Time to Engage Malaysia Is Now

Posted: Feb 06, 2002 12:00 AM
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 system. 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 U.S.-based companies. 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 reign. 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.