Death of a terrorist

Noordin Top, leader of al-Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago, has been shot dead in Indonesia. But there

Just over a month ago, Indonesian police claimed they had shot dead south-east Asia's most notorious terrorist. Unfortunately, it turned out that Noordin Mohammad Top, wanted in connection with both sets of Bali bombings and a further series of bomb blasts in Jakarta, had got away from the house in a village in central Java before the shoot-out. This time, say the police, they really have got their man. The Malaysian-born leader of al-Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago, a splinter group from Jemaah Islamiyah, was caught in a raid in Solo, also on Java. Asked to surrender, he continued firing until he was killed instead.

Islamist terrorist groups in south-east Asia make the news when they are successful in perpetrating outrages: either the bombings of the past decade, or when groups based in the Philippines, such as Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, come into conflict with government forces or engage in kidnapping and beheading.

These incidents often lead western observers to imagine that the region is dangerous (which, apart from the far south-east of the Philippines, it is not) and a hotbed of religious fanaticism. In fact, it has historically been home to a very moderate form of Islam, one that has happily accommodated many of the animist and Hindu traditions that preceded the arrival of Islam between the 12th and 15th centuries.

But this relatively easygoing and tolerant approach is under attack. I have written about "creeping Islamisation" in Malaysia for the New Statesman before, and I recommend this article, "Indonesia drops the ball on radical Islam", from the excellent Asia Sentinel, to read further about what's happening on the other side of the Malacca Straits.

While capturing or killing terrorists like Noordin Mohammad Top is naturally to be welcomed, it is also vital to look at the culture from which he sprung. The vast majority of Muslims in south-east Asia would condemn his actions without reservation. But more fundamentalist Islam is gaining ground, with the result that at the same time as Indonesia and Malaysia slowly become more democratic, the liberal and secular freedoms we associate with democracy are increasingly under threat.

As the region is home to 250 million Muslims, more than in the Arab Middle East, wouldn't it be wise for us to pay it a little more attention?

 

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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