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
Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.