Containing Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia
By Jon Connars
“Our nation and people should not be afraid, we will not be defeated by these acts of terror”, said a calm Indonesian President Joko Widodo following the deadly January 14th terror attack in Jakarta, when eight people were killed by ISIS jihadists in broad daylight in the heart of the city – four of them civilians – by a group made up of Malaysian and Indonesian terrorists armed with weapons from the Philippines. The attack is the first time ISIS strikes so far from its Middle Eastern heartland and signals a strategic shift for the terrorist group that calls for a rethink of ASEAN’s counter-terrorism strategies.
While terrorism in Indonesia has a long history dating back to early 1940s, January’s attack was different. It represents what counter terrorism experts fear most, namely the unification and practical deployment of skilled terrorist groups from multiple countries under the common banner of the Islamic State. In one sense, the Jakarta attacks are similar to those in France, the United States, Egypt and elsewhere, as they were carried out by young citizens, often second-generation immigrants, influenced by peers and radical imams.
Afif Sunakim is among the four Jakarta terrorists identified by Indonesian authorities who were killed during the operation. He was an extremist from West Java who trained with militants in the Aceh province, both locations among Indonesia’s most vulnerable territories for Islamic radicalism. Afif went to prison in 2010, where he connected with Muslim cleric and scholar Aman Abdurrhaman, a key ISIS supporter who encourages the growing network of Indonesian extremists to do so as well. Afif was released from prison last summer – and while counter terrorism authorities note that neither Afif nor any of the attackers in Jakarta later traveled to Syria for training or indoctrination, neither was it necessary for them to do so.
Afif and the other attackers connected via social media with Indonesian militant Muhammad Bahrun Naim, who is based in Aleppo, to carry out the ISIS-inspired attack. Police also believe that Naim seeks to establish himself as a leader and unite Islamic extremist groups in Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines. This is the scenario that officials in Southeast Asia have, to varying degrees, anticipated and planned for. Now that the Jakarta attacks have demonstrated how real the role of ISIS and aligned Indonesian groups has become in a country with 200 million Muslims, the threat to the entire region becomes clearer.
Despite the similarities with attacks in Europe and the West, the presence of Muslim extremists who are aligned with Islamic State in Southeast Asia occurs in a completely different cultural, political and historical setting. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, is also one of the most tolerant. Its people have given the cold shoulder to ISIS, since the country boasts one of the lowest rates of fighters going to the Middle East to fight the holy war.
Even the form of Islam Indonesia’s clerics are preaching is different from the austere one prevalent in the Middle East. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an Islamic organization that claims 50 million members, directly challenged ISIS’ ideology arguing that the terror group is spreading “a shallow understanding of Islam” and that its followers “are grievously mistaken.” The terror group has drawn similar comments from other Indonesian religious groups.
However, while ISIS does not enjoy the strong following it has among Muslims in Europe or Africa, Southeast Asia is not out of the woods. The Islamic State has increased its recruiting efforts in the region, securing the alignment of several existing jihadists groups.
In Thailand, both Bangkok and Moscow were rattled by Syrians allegedly intent on hitting Russian targets. In Indonesia, two of the main terror groups, Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, (MIT) based in Poso, Central Sulawesi, and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), have already pledged their allegiance to the Caliph.
A move into the Philippines, announced in December, carries even greater risks. The Islamic State of Philippines, under the direction of Isnilon Hapilon, joined the fight to establish ISIS’ global caliphate. Some analysts believe that training camps in the southern Philippines will attract extremists from across the region, including Australians and Chinese Uyghurs, and expand the Islamic State reach across the Muslim world in Southeast Asia without sending fighters to the Levant.
Indonesia and China already are working together to contain the threat, particularly where the Chinese believe their own national security may be compromised by the Muslim Uyghur minority. As Uyghurs from the western Xinjiang region train with groups loyal to Islamic State – recent arrests in the restive Java province included 13 men, among them a Uyghur with a suicide vest – the Chinese wonder just how many more may answer the call to join Indonesian jihadists, and return to attack within China’s borders.
Now, more than ever, ASEAN needs to unite and pool together its resources if it wants to truly contain and eradicate the budding ISIS presence in its backyard. Malaysia’s cooperation with the West on counter terrorism should serve as a model. The country joined the US-led coalition against terror, secured approval to access US’ database of known and suspected terrorists as well as agreed to pool with Washington biometric and DNA data for law enforcement purposes. On the home front, it initiated a “Moderate Malaysia” campaign to work against extremism and opened a Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communication Center, a hub to drive anti-ISIS messaging. Contrast this to Indonesia, which despite banning support for ISIS in August 2014, did not give permission to its security forces to arrest supporters returning from the Middle East nor did it outlaw the travel of Indonesians abroad for military training.
While the Jakarta attacks should not be blown out of proportion, they should act as a game changer and shake the security apparatus of ASEAN countries out of their torpor. If ISIS cells and sympathizers in Syria, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia managed to plan together the Jakarta attack, why can’t ASEAN governments show the same level of operational efficiency?
Jon Connars is an investment risk analyst and researcher with an expertise in the ASEAN region who currently shuttles between Singapore and Bangkok.
Copyright Jon Connars