Time to Engage Malaysia Is Now
2/6/2002 12:00:00 AM - Joel Mowbray
As President George W. Bush reiterated in his State of the Union
address, our war on terror is much broader in scope than the Middle
East. Our success in dismantling the vast terrorist network Al Qaeda
could, in part, hinge on our ability to engage Malaysia, a nation with
whom we had cool relations during the Clinton years.
Though rarely mentioned in the American media until this past week,
Malaysia has suddenly appeared on the foreign policy radar as reports
have surfaced in the international press that Malaysian businessman and
former military officer Yazid Sufaat has ties to Osama bin Laden and the
Al Qaeda terror network, including Zacarias Moussaoui, the only man
charged so far in connection with the 11 September attacks. Malaysian
authorities arrested Yazid on suspicion of terrorist activity in
December. Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was
quoted this week in the Malaysian press saying that Yazid "has committed
a serious offence."
Malaysia has long been geographically and, thus, strategically
significant in Southeast Asia, sharing borders with Thailand and
Indonesia, with the eastern half of the nation a stone's throw from the
western islands of the Philippines.
The Al Qaeda terror network looks at southeast Asia somewhat like the
Chicago mafia viewed Milwaukee and Minneapolis in the 1930's: a place to
hide when the heat gets too hot at home. Kuala Lumpur is a modern,
westernized city, ideal for someone seeking to "blend in."
As we search for new allies, Malaysia must top the list. Aside from
Malaysia's strategic importance, America needs every reliable Muslim
partner it can muster in order to show unequivocally that terrorist
killers and those who succor them are our enemy, not Islam. A British
colony until almost 45 years ago, Malaysia has made no effort to root
out Western influences. Its government is a constitutional monarchy,
modeled directly on Britain's, which has yielded a stable political
Although Malaysia is not a perfect nation, it is an ideal partner for
combating terrorism. The task of cultivating stronger diplomatic ties
is easier thanks to an already-extensive business relationship between
America and Malaysia. Malaysia is our eleventh-largest trading partner,
accounting for more trade (nearly $40 billion) than Indonesia, India,
and Russia, combined.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, leader of the moderate ruling party,
is already working to establish a positive relationship with the Bush
administration. Malaysia has already cracked down on suspected Al Qaeda
operatives within its borders, currently detaining 23 suspected Islamic
terrorists. One of those detainees is none other than Yazid, whom
Malaysian officials captured last December while he was returning home
after supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Malaysian authorities discovered that Yazid had ordered four tons of
the powerful explosive ammonium nitrate, four times as much as was used
in the Oklahoma City bombing. American intelligence sources believe
that the ammonium nitrate was intended for use in an attack on U.S. and
Israeli embassies in neighboring Singapore, as well as buildings housing
Prime Minister Mahathir has understandably used the fear of Islamic
extremism to political advantage. Television clips aired before a
recent by-election showed footage of an Afghan woman being executed for
violating Islamic law and warned that Taliban-style rule could happen in
Malaysia. The success of the spots demonstrates that transparent
democracies are the most powerful antidote to the threat of tyrannical
By moving public opinion against hard-line politics, Mahathir has also
managed to soften the main opposition party, which mostly consists of
fundamentalist Muslims and controls two of the country's 13 states.
Despite the opposition party's adherence to regressive views toward
women, Mahathir's leadership effectively forced them last month to drop
their ban on allowing women to run for office as members of their party.
Though there has been cooperation between authorities in both
countries, our national security can only be enhanced if we forge
stronger ties with Malaysia. Given the succession of high-profile
arrests recently in neighboring nations, fostering a greatly enhanced
relationship with Malaysia will prove to be a vital component of
anti-terror efforts in Southeast Asia.
President Bush was originally scheduled to meet with Mahathir this
month, but Bush's incredibly full plate forced the White House to
postpone the meeting. But as recent revelations make painfully clear,
we cannot wait any longer before fully engaging Malaysia as a strategic
partner in our war on terror.