also strengthen them, in addition to the ease of coordination and cooperation brought about by forces of globalization. The social, economic and security costs of terrorism and transnational crime are great. However, no single strategy has been able to eradicate them as a result of which they remain a security challenge in the region.
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