“Not if, but when”

Photo Credit: Gunawan Kartapranata/Wikimedia Commons

Following the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22 March, concerns over the rise of the so-called Islamic State’s influence and activity in Southeast Asia have once again surfaced as a top priority for authorities.

One of the latest developments, this week on Monday (28 March), has been reports by the Indonesian police of plans by cells of Islamic State to transform the area of Poso in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, into one of its strongholds in Southeast Asia.

A spokesman for Indonesia’s National Police said they have found documents, linked to Islamic State, that detail plans to make Poso like Mindanao in southern Philippines, which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front used as a recruitment and training ground for terrorist cells across Southeast Asia.

Poso is known to be home to Indonesia’s most-wanted terrorist fugitive Santoso, the leader of the East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT), a cell which pledged its allegiance to Islamic State.

Earlier this year on 14 January, a terrorist attack in central Jakarta left four victims dead and 20 injured, besides the four attackers who were also killed.

Later, Indonesian police found evidence that Islamic State had directly funded the Jakarta attacks. They also traced money sent by the militant group to finance two other terror cells in Indonesia in the process of plotting similar attacks on Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta international airport, as well as Bali.

While the number of Southeast Asian fighters in Islamic State’s home base in Iraq and Syria pales in comparison to that of Middle Easterners and Europeans, the terror group’s incitement and funding of homegrown attacks in Southeast are real concerns.

Counter-terrorism operations in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore

Malaysia has also received threats of terrorist activity, though they have never materialised. Last November for instance, soldiers were deployed in Kuala Lumpur after unconfirmed reports of an “imminent terrorist threat”, ahead of a gathering of world leