Tue, May 09, 2006 - Page 9 News List

US special units spearhead war on terror in Asia

Most of the units' work is clandestine and done in cooperation with local governments

By Richard Halloran

The leader of US armed forces in the Pacific and Asia, Admiral William Fallon, says the commander of Special Operations Forces in this region, Major General David Fridovich, is "the tip of the spear" in the war against terror in the vast area stretching from Hawaii to India.

An immediate target for that spear is a remote island chain running from the southern Philippines, where Muslim terrorists train, to Malaysia and Indonesia. Terrorists infiltrate into those nations by island-hopping down that chain, then fade into the population. US special operations troops often slip quietly into position there to help block the infiltration and to break up terrorist cells.

Beyond that, US Special Operations Forces work mostly out of the public eye throughout Southeast Asia to assist national authorities in combating terror.

Southeast Asia has become an active arena for international terror even though Muslims there are considered to be tolerant of other religions and secular institutions.

Radical movements

The objective of the radical Muslims, a relatively small portion of the populations, is to overthrow existing national governments in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei and local governments in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. They would then forge a new nation ruled by Islamic law.

Radical Muslim movements in Southeast Asia are mostly homegrown, but over time have become loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, the terrorist band led by Osama bin Laden. Many Southeast Asian terrorist leaders in the 1990s were trained in Afghanistan, bin Laden's base.

Probably the most active group is Jemaah Islamiyah, of Indonesia; it was charged with the Bali bombing of 2002 in which 202 people died in the first terrorist act of the modern day in Southeast Asia. Another is Laskar Jihad. Still another Indonesian group is Laskar Pembela Islam. A smaller group is Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia.

In the Philippines are Abu Sayyaf, the Moro National Liberation Front and a splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. They trace their origins to the Moros of Mindanao, Muslims who sought to secede from the largely Roman Catholic Philippines in the late 19th century.

Against this array, the Special Operations Command under Fridovich is the military vanguard against terror in the Pacific and Asia. At his promotion ceremony last month, Fallon said Fridovich's troops were "engaged at the grassroots level" in establishing working relations with other nations.

Special Operations Forces, known as SOF, include Army Rangers and Special Forces (Green Berets), Navy SEALS (sea, air, land), the Air Force's special operations aviation regiment, a new Marine unit in training and psychological operations and civil affairs units.

Much of SOF's work is clandestine and done in small groups that are assembled for a mission, deployed and broken up once they get home. In addition to military skills, SOFs are taught the basics of the languages and cultures of the nations to which they are dispatched.

Teachers

Fridovich emphasized that a primary task of US SOF was to work with Asians, not to fight terror by themselves.

"We are teachers," he said in an interview. "We're building capacity when we're in various locations and we leave these areas when they are capable of doing it on their own."

"We work through, by and with local forces and citizens," he said. "We work through the capability that the countries believe they need to get the mission accomplished. This is done by the countries we partner with, and we work with the local forces and citizens."

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