SE Asia Countries Concerned About Targeted Killing Strategy

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Officials in Malaysia and the Philippines have voiced concerns that U.S. forces could target terrorists in Southeast Asia in the same way six suspected al Qaeda members were killed in Yemen last week. All six died when a missile - reportedly fired from an unmanned CIA drone - hit their car.

Any such action would be a violation of their sovereignty, the two governments said after a senior U.S. official reportedly indicated that the strategy could be an option in the region.

After days of not commenting officially on the Yemen attack, senior administration figures at the weekend edged toward an open admission of what officials had been saying on condition of anonymity - that the missile strike was a sanctioned, targeted killing.

One of the six men killed when their truck was destroyed was Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, a senior al Qaeda member suspected in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in the attack.

On Sunday, in response to a question about who authorized the Yemen strike, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told Fox News that President Bush "has given broad authority to a variety of people to do what they have to do to protect this country."

"It's a new kind of war," she said. "We're fighting on a lot of different fronts."

A day earlier, State Department coordinator for counter-terrorism Francis Taylor, in Manila for a terrorism conference, said the missile attack was "both legal and the appropriate tool given the circumstances."

Taylor said the U.S. would "use whatever was necessary and legal to attack this threat, to interdict it and to eliminate it."

Pockets of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists have emerged in several Southeast Asian countries since last year's Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., among them the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

The countries have cooperated to varying degrees in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

Asked during a press conference whether the missile strategy - which he called a "military option" - could be used against terrorists in Southeast Asia, Taylor replied that Bush had asked countries joining the war on terror "to put all kinds of power together to take this threat on and to use what is appropriate given the nature of the threat we face."

"For Yemen, perhaps that is a military operation and for the Philippines, it may be a law enforcement option," he said.

"But all of those options are on the table, that are available to governments and regional coalitions to fight against the threat and find the right tool and right time to get the result we are looking for."

'State terrorism'

Media reports on Taylor's comments interpreted them as hinting that missile strikes could be used in the region, prompting a strong reaction in the Philippines and Malaysia.
We do not need any foreign interference or foreign troops in the country," Malaysia's Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak told the official Bernama news agency. "We are capable of fighting terrorists [ourselves]."

Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar went further, suggesting the Yemen strike constituted "state terrorism."

"My fear is that when you do this it is like Israel committing state terrorism [through the targeted killings of Palestinian terrorists]," he said.

"Our idea is not to simply to kill. You must be able to arrest [and] after the arrest, break up cells and identify the root causes," Syed Hamid said.

"If you just launch air strikes it is not going to help in the fight against terrorism. We will not agree for our territory to be used that way."

"There is no place for covert operations here," said Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, adding that any type of military operation would require prior approval.

"Whatever they want to do here, they must first inform us, and it is up to the government whether to cooperate."

In Manila, presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao also commented on the issue, saying it would not be necessary for the U.S. to target terrorists in the Philippines in that manner.

"This is not Yemen or some other area where there is an apparent, or there is a clear presence of al Qaeda leaders," he said.

What the Philippines needed was not missile strikes but "more capable, more properly equipped" Filipino troops.

Any attempt to carry out a Yemen-type attack in the Philippines without permission would be "an intrusion of our sovereignty as a nation," he said.

Although officials in both Southeast Asian capitals raised the issue of the U.S. acting without authorization of the government concerned, there is little doubt that the Yemeni government cooperated with Washington in the operation there.

Yemen kept silent on the affair, but in a statement issued after the incident, it urged citizens to cooperate with the security forces against people responsible for "terrorist activities targeting our country, its people and its national economy."

Yemeni forces had been hunting for al-Harthi for months.

'Saddam must be quaking'

In the Philippines, government collaboration with the U.S. this year in fighting Islamic terrorists has sparked considerable controversy, with nationalists, leftists and Muslims opposing joint military exercises.

Apart from Tiglao's comments, reports about Taylor's remarks also drew reactions from Filipino lawmakers and commentators.

Imee Marcos, a lawmaker who is also vice chairman of the parliamentary foreign relations committee, issued a statement expressing alarm that assassination was now seen as a "legal and appropriate tool" in the war on terror.

She asked whether Manila would continue to provide support to the Americans "if they murder Filipino citizens who happen to be suspected of terrorism."

In an editorial, the Today newspaper expressed concern that Tiglao's comments suggested that there could be circumstances in which the government would approve a U.S. missile strike.

Another daily, the Philippine Star, noted that the Yemen strike had been lethally effective.

"Saddam Hussein must now be quaking in some underground fortress in the Arabian desert, knowing what the Americans have in store for him."

Many Filipinos wouldn't mind if terrorists like Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani were also "vaporized by a Hellfire missile," it commented.

But the paper warned that it was important governments were consulted before any such U.S. actions, as failure to do so could deepen "resentment of American hegemony, particularly in the Islamic world."

See earlier story:
Senior Al Qaeda Terror Suspect Killed In Yemen Blast (Nov. 4, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow