Lowy Institute

Violence and uprisings fueled by religious beliefs and ethnic-divides are nothing new in Nigeria.

A bombing by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, 2014. (Flickr/Global Panorama.)

Movements such as Boko Haram and Ansaru have precedents that go back to at least the start of the 19th century in Nigeria, and violent uprisings were rather common even during the 1980s and 1990s.

The recent situation has been compounded by the Nigerian Government's failure to stamp out corruption and distribute the profits from its oil industry in a manner that could have countered violent extremism. Poverty, especially in northern Nigeria where Boko Haram primarily operates, is a major problem.

It is difficult to establish an accurate account of Boko Haram's history and development. It has been argued by a number of scholars that the movement has been active since the mid-1990s under several different names, including Al Sunna Wal'Jamma, Muhajirun, the Nigerian Taliban, the Yusufiyaa Islamic Movement and Ahlusunna wal' Jamma Hijra.

But from 2002 onwards, the movement started to call itself Jamaátu Ahlus Sunnah Liddà Awati Wal Jihad, which translates to 'People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad.' The group's more widely used name, Boko Haram, is a composite term consisting of the regional Hausa language's word boko (book) and the Arabic word haram (sinful, ungodly, or forbidden). It literally means 'book is forbidden,' but it can be more deeply interpreted to mean Western education and civilization are sinful or ungodly and should therefore be forbidden and rejected. Read More

Boko Haram appears to have received initial financial support primarily from Nigerian politicians and businessmen who supported the cause for a variety of reasons. However, from 2007 onward, the group started to receive funding from al Qaeda; several members of the group were arrested and accused of receiving funds from al Qaeda, in one case up to US$300,000.

Boko Haram started to launch attacks against the Nigerian Government at the end of December 2003, when the movement destroyed a police station and a number of government buildings in northern Nigeria. During the attacks its members hoisted the flag used by the Taliban and various groups within the global jihadist movement.

Boko Haram continued to stage attacks against police stations in the region throughout 2004, most likely in an attempt to acquire weapons. The violence continued throughout 2005, when Boko Haram attacked a number of Christian villages, looted shops and kidnapped several local businessmen and forced them to convert to Islam. In response, Nigerian security forces launched Operation Sawdust in the northeast of the country. Authorities succeeded in arresting Boko Haram's leader at the time, Mohammed Yusuf, but he was later granted bail and allowed to return to Maiduguri.

On 26 July 2009, Nigerian security forces raided one of Boko Haram's compounds in Bauchi state, arresting nine of its members. Ingredients and equipment for the manufacturing of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and weapons were confiscated. Two hours later, Boko Haram launched several reprisal attacks, primarily against police stations. The Nigerian police eventually gained control of the situation but at least 700 people were killed, including many members of Boko Haram as well as civilians. During the fighting, Boko Haram's leader, Mohammed Yusuf, died (or was murdered) allegedly in police custody, together with one of Boko Haram's key financial sponsors at the time, Alhaji Buji Foi. 

As a consequence, the group's remaining leadership were forced to regroup and go underground.

Abukarar Shekau, who would eventually become leader, and other senior members hid away in countries such as Niger, Cameroon and Benin. Mamman Nur, another leading member who was originally from Chad, sought refuge in Somalia, where he and other members received training in camps run by al-Shabaab. A number of others spent time in training camps in Mali and Mauritania that were under the control of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). After the confrontation with the security forces in 2009, Boko Haram allegedly received not only training from AQIM but also a significant amount of money. 

At this time, the movement only had access to primitive weapons such as bows and arrows, various types of farming equipment, homemade firearms, petrol bombs and simple IEDs. In order to arm itself, Boko Haram launched a series of attacks against patrolling police officers and police stations in the Borno and Yobe states in August 2010. Later that year, the movement started to target and kill Muslim clerics in the region who were perceived as a threat, thus degrading the capabilities and willingness of Nigerian civil society to openly oppose it. Later on, the movement started to target churches and schools in the region. 

In recent years, the movement has increased the scope of its attacks by targeting entire villages, often at night. The attacking forces usually arrive on technicals and motorbikes in company-sized units. The targeted village is looted and more or less destroyed together with its inhabitants. Survivors are also often tracked down and killed. 

Boko Haram's access to weapons has grown over the years. Some of the weapons were looted or even bought from corrupt Nigerian officers and soldiers. It is also highly likely that the movement has received weapons, including more sophisticated weapon systems such as man-portable air-defense systems, from looted Libyan weapons and ammunition dumps through its contacts with AQIM. It also appears to have good access to technicals, motorbikes and even an unknown number of armoured personnel carriers of various types.

During 2014, Boko Haram started to try to hold on to seized territory and staged raids over the Nigerian border, primarily into Cameroon. It became obvious that Nigerian security forces were unable to deal with the group. As consequence, military units from Chad, Niger and Cameroon have started to fight Boko Haram in Nigerian territory in cooperation with the Nigerian military. 

The movement claims to have more than 40,000 members in Nigeria and dispersed throughout Africa in countries such as Niger, Chad, Mauritania and even Somalia. According to US intelligence officials, Boko Haram is estimated to have between 4000 and 6000 hardcore fighters. The movement also appears to have access to a large number of child soldiers, whom it usually recruits by force and often uses in mass attacks as cannon fodder.

As of February 2015, approximately 15,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram.


This reminds me a bit of the trailer for The Impossible, with a white Western family placed in peril in an exotic Southeast Asian location.

I really hope No Escape offers more than the trailer suggests, because this looks like a movie that will play into a lot of unattractive prejudices about the strange and alien Far East — note that little cutaway of a fish being butchered on the street; we're not in Kansas any more! The father is presented as naively wanting to embrace a foreign culture, but it's his less trusting daughter who turns out to be right. Only America (or in this case, the US Embassy) is safe!

(H/t Slashfilm.)


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • A new report investigating the gender disparities in mobile phone ownership in developing countries has found the largest gaps are in Southeast Asia, where women are 38% less likely to own a mobile phone than men.
  • President Obama has criticised China's plans for new restrictions on US tech companies, urging Beijing to change the policy if it wants to do business (h/t @BrendanTN_). China has dismissed the criticism and called for the US to 'treat this in a calm, objective and correct manner'.
  • The US is also putting up a fight in Indonesia against new rules requiring smartphone and tablet companies to produce 40% of their content locally from 1 January 2017. The US believes the 'made in Indonesia' rule will hamper the efforts of its tech companies, such as Apple, to capitalise on Indonesia's growing smartphone market.
  • Few 'mobile for development' programs reach Cambodia's poorest because they are unavailable in Khmer and aren't accessible to illiterate users. Local NGOs and the Government are getting around this with a free open-source platform that uses voice rather than text.
  • This blog post questions the hype around the FireChat mobile messenger app. Operable without phone reception or an internet connection, FireChat generated headlines last year during Hong Kong's 'Umbrella Revolution' (and before that during Taiwan's 'Sunflower Movement').
  • Why did a documentary about China's air pollution go viral in China this week? 'Under the Dome', self-financed by a former state TV journalist, has generated tens of thousands of comments on WeChat and been viewed more than 200 million times. It is now being censored but it is available here with English subtitles:


The view from Beirut

Syrian friends here in Lebanon often tell me that some Syrian refugees have chosen to leave Lebanon and return to parts of Syria that are under ISIS control. These anecdotes usually emerge as part of a larger conversation about why ISIS still receives support in some Arab countries, albeit often tacit and inactive.

When I ask why these refugees return, the response is always the same: 'They simply don't believe that the media reports of the atrocities taking place are actually true'.

Perhaps the death of Jordanian pilot Moath al Kasasbeh changed that. In Lebanon, often a barometer for regional issues, there was a palpable sense of shock on the street among all sects that a Sunni had been killed by ISIS in such an unholy way. A recent article on the Palestinian response to the slaying of the Jordanian pilot appears to confirm that prior to his death, some were wavering about the true nature of ISIS. But it seems the way in which he died (denounced by Islamic scholars), and the fact he was a Sunni Arab, touched people around the region in a way that the deaths of foreign journalists and aid workers perhaps did not.

But even prior to the incident, in conversation I eavesdropped on during shared taxi rides, the phrase ma fi din, ma fi shi (no religion, nothing) comes up when drivers and passengers speak about 'Daesh'. In bars and cafes the locals joke with me: 'It's alright for you, you're Christian, ISIS just want to drive you from the region. I'm Shi'a — they want to kill all of us!' In fact, I have never had a conversation with anyone in Lebanon that didn't involve expressly denouncing the group, whether with Palestinians, Lebanese Christians, Druze, Shi'a and Sunnis. Even Salafis in Lebanon do not appear to agree with ISIS.

However, there are pockets of sympathy for ISIS in Lebanon, often attributed to political and economic factors.

Weak leadership has led to the feeling that Sunnis are under-represented at the political level (as compared to the Shia). This is combined with dire economic conditions in Sunni areas of northern Lebanon and parts of the Beqaa Valley. Sunni leaders in Lebanon are perceived by the people there as not doing enough to ameliorate their poverty. 

But what about other parts of the Middle East?

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In Syria itself there is good reason for people to remain in areas under ISIS control, caught as they are between a rock and a hard place: regime attacks or ISIS authority. Formally, Muslim and Arab institutions such as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the leading Sunni clerical institution Al Azhar have repeatedly put out statements denouncing ISIS. Less formal responses come in the form of memes mocking ISIS which have emerged online all across the region.

My sense is that most Middle Easterners recognise that ISIS does not reflect genuine Islamic values and believe the group is just opportunistically seeking power. A survey of the region in 2014 found ISIS received almost no support in Arab states. Interestingly, Sunni support for ISIS is described as high by some Western and Israeli commentators.

However, 'almost no support' is not the same as 'zero support', and in Egypt and Jordan, active support for ISIS has emerged. It is fair to assume that in these cases socio-economic factors are partly to blame, something President Obama referred to in his speech at a recent anti-extremism summit. The summit received minimal attention from Middle East media owing to the local belief that US policy in the region is the root cause of extremism there, and because states at the coalface of extremism, such as Lebanon, did not attend. Local politics also play a role. In Egypt, support for ISIS is in part a response to the Government's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups.

