Southeast Asia: A Re-emerging Theater for Religious Extremism?

By Kriti Sapra

A security team patrols Singapore's Changi Airport. Source: andresv's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

A security team patrols Singapore’s Changi Airport. Source: andresv’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Not only is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a jihadist group which seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, making waves in the Middle East, increasingly it is worrying Southeast Asia, which fears the return of ISIS’s Southeast Asian recruits and the negative consequences that may follow.

Singapore’s interior minister Teo Chee Hean expressed grave concerns about the security risks posed by foreign and local jihadists returning home to Southeast Asia, while revealing a ‘handful’ of Singaporeans were fighting in Syria. Already, Singapore has detained one citizen under the Internal Security Act and issued restriction orders against two individuals who it believes harbor intentions to fight in Syria.

Likewise, Malaysia’s police disclosed more than 100 Malaysians may be fighting for ISIS in the Middle East including Lotfi Ariffin, a popular cleric. The Malaysian Foreign Ministry further reported 15 Malaysian fighters have been killed. A video released by ISIS claims Cambodian Muslims were fighting among its ranks too.

Like Singapore, Australia and Indonesia also expressed fears regarding their citizens fighting in Iraq and Syria. Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop said her government was aware of around 150 Australian jihadists fighting, while Prime Minister Tony Abbott reiterated Australia’s commitment to protect the country from returning militants. President Obama shared Bishop’s concerns. Indonesian analysts have echoed similar sentiments about the security threat to Indonesia.

Returning Islamic fighters carry broad implications for Southeast Asia which is certainly not new to the fight against religious extremism. A potential consequence is the formation of a regional extremist network by ISIS’s Southeast Asian recruits. As the region’s leaders have articulated, returning jihadists will come armed with tactical expertise. Moreover, they may have forged links with each other which could further facilitate rallying around the common cause of Islamic radicalism on their return. Alternatively, these jihadists could revive pre-existing radical organizations such as the Jamaah Islamiya (JI) which Southeast Asia took considerable measures to crackdown on. Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency reported that the network of a former JI spiritual leader, Abu Bakr Bashir, who is currently serving a fifteen year sentence, is already financing ISIS’s operations.

Returning fighters could also contribute to sectarian violence in their home countries, especially in terms of communal attacks against non-Muslim minorities. Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to this scenario as exemplified by already rising extremism in the country. The Muslim-dominated country’s Yogyakarta region has suffered three communal attacks this year alone, owing to the growing power of hardline Islamic groups such as the Islamic Jihad Front (FJI) and Islamic People’s Forum (FUI).

A final and arguably likely consequence of returning jihadists could also be the spark of a revenge crisis in Myanmar where fighters may aim to avenge violence committed against Muslims, especially the Rohingya, by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. The plight of the Rohingya is well-documented. Recently, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce likened Rohingya living conditions to “concentration camps.” In early July, a Buddhist mob attacked Muslim properties in Mandalay. Two people, one Muslim and one Buddhist, popularly known for their work on promoting communal harmony, were killed.

The region along with its partners, including the United States, must take necessary measures to counter the potentially troubled outcome Southeast Asia faces following the return of militant extremists. The Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), a multilateral counterterrorism body launched by the Obama administration in 2011, should re-establish its Southeast Asia Capacity Building working group and Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar and the Philippines should become members.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), many of whose members have fought a war on terror in the last decade, already has a comprehensive regional architecture in place to tackle extremism. However, its counterterrorism mechanisms need to undergo review. The ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counterterrorism, ratified in 2007, needs re-evaluation to reflect new threats facing the region. Similarly, ASEAN’s partnerships with United States and Australia need to be renewed and deepened to enhance intelligence sharing and on-the-ground monitoring. Finally, the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting of Transnational Crime (AMMTC) should be extended to include ASEAN’s eight dialogue partners, and would benefit by shifting from a biannual to an annual event.

As for Washington, the United States must craft an updated counterterrorism policy for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, based on its strategy for the region in the previous decade. Moreover, along with other Western partners, it should push ASEAN states to ratify all twelve UN conventions on terrorism.

While the threat of returning extremist fighters is not immediate, it is real and does carry significant implications for Southeast Asia. ASEAN, Australia and the United States cannot afford to be complacent. They must work to avoid the resurgence of an extremist hub in Southeast Asia.

Ms. Kriti Sapra is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

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