No Time for Complacency on ISIS Threats in Southeast Asia

By Zachary Abuza

Members of the Malaysian counterterrorism unit Pasukan Gerakan Khas of the Royal Malaysian Police during training in Kuala Lumpur. Source: Wikimedia user Rizuan, used under a creative commons license.

Members of the Malaysian counterterrorism unit Pasukan Gerakan Khas of the Royal Malaysian Police during training in Kuala Lumpur. Source: Wikimedia user Rizuan, used under a creative commons license.

The November 13 coordinated attacks in Paris by followers of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which led to the death of 129 people, have revived fears of the movement’s spread to Southeast Asia, especially among the political leadership in Indonesia and Malaysia. ISIS is a threat to the region, but a manageable one. While regional governments cannot afford to be complacent about ISIS, fear-mongering can also be counter-productive.

There are roughly 800-1,000 Southeast Asians who have traveled to Syria and Iraq, but not all are combatants. Some are family members and dependents of those who signed up to fight for ISIS; there is already a Bahasa-language school in Raqqa, Syria. This number also includes those detained by Turkish authorities and deported back to Southeast Asia, as well as those who have been killed. As many of Southeast Asian fighters are bringing their families, we can assume that not all intend to return to Southeast Asia — they intend to fight the final apocalyptic battle in Syria. But many of those who return will pose a threat to security in their home countries.

The rise of ISIS matters in Southeast Asia for six reasons.

First, it has revitalized the terrorist network of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) that had been decimated by 2012. If it were not for ISIS, we would not be talking of terrorism in Southeast Asia. Jammat Ansharut Tauhid, a splinter group from JI led by Indonesian cleric and former terror suspect Abu Bakar Bashir, has pledged loyalty to ISIS, as did Mujihideen Indonesia Timur, the most lethal of the JI splinter organizations. ISIS has given them and other militants a new meaning.

Second, unlike JI whose recruitment was very narrow and based on a handful of madrassas and kinship networks, ISIS recruits represent the entire socio-economic spectrum, in addition to traditional JI networks. More importantly, recruitment is largely done online and over a far more concentrated period of time. It is worth noting that women often play key roles in the ISIS recruitment process and logistic networks.

Third, ISIS propaganda is very slick, well-produced, and on message to the target demographic, creating a sense of triumph. It is designed for mobile platforms, ubiquitous in the region. And increasingly, it is tailored for recruitment in Southeast Asia. This strategy seems to already have an influence: Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist organization in southern Philippines known for its gruesome kidnapping-for-ransom scheme, has recently released two ISIS-influenced videos.

Fourth, there are currently enough Southeast Asians in Syria to have formed a Bahasa-speaking company of fighters. Though not all will return to the region, they have put in place transnational networks.

Fifth, ISIS is incredibly violent. Malaysian authorities have already thwarted two major bomb attacks by returnees from Syria that were well beyond the “ideas” phase. And we have to remember that Malaysia was spared the violence during JI’s reign of terror. While there were many Indonesian suicide bombers for JI, already there have been three Malaysians ISIS returnees. In Jakarta, returnees attempted to detonate a chlorine bomb in a Jakarta mall in February.

But that leads to the final concern: security forces are far too concerned about the possibility of bombs going off. The reality is most Southeast Asians who have joined ISIS have been used as cannon fodder. They are militants, but not trained terrorists. And that is why Paris is of such great concern for regional security forces: barricade-style attacks require little training, investment or resources, and have a very high probability of causing mass casualties and garnering global attention. JI had begun to adopt this tactic in 2010.

The situation is not all bad. Governments are not in denial or politically hamstrung the way they were post 9/11. Indeed, top leaders in Malaysia and Indonesia have identified ISIS as a major threat early on, and have given their security services the needed resources. The Malaysian and Indonesian governments have been uncharacteristically proactive. For instance, the only reason why there are not more Indonesians and Malaysians who have joined ISIS is a result of the logistical backlog caused by the difficulty in getting there due to intense monitoring by authorities. An estimated 300 recruits in Indonesia are currently stuck, following the arrest in April of a major financier and logistics operative.

Second, the regional appeal of ISIS is still limited. A recent Pew poll found only 4 percent of Indonesians support ISIS. It will always appeal to a certain sector of the population, and in certain communities in particular, but they are still a distinct minority. The region’s robust civil society organizations can help ensure that ISIS never becomes mainstream.

Third, security cooperation with external partners, including the United States, European Union members, Japan, and Australia, has never been better. The threat has also created new avenues of cooperation with Turkey and other governments. Governments in Southeast Asia understand that combating ISIS requires international cooperation.

What more needs to be done?

While it is fruitless to try to ban ISIS propaganda, efforts to counter the messaging will be important. Malaysia is establishing an online Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) center in Kuala Lumpur with U.S. assistance, and ideally Indonesia should follow suit.

The problem in Indonesia is that there is no consensus as to what agency should control this operation: is it the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), the elite counterterrorism squad Densus- 88, or the Coordinating Ministry for Politics and Security Affairs?

Second, Indonesia, in particular, has to spend more resources in combating ISIS recruitment in prisons. This funding remains ad hoc. Plans to establish a single prison for terrorism suspects to keep them away from the general prison population have been floated, though not implemented. The lack of a parole or post-release system of checks for the roughly 90 terrorism suspects released each year, has led to a 10 percent rate of recidivism.

Third, the governments have created a context that allows ISIS ideology to flourish, especially with their legal treatment of Shia and other sects, such as the Ahmadis. Policies that label non-Sunni traditions as deviant sects undermine the culture of inclusivity, which is Malaysia and Indonesia’s strongest weapon against ISIS. However, this culture has been steadily eroded in recent years.

Fourth, regional cooperation — though greatly improved since 2002 — needs to be stepped up. ISIS recruits from one country will fly in/out and possible linger in a neighboring state. Information sharing is essential, including with other regional states such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

There are calls for both ISIS to be banned and the criminalization of anyone who fights with the group. These are bad ideas and unlikely to be effective.

If governments go down this path, they will lose an enormous opportunity. There are examples of returnees who were very disillusioned about their experience and believed they were lured to join ISIS and were used as cannon fodder in appalling conditions. These individuals need to be given a platform. Nothing can counter ISIS’s ideology better than these individuals. The governments and security services need to reach out to these individuals and use them as the core of their CVE program. To date, they have failed to do so.

Governments have enormous tools and resources at their disposal. Additional instruments, such as Malaysia’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, are ultimately counterproductive and will only fuel ISIS’s narrative of the apostate regimes that hold back the development of an Islamic state. Governments in the region have long abused security powers for political purposes, undermining the true usage of these security laws.

Finally, there cannot be complacency. The real threat posed by ISIS will come in the next few years as a critical mass of militants begin to make their way back to Southeast Asia.

Dr. Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College where he focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues. Follow him on twitter @ZachAbuza.

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