There is also the lure of the Caliphate itself. The fact that ISIS has managed to capture territory is crucial, because in theory it means there is an actual place where Muslims are governed under the banner of their religion, which is a powerful symbol even to those who utterly reject ISIS's methods. There may also be a sense among devout Muslims who were on the fence about the group that, as practicing Sunnis, they themselves had nothing to fear from ISIS.

Resistance to the West is another powerful force in the Middle East. Perhaps some people could not help but approve  of the fact that the West is finally being challenged. The Charlie Hebdo attack, which brought the magazine's editorial content to the attention of many Muslims for the first time, may well have demonstrated to them that the West has never had any good intentions towards Islam anyway.

Other than shock and awe, it is hard to know what ISIS was thinking when it killed the Jordanian pilot, because it has alienated ordinary people who might have had latent sympathies towards it, and erased doubts on the street about the truly indiscriminate viciousness of ISIS.

When considering their strategy towards ISIS, the most significant point for the US and other countries to consider is that low support for this group should not be conflated with levels of regional support for other Islamic groups such as Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Keeping the war on ISIS separate from these other more established groups is essential.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Hossam el-Hamalawy.


Around 7:40 am (KST), the US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was attacked at a breakfast event on Korean unification. His attacker, Kim Ki Jong, slashed Lippert's face and wrist. Lippert was taken to a hospital for surgery.

Kim is a member of two nationalist groups – one regarding national unification, the other concerning Dokdo. The attack, Kim said, was a protest against the current South Korea-US military exercise Key Resolve. Not surprisingly, the attack has dominated the South Korea news all day. A few quick points are in order:

Kim does not represent anything like majority opinion in South Korea on the alliance with the US

Anti-Americanism in Korea is an issue, but not a large one. It tends to come in waves and is often the result of elite political manipulation.

The largest recent outburst was in 2007-08 over US beef imports. A rumour spread in South Korea that US beef was contaminated with mad cow disease, and this catalysed a groundswell of opposition, with candlelight vigils in the streets against a US-Korean free-trade deal. But it was also widely noted that Korean left-wing parties emphasised the American connection to help their political opposition to both a conservative president they disliked (Lee Myung-Bak) and a trade deal their voters opposed.

Similarly, when Roh Moo-Hyun ran for president (2002), he explicitly ran against the US, and that helped him get elected. He did not actually move to expel US forces from Korea. Since Roh, Korea has elected two pro-American conservatives in a row. In fact, part of Kim's anger may be how unresponsive the Korean political system actually is to popular anti-Americanism.

South Korean left-wing parties do not endorse direct action against US personnel in the Korea

Koreans of all parties are very nationalistic, but the South Korean right, which one would assume to be more so, is actually not. The South Korean right supports a tough line against the North and supports American ties, which means it is often labelled 'internationalist.' It is the left that is more traditionally nationalistic: sympathetic to unconditional unification and blaming the Americans (and Japanese) for national division.

These topsy-turvy political categories generate a lot of political confusion, but it is important to note that Korea's democratic left does not endorse violent action against Americans. Recently, a radical-left pro-Northern party was broken up by the Government in part over the issue of violence against the 'occupation.'

North Korea almost certainly had nothing to do with it

North Korea would be foolish to attack such a high-profile American target. North Korea, for all its bellicose rhetoric, does not want war. It would lose. But more importantly for the Pyongyang gangster elite that runs the country, they would lose all their illicit privileges. Not only that, they would likely be hunted down by angry North Koreans, as happened to Gaddafi and Ceausescu, or be pulled before post-unification courts. And South Korea has still has the death penalty, likely for this very contingency.

The South Korea-US alliance has weathered ups and downs for decades. If Kim is the lone wolf he seems to be, the only real fall-out will likely be greater security for US officials in Korea. That will make it harder for regular South Koreans to meet them, and that is a shame.


The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.


The new Indian Government brought down its first full-year budget last weekend. It has been keenly anticipated. Business Standard claimed: 'The market is expecting the Union Budget to be path-breaking, similar to the one in 1991, which led to the liberalisation of the Indian economy.' 

As it was, the budget did not live up to that billing, but such expectations were unrealistic. The 1991 budget is legendary, formulated in a time of crisis. But with growth in India now reported to be 7.5%, there is no such acute urgency pervading the corridors of power. The budget, nonetheless, was received well. The Financial Times said that the package 'moves things in the right direction'.

One of the main measures in the budget, perhaps the main measure, is a relaxation of the previously planned fiscal consolidation to allow for more infrastructure spending. A drop in the subsidy bill is also projected, which will help pay for new roads, rail and power stations.

It certainly appears that India needs better infrastructure. Power outages left 650 million people without electricity for days in 2012. According to McKinsey, infrastructure bottlenecks take 2% off GDP annually. These and other ailments are discussed thoroughly by the Council on Foreign Relations here.

So the boost to infrastructure sounds good, provided the Government can overcome governance issues associated with such projects (again, see CFR). However, we need to be cautious.

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Below is a graph of central Government spending on subsidies (food, fuel and fertiliser) and capital (which includes infrastructure). There is a reasonably clear negative correlation between subsidies and capital spending. As the subsidy burden increased on the back of high commodity prices, it crowded out capital spending, which is relatively easy to defer.

The dashed lines indicate what is forecast in the budget. It looks like capital expenditure will increase, although interestingly it will still be well below 2010 levels as a percentage of GDP. Correspondingly, subsidies will fall.

But we have seen this prediction before.

Below is a graph of the subsidy bill, with the dashed lines showing what was predicted in each budget. The Ministry of Finance has consistently predicted substantial falls in the subsidy bill that do not come to pass. If this happens again, there is the danger that capital spending will be trimmed...again. The fall in commodity prices makes me optimistic that the projected falls are realistic this time around, but the graph shows an absolutely dire forecasting record.

Discussion around budgeted revenues suggest that revenue numbers, for the first time in a while, look reasonable. This was even trumpeted in the official budget documents, which noted the 'Realistic figures shown...without showing exaggerated revenue projections.' Let's hope the subsidy projections are equally realistic.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user lecercle.


Australians sometimes wonder if their nation has a grand strategy. I think it did. It was called 'Engagement' and it has now come to an end.

Beginning in the 1950s and 60s and re-doubled in the 1980s and 90s, Australia's leaders began a historic turn of their nation from West to East. For many this is believed to be a still-distant goal. After all, most of us don't speak an Asian language, too many don't realise Bali is in Indonesia, and our foreign policy keeps looking toward the Middle East and singing sweet notes about the Anglosphere.

Yet on the terms the Engagers actually sought, the policy has been thoroughly achieved.

Cautious about culture and history, their terms of success were focused on gaining economic and political access as a basis for influence and security. Today, Australia's top six export markets and five of our top six import markets are in the Asia Pacific, with the US the only Anglosphere nation to feature prominently in both lists. Politically we have guaranteed ourselves a seat at the table of all of the region's major forums. We have created and reformed institutions, and helped shape the region's values and norms on such key issues as trade, non-proliferation and irregular migration. We no longer fear economic or political isolation as we once did. This is our region and we are no longer the odd man out or even the odd man in, but thoroughly at home.

This is the story I set out to tell in my new book Winning the Peace: Australia's campaign to change the Asia-Pacific, launched last night by Paul Kelly.

However, once I had the mass of notes and chapter drafts before me, I realised that what Australia needs is not a collective effort to praise engagement but to bury it.

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As many have noticed over the last ten or so years, many of our key relationships and key initiatives don't seem to have blossomed as they did in the past. However, I don't accept the usual explanations, such as a lack of 'creativity', 'maturity' or that we can pin the blame on certain individuals or political parties.

Instead, I think the problem is that we still think of our country as an outsider looking to engage, rather than being in a fully enmeshed position, which we actually are. The 'engagement' posture suited us during the courtship, but I believe it's now hurting us in the marriage.

As a self-proclaimed 'middle power' we felt free to let our attention wander between global and local concerns. We saw our relationships as exclusively bilateral concerns and not part of the region's networks and hubs. And we didn't mind being seen as an outsider as long as it gave us the freedom to lob diplomatic hand grenades every once in a while.

The costs of holding onto this 'outsider looking in' engagement-era thinking are starting to mount.

Kevin Rudd was high priest of the need to return to a 'pure' engagement vision. But his voluminous activity earned little respect and his signature policies, such as the Asia-Pacific Community, fell embarrassingly flat. The Gillard Government likewise sought to spruik the need to engage with the Asian Century, but its own thinking looked outdated when it announced a major new US presence in Darwin without even informing the neighbours. Finally, the Abbott Government seems continually surprised that Indonesia doesn't want to keep doing us favours (such as ignoring spying, accepting boats or giving mercy to drug smugglers) and can't quite understand why getting closer to our old friend Japan is leaving many so nervous.

These governments are victims of the success of their predecessors. Their failure is one of adaptation, a result of their desire to cling onto engagement-era thinking.

I don't have an overarching new concept or slogan to sell you at this point. Maybe we shouldn't even think in terms of slogans. But we do need a new intellectual framework that helps us think about what Australia wants from its region and what role it will play within it.

The starting point is to throw away the idea of being an outsider looking in, and begin afresh from our real position as part of Southeast Asia. That probably means more constraints, but it also promises more security and prosperity.

Before that debate can begin, however, we need to accept that the old beloved project of engagement is over. Despite the controversy, this truly was a bipartisan and national effort of re-orientation, of a form and success that few nations have ever attempted. No wonder we have trouble letting it go.
Until we do, however, Australian foreign policy will be far less effective and influential than it ought to be, and our nation will be weaker and poorer for it.


Contrary to media reports of two more 'indictments' of former Khmer Rouge figures by the Cambodian-UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal, what has actually happened is that Meas Muth (the former Khmer Rouge navy commander) and Im Chaem (a former regional detention centre director) have been charged in absentia with crimes against humanity by one of the tribunal's international judges, Mark Harmon.

Judge Harmon has a long record of association with international tribunals and with law enforcement in the US. He joined the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in 2012.

In taking this action, Judge Harmon is acting in accordance with the tribunal's procedures, which permit a judge to charge individuals without having the agreement of a fellow Cambodian judge — this is why the term 'charged' is correct, rather than 'indicted'. For an indictment to be entered, additional approval is required. And according to the Phnom Penh Post report cited above, Harmon's Cambodian counterpart, Judge You Bunleng, considers the cases against Meas Muth and Im Chaem (listed in court documents as Cases 003 and 004) as already closed.

It appears Prime Minister Hun Sen had at least an inkling that Judge Harmon was about to act, since he delivered a familiar warning against further cases being heard at the ECCC last week. He claimed that if further cases went before the tribunal there was a risk of war breaking out.

So, not for the first time, Hun Sen has shown his deep displeasure at the role played by international elements within the ECCC. For Judge You to now go ahead and endorse his international colleague's decision against the Prime Minister's wishes seems unlikely. If, contrary to all expectations, he were to do so, it would be a striking example of Hun Sen's power being on the wane.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.


In November last year, at the general assembly of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in Malaysia, a video was shown. It was the first minute of footage showing a beheading carried out by ISIS.

The screening was a volte-face from a few months earlier, when Prime Minister Najib had implored his UMNO to be brave like ISIS fighters had been in combating the Iraqi army, no doubt influenced by the foiling of an ISIS-inspired plot to target nightclubs and a Carlsberg brewery in Malaysia.

The ruling UMNO is trying to balance Malaysia's fragile social make-up. Malaysia, like states everywhere, now fears the impact of ISIS.

The horrors of ISIS have reverberated across Southeast Asia. Buddhist extremists in Myanmar are using the barbarism of the group to justify its Islamaphobia, as are some Thais in that country's long running conflict against Muslim insurgents in the south. But the biggest impact, and where concern is  understandably deepest, is in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, where jihadi groups have long had a foothold. Some of these groups have declared bai'at (allegiance) to ISIS, including Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and Mujahidin Indonesia Timor and Jamaah Anshorul Tauhid in Indonesia (causing a split in the latter group, explained here and here).

ISIS, through its slick media outfit, has made strong overtures to Southeast Asians to join its ranks. This was perhaps most evident in the full back-page photo of Southeast Asians in Issue 4 of the group's glossy Dabiq Magazine. In any other magazine this would be prime real-estate for advertising. In ISIS's magazine, it was a call to arms.

The number of Indonesians going to fight in Syria and Iraq has already surpassed that which went to Afghanistan between 1985-1994, says expert Sidney Jones. The experience these fighters gained during that period was brought home to Indonesia, in effect producing an 'Afghanistan alumni'. The fear now is of a returning 'ISIS alumni'. Estimates vary but in December 2014 the country's National Counter Terror Agency chief said that 514 Indonesians had traveled to Iraq and Syria (he did not specify how many had joined ISIS). In Malaysia the number of known ISIS recruits is approximately 40 and in the Philippines about 200. (By comparison, in February Australia reported that 110 citizens had traveled to join ISIS, of whom 20 have been killed).

Another often overlooked concern arises from the number of Southeast Asian migrant workers already living in the Middle East. The Philippines alone had an estimated 2.5 million citizens working in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE as of 2012. These Southeast Asians could become both recruits or targets for ISIS. 

Unsurprisingly, Southeast Asian states have spent plenty of time brainstorming and implementing new measures to curb recruitment.

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As terrorism expert Greg Barton noted recently, 'we have the hard side of counter-terrorism right...where we are dropping the ball (or not picking it up) is in case managing individuals'. This appears to be increasingly true in Southeast Asian states, with a few exceptions.

Gaps in enforcement are being patched up. Malaysia will introduce a new security bill in March. Najib controversially repealed the Internal Security Act in 2011. The new Prevention of Terrorism Bill will likely cover much of what was repealed in the ISA.

Increased regional cooperation in counter-terrorism has been boosted through stronger information sharing on suspect Southeast Asian citizens traveling through the region. In attempts to fly under the radar, Malaysian recruits had been traveling to Indonesia before heading to Syria, and coming home the same way. Others passed through or come from Brunei  and the Philippines. China is worried that its citizens are also using such travel routes to Syria; Kuala Lumpur said 300 Chinese militants had used Malaysia as a transit point to join ISIS. So border control is being enhanced, proof of which came in December 2014 when at least a dozen Indonesians bound for Syria were stopped by Malaysian border police.

Indonesian security services have kept a close watch on its known jihadi groups. As a September 2014 report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict noted, Indonesia has 'reacted more forcefully to the appearance of IS than to any other extremist movement in memory and so has the mainstream Muslim community'. Indonesia is also moving to invalidate passports of those attempting to join ISIS and those already fighting. Crucially, work still needs to be done in Indonesian prisons, which remain a key recruiting and funding ground. But as a January IPAC report notes, the building of anti-ISIS groups in prisons is making some headway. 

Some jihadi groups in Indonesia have been given space to speak out against the Caliphate. While this is a dangerous game that may give undue credibility to these jihadi groups, Southeast Asian states have a decent track record of tackling them. It is perhaps a case of better-the-devil-you-know, or necessary appeasement to stymie local jihadi groups from pledging bai'at.

De-radicalisation programs have also gained renewed support. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have long employed such programs, with mixed results. Recidivism rates vary. Some results suggest that recidivism is lower than in the normal offender populations in Europe or the US (~40%); other results suggest the opposite. These programs are still being modified to meet the new ideological challenge of ISIS. As such, the study of de-radicalisation continues to expand. In January, Singapore announced a study abroad program for students to immerse themselves in a 'summer of study' in de-radicalisation. At the East Asia Summit last year, Singapore's PM proposed a symposium on de-radicalisation to share best practice among experts. That symposium will take place in Singapore in April. 

There is no panacea to the ISIS threat. As one expert on de-radicalisation put it to me during a trip to Indonesia in February, every individual recruit needs a different dose of the 'medicine'. We don't know the perfect dose, and we are still figuring out the medicine. That epidemiological work is being studied across Southeast Asia.


My generation doesn't think much about nuclear weapons, disarmament and the consequences of nuclear-weapons use. Some certainly do, but generally, the cause of nuclear disarmament is being carried on by an older generation

I think that's a problem. Nuclear weapons seems like an old issue, from a previous generation and time. Plus, we have our own causes and as the argument often goes, 'no one is ever going to use one anyways, right?' This never convinces me, for a variety of reasons, but I also think we just haven't lived in a time when geopolitical tensions were such that two nuclear armed powers were close to war (except perhaps India and Pakistan in 1999, and the growing nuclear dimension of the tensions between Russia and the West today).

There is also the fact that the immediate and full effect of a military-grade nuclear weapon hasn't really been represented in pop culture since the end of the Cold War. For example, films since 9/11 have only depicted explosions from small nuclear weapons, usually orchestrated by terrorists like in the film The Sum of All Fears, but also in The Dark Knight Rises and to a lesser extent The Peacemaker. The point is that younger generations have never really been exposed, even fictionally, to the dangers of nuclear war. Some films do deal with this, like Crimson Tide (great film, but nuclear war is averted, yet again) and Independence Day (the nuclear explosion is not depicted, and it fails to stop the aliens, except later in space with the help of Jeff Goldblum).

In short, my generation has never had its version of The Day After.

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That's why an article from 2004, recently republished by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (h/t The Browser), grabbed my attention. The article is adapted from Lynn Eden's 2004 book Whole World on Fire, which essentially argues that US military planners have consistently underestimated the destructive effects of nuclear weapons by only calculating their blast damage, and not the additional damage caused by fire and firestorms.

It is worth quoting Eden describing the results of an 800 kiloton nuclear warhead detonating over Manhattan, which she does to terrifying effect. First, the temperature of the detonation itself:

 Within a few tenths of millionths of a second after detonation, the center of the warhead would reach a temperature of roughly 200 million degrees Fahrenheit (about 100 million degrees Celsius), or about four to five times the temperature at the center of the sun...

...After one second, the fireball would be roughly a mile in diameter. It would have cooled from its initial temperature of many millions of degrees to about 16,000 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly 4,000 degrees hotter than the surface of the sun. 

 Eden then describes the destruction the heat would cause downtown: 

At the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building, and St. Patrick's Cathedral, about one half to three quarters of a mile from ground zero, light from the fireball would melt asphalt in the streets, burn paint off walls, and melt metal surfaces within a half second of the detonation...

...Those who tried to escape through the streets would have been incinerated by the hurricane-force winds filled with firebrands and flames. Even those able to find shelter in the lower-level sub-basements of massive buildings would likely suffocate from fire-generated gases or be cooked alive as their shelters heated to oven-like conditions.

And then the fires that would engulf the city and the surrounding suburbs:

On a clear day with average weather conditions, the enormous heat and light from the fireball would almost instantly ignite fires over a total area of about 100 square miles...

...As the massive winds drove flames into areas where fires had not yet fully developed,the fires set by the detonation would begin to merge. Within tens of minutes of the detonation, fires from near and far would join to form a single, gigantic fire. The energy released by this mass fire would be 15 to 50 times greater than the energy produced by the nuclear detonation...

  ...These superheated ground winds of more than hurricane force would further intensify the fire. At the edge of the fire zone, the winds would be powerful enough to uproot trees three feet in diameter and suck people from outside the fire into it.

The destructive power of nuclear weapons is imaginable, real and frightening. Even though recent set-backs have slowed down the momentum for nuclear disarmament, it's critical that it at least remains a visible part of the global agenda.


This week's Quick Comment interview is with the Lowy Institute's Dr Philippa Brant, who is behind the Lowy Institute's latest (and very popular) infographic on Chinese aid to the Pacific. Philippa discusses how she put the data together (China doesn't have a comprehensive accounting of its own aid program in the Pacific Islands region) and her three major findings. I also ask Philippa if she has heard any feedback from China:


For most of my professional life I have been addicted to Middle Eastern politics. In recent years, however, I have started to kick the habit, so I had not planned to get up at 3am Sydney time to watch Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver his much anticipated and controversial address to the US Congress.

And yet it seems I retain some of the involuntary reflexes of a long-time political junkie. I woke abruptly at 3am and carried myself off to the television. I'm glad I did. Because while 'Bibi' has built his political career on his words rather than his actions (just like President Obama, ironically), you only get the full nuance when you watch him live.

The world was first introduced to Bibi during the 1991 Gulf War when, as Israel's deputy foreign minister, he became a familiar face on CNN, including most famously during one interview, wearing a gas mask. Bibi repeatedly warned of the dangers Israel faced from Iraq's Scud missiles, a number of which did strike Israel during that war.

It was a tense moment in US-Israel relations. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wanted to take military action against Iraq's Scud missile. The Bush Administration, however, wanted desperately to keep Israel out of the war to ensure that the Arab coalition it had carefully assembled against Saddam did not fall apart.

The Administration succeeded, but the Israeli Government's pressure meant that the US military placed a high priority on hunting Scuds in Iraq's western desert. Bibi was very much the public face of that pressure, using the skills he would become famous for: his deep understanding of the media and public relations; his strong command of the English language and his great facility for dramatic gestures.

Bibi's TV appearances also propelled him politically in Israel, which caused great tension between him and his nominal boss, then Israel Foreign Minister David Levy, who did not speak English and had the charisma of a prickly pear.

Almost 25 years later, many of those same elements were at play in another moment of tension in US-Israel relations, this time over Iran.

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Bibi believes the Obama Administration is about to sign a deal with Iran over its nuclear program that will imperil Israel. His address to Congress at the invitation of House Speaker, Republican John Boehner, and in the face of opposition from the Obama Administration, was a typically dramatic gesture. Yet, as numerous Israeli critics pointed out, it also risked undermining bipartisan support for the US-Israel relationship by alienating Democrats, some 50 of whom reportedly refused to attend the speech. And many saw the speech as a stunt aimed at shoring up political support for Bibi in Israel's elections in two weeks' time.

Against so rich a background the speech turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax.

It was all the things we have come to expect from a Bibi speech: dramatic, eloquent, at times compelling, at others condescending, and not a little bit cynical. And there were strong points to Bibi's argument. Two stand out in particular.

The first reflects deep Israeli (and indeed Arab) fears about an agreement. That is, not only won't it stop an Iranian nuclear bomb, but it will entrench Iran's regional ascendancy by ending its economic and political isolation. Indeed the fear among Iran's adversaries is that the Obama Administration is contemplating allying with Iran in the Middle East on issues of common interest.

A significant part of Bibi's speech was devoted to the theme of 'be careful who you get in bed with'. He singled out America and Iran's shared interest in the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 'Don't be fooled', he argued. Iran and Islamic State are no different; they were simply competing for the crown of militant Islam. I don't believe the Obama Administration is blind to the realities of the Iranian regime and its regional ambitions. Nevertheless, Bibi's evocative reminders about the nature of the regime, and the amount of American blood on its hands, will be difficult for the Administration to rebut publicly.

Bibi's second strong point was to point to a flaw in the nature of the agreement, a flaw which worries even some supporters of a nuclear deal with Iran: its sunset clause. Because no deal would ever be able to totally eliminate Iran's nuclear program, the deal instead seeks to place limits on Iran's ability to produce fissile material. Any deal would, however, be time-limited. According to media reports, the US was seeking a 20-year lifespan for the deal, the Iranians want 10, with a compromise most likely to emerge at 15.

Bibi dwelt effectively on the real fear that Iran will just wait out the term of any agreement, pocketing the ending of sanctions along the way, and then build nuclear weapons once it is freer to do so. The truth is that even after the end of any deal, Iran will remain subject to NPT restrictions. But this is always going to seem weaker and much less reassuring to those that fear Iran is wriggling its way out of sanctions by exploiting the short-term horizons of Western political leaders.

The strength of both these points was, however, undermined by the speech's greatest weakness: Bibi's inability to offer an alternative. He was detailed in his exposition of the Iranian regime's perfidy over the years and the flaws of any diplomatic agreement with Tehran. But the detail disappeared when it came to explaining the alternative.

America, he argued, should simply walk away from any deal that didn't eliminate Iran's nuclear infrastructure. This precondition cuts little ice with anyone except the most partisan of critics of the deal. There is no way the Iranians would agree to negotiate on that basis. As President Obama correctly noted in an interview with Reuters this week, 'there's no expert on Iran or nuclear proliferation around the world that seriously thinks that Iran is going to respond to additional sanctions by eliminating its nuclear program.' Even military action would not achieve that outcome, other than temporarily. Netanyahu also said America should walk away from any deal which fails to end Iran's aggressive regional behaviour. That's an important issue, but impossible to tie into an already complex nuclear negotiation.

In effect, therefore, Bibi argued that America should just walk away.

But then what? He didn't argue the case for imposing more sanctions on Iran, perhaps because he understands that sanctions have not prevented Iran from developing its nuclear program to date. And while increased sanctions over the last year have helped bring Iran to the negotiating table they are unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term, given their reliance on Russian and Chinese cooperation.

Nor did he say anything about military action, perhaps in the knowledge that even among many Republican allies there is little appetite for dragging America into another costly war in the Middle East.

Indeed, under both of these scenarios (more sanctions or military action), the sunset that so worries Bibi and others in any diplomatic deal gets a whole lot closer than 10 or 15 years. Even under intense sanctions, Iran will still develop its nuclear program and probably even accelerate it, as it has done in the past. And as even Israeli military experts have conceded, military action might slow Iran's program by only 2 or 3 years.

I do not think Bibi's speech will scuttle the negotiations with Iran (although that may still happen of its own accord), nor will it irreparably damage US-Israel relations. Where Bibi has done real damage is to the willingness of the Obama Administration to listen to Israeli concerns about an agreement.

These are real and justified concerns, which need to be built into any agreement if it is to bring much needed stability to the region. But because Bibi has made it personal and political, he has made it easier for the Administration to dismiss Israeli complaints about a deal on the grounds that Bibi simply opposes any realistic deal, no matter how good. Moreover, poking your finger in the eye of an American president in the less politically-encumbered final years of his presidency does not seem very smart.

To put it another way, Bibi's speech won't scuttle the deal because Bibi has made it all about Bibi. But for the same reason, the speech won't do deep damage to Israel's alliance with America. One day Bibi will be gone; the US-Israeli relationship will remain.


At a forum held at the Parliament of New South Wales last Tuesday evening, the General Secretary of Lebanon's Future Movement party, Ahmad Hariri, forcefully condemned terrorism in the name of Islam. Flanked by pictures of two former Lebanese prime ministers, the slain Rafik Hariri and his son Saad, the leader of Lebanon's largest Sunni political party called for a secular and unified Lebanon and for the need to prevent alienation and radicalisation of Sunni communities.

A March 14 Alliance rally in Lebanon, 2011.

These noble calls were met with nods of approval at the Sydney forum, hosted by the NSW branch of the Future Movement, but may be falling on deaf ears among the Future Movement's Sunni constituents at home. The uncomfortable truth is that the Future Movement itself has largely failed its responsibility to prevent alienation of young Sunnis in Lebanon.

Hariri listed the forces of instability in the Middle East in order as: the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israeli occupation of Palestine; Iran's expanding sphere of influence; and ethnic extremism and terror in the name of Islam. On the third point, Hariri spoke of the inability to combat ISIS through purely military means and the need to prevent 'alienation' of Sunni communities more broadly. Critically, he spoke of the role of the Future Movement as a force of moderation in the promotion of a 'secular' and 'unified Lebanon'.

Lebanon, with it's combustible sectarian mix and confessional system of government, is in a precarious position vis-a-vis the Syrian civil war. The involvement of militias from Lebanon — in the form of Shiite Hezbollah fighters backed by Iran on behalf of the Syrian Government, and Sunni Islamists aligned with Syrian rebel forces opposed to the Syrian Government's rule — has aggravated Lebanon's own precarious Sunni-Shia divide.

The expansion of a regional proxy war played out in the Lebanese arena is a real threat.

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The Lebanese Armed Forces are an important symbol of unity in a country politically split between Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its March 8 Alliance (which includes a number of Christian parties), and the Saudi-backed predominantly Sunni Future Movement and its broader March 14 coalition.

Recently the Army has stepped up its operations (and the amount of aid it receives from Western sponsors) against ISIS and other radical Islamists groups. But it faces a growing backlash from within Lebanon itself, where many Sunni Muslims, particularly in northern Lebanon, are hostile towards the Armed Forces. Largely opposed to Assad, Lebanon's Sunni are resentful of the apparent impunity with which Hezbollah has been allowed to conduct operations against their brethren in Syria. That hostility is manifested in attacks against the Lebanese military, kidnappings and a growing number of Sunni Lebanese joining radical groups. Sunni Muslims in northern Tripoli have expressed the belief that the Army is targeting Sunnis and colluding with their enemy, Hezbollah. In Lebanon's predominantly Sunni northern Tripoli, high unemployment, poor living conditions and lower standards of education have further fueled grievances.

The Future Movement and the March 14 coalition spearheaded the Cedar Revolution in 2005 that saw a broad spectrum of Lebanese society come together in the name of unity and state sovereignty following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (Ahmad Hariri's uncle). The Revolution forced Syria to withdraw from Lebanon after a 29-year occupation. Five members of Hezbollah have been indicted over the assassination by an international tribunal in The Hague.

But more recently the Future Movement has consistently failed to champion the economic and political interests of the Sunni community. The current president of the party, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, doesn't even live in Lebanon and splits his time between France and Saudi Arabia as the head of the business empire he inherited from his father. He made his first visit to Lebanon in four years in August 2014.

The situation has created a leadership vacuum in the Sunni community, allowing space for more radical leaders to expand their influence and tap into broader Sunni discontent.

It's fair to say that the majority of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims don't subscribe to ISIS and al-Nusra's radical doctrines; the presence of radical groups has even united the rival factions to set aside their domestic disputes in the face of a common enemy, and a national dialogue between the March 8 and March 14 camps has made progress.

But at a time when Sunni identity is increasingly linked to an existential battle against their Shiite adversaries, secularism rings hollow, especially when backed up by poverty and neglect. The Future Movement and the Sunni leadership need to tap into and reverse Sunni grievance, and provide a moderate religious counter-narrative in response to the more successful recruitment campaigns of ISIS and al-Nusra. It must regain the trust and respect of Sunni Lebanon and restore it's position as the champion of Sunni Islam. It can do this by promoting its moderate Islamic credentials while offering economic and financial support to its main constituents in northern Lebanon.

Shouting the language of moderation goes only so far; Sunni Muslims must be given a reason to listen, political representation and political agency to prove they are united against terror.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gehad Hadidi.