Weekly Roundup (27 February-3 March)

Man charged in NSW town of Young over alleged missile advice to Isis

28 February 2017, Canberra, Australia – The Guardian – In another demonstration of the persistent nature of ‘home grown terrorism’, in the rural town of Young in New South Wales, Australia, a 42-year-old man was arrested for allegedly providing technical advice to ISIL fighters on modifying the FN-6 Chinese shoulder-launched missile, a weapon widely used by Islamic State.

Haisem Zahab, born in Australia and an electrician by trade, has been the subject of an 18-month investigation into his connections to overseas-based radicals. According to the Kuwaiti government Zahab was part of an international arms smuggling group.

Prime Minister Turnbull, in an announcement shortly after Zahab’s arrest, stated that this incident showed that support for extremists was not limited to the major cities of Australia, but the threat was more widely spread.

Donald Trump budget to increase defence spending by $70 billion, White House says

28 February 2017, Washington D.C., United States – ABC News – Promising to drain the swamp and ‘Make America Great Again’, President Trump has put forward an ambitious defence increase target of $54 billion (AUD 70 billion).

This defence increase is said to come from cutting other areas of American public spending, especially the US foreign aid budget, potentially neutering the State Department’s capacity to influence events in dangerously unstable areas of the world.

While this may be celebrated among some within the Pentagon, a slush fund of cash lavished on the military without a proper plan, is about as wasteful as throwing money into any other government agency. It simply gives the agency ‘mandarin’ more autonomy to spend on items that may or may not be for the public good.

Furthermore, while both houses of Congress are dominated by the Republican Party, and Trump is a Republican president, there is no guaranteeing that some significant horse trading will need to be done if the White House has any chance of passing this defence increase. The United States, while engaged in the Global War on Terror and confronting Chinese maritime power in the South China Sea and (perhaps) Russian power in the Baltic and Ukraine, is not engaged in a major state-on-state war, so the question is: at a time of economic transition and environmental degradation, should the US spend so much money on defence? Neither of the military confrontations the US is currently engaged in warrant such an increase. In fact, the US military has surplus capacity to continue confronting Chinese and Russian power at current levels, unless of course a high-intensity military intervention is being covertly prepared. Recent talk about a US military strike against North Korea springs to mind.

Trump’s speech to Congress had one new idea to sell the American public on: hope

1 March 2017, Washington D.C., United States – qz.com – After months of criticism by his detractors, President Trump’s eagerly anticipated first address to Congress was a bit of a let down to those who thought it would be a repeat of his ‘American carnage’ Inauguration Day speech.

His tone was far more restrained and perhaps more traditionally presidential. Throughout the speech, Trump seemed to be mending fences with some of the US electorate put off by his polarising style. Whether this is an anomalous episode, or whether this is a result of him realising that governing the United States is a more complex undertaking than running a business, only time will tell. However, Trump’s recent accusations of having been phone-tapped by government agencies (at the behest of former President Obama) in reference to his campaign’s links to Russian influencers, saw a far more familiar president in an all too familiar ‘attack mode’.

Saudi Arabia is redefining Islam for the world’s largest Muslim nation

2 March 2017, Jakarta, Indonesia – The Atlantic – King Salman’s visit to Indonesia promised much for Jakarta, but delivered little. It was hoped that the Indonesian government would pick up tens of billions in Saudi investments, especially for its rich resource sector.

But it has been observed that Saudi Arabia might have other things in store for Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation. For years now, Indonesia has battled the rise of Islamic fundamentalism; trying hard to fulfil its own destiny – one of economic development, with a carefully monitored, though imperfect respect for minorities, and where governance both national and local, is largely secular.

However, Saudi Arabia has been investing heavily to overtly influence the direction of Islam in Indonesia. Wahhabist influencers have been attempting to alter the course of the reasonably tolerant form of Indonesian Islam by building Wahhabist schools, universities and mosques.

One might hope that Indonesians are aware of the Saudi agenda.  A turn toward Wahhabism would be a turn away from the unifying elements that created the modern Indonesian state – Pancasila. In an imaginary future in which Wahhabism has hold over the Muslim population of Indonesia, the country would be far less tolerant toward minorities and far more likely to confront neighbours like the Catholic Philippines and certainly Australia.

The size of the Saudi entourage was telling.  However, though large by diplomatic standards, it only played to a minority of Indonesians who see hope in a Wahhabist future. But with more Indonesians subscribing to Wahhabism, the possibility of increased radicalism within Saudi-sponsored mosques and other institutions, the likelihood of increased terrorism against the secular Indonesian authorities, foreign embassies and tourist destinations, is high.

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