The Southeast Asia IS Threat Looms Large

May 5, 2016Global Challengesby East Asia Forum

Economics is taking a back seat to the growing Asian terror threat.

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon in Southeast Asia, but goes as far back as the era of anti-colonial struggle. It gathered pace after September 11 with a series of attacks perpetrated mostly by the Al-Qaeda linked organisation Jemaah Islamiyah. Terrorism continues to pose a threat to Southeast Asian societies, as demonstrated by the recent attacks in Jakarta and the southern Philippines by groups inspired by the so-called Islamic State (IS).

The threat from IS to Southeast Asia takes three forms.

First, there is the danger of attacks perpetrated by local groups or individuals inspired by IS. These groups or individuals might not have direct links to IS central. Rather, they possess local grievances for which the idea of IS provides impetus and inspiration, usually via the internet. The attack in Jakarta on 14 January was an example of this.

The second threat is that posed by returnees from Syria and Iraq. In particular, the possibility that hardened militants could be returning with battlefield experience and operational knowledge to either plan or mount attacks in the region. However, this has not yet happened. So far, the returnees in custody are deportees who failed in their attempts to get to Syria and Iraq.

Third is the threat posed by militants who will soon be released from prison. At issue is the weak prison system in Indonesia, and the radicalisation that occurs within prisons. We should bear in mind, though; that not all of these soon to be released militants are IS supporters or sympathisers. In fact, the vast majority are members of militant groups known to be officially opposed to IS.

So, how serious is the threat posed by IS in Southeast Asia? The threat is certainly real and warrants attention for the reasons mentioned above. However, at the same time, we must take care not to exaggerate it.

When we speak of IS in Southeast Asia, it is important to be mindful of the fact that at present, there is no such thing as an ‘IS Southeast Asia’ branch, nor has IS’ central leadership formally declared a wilayat in any Southeast Asian country. For the most part, we are dealing with radical groups and individuals who have on their own accord taken oaths of allegiance to IS.

The number of Southeast Asians fighting in Iraq and Syria also remains comparatively small. There are at most 700, mostly from Indonesia. By way of comparison, thousands of IS supporters are attempting to enter Iraq and Syria from Europe. In addition to this, a large proportion of Southeast Asians in Iraq and Syria — Sidney Jones estimates about 40 percent — are women and children, not active militant fighters.

In our anxiety over IS, we must be careful not to miss the forest for the trees. There are multiple militant groups operating in Southeast Asia. Many are at odds with each other; not all seek affiliation to, or are enamoured of, IS. The greater long-term threat arguably comes from a rejuvenated Jemaah Islamiyah, which has a larger network and is better funded than the pro-IS groups in the region.

What about terrorism in Southeast Asia more generally? Here too it is imperative to keep things in perspective. For Southeast Asia today the question of terrorist attacks is unfortunately no longer a matter of if, but when. Even if the influence of IS diminishes over time — and it will — terrorism is part of the lay of the land and will not be eradicated anytime soon.

However, terrorism — whether perpetrated by IS or Jemaah Islamiyah — is not an existential threat to Southeast Asian societies. All indications are that from an operational perspective the threat remains at a low level. Of course, given the resilient and evolutionary nature of terrorism, this situation might well change.

One possible factor that could prompt a change is a deliberate shift of attention by IS central to Southeast Asia. Yet this seems unlikely for now as IS is preoccupied with its immediate priority of holding ground in Iraq and Syria, and expanding its fight to Libya and Europe.

It is important to recognise that regional governments today are better equipped and prepared to deal with the threat of terrorism compared to a decade and a half ago.

Of course, capacity can, and should, be further improved through regional cooperation and with some help from the United States. It is crucial not to be complacent. The threat of IS in Southeast Asia is real, though perhaps not as large as might be expected.

Realistic risk assessment key to fighting IS in Southeast Asia is republished with permission from East Asia Forum

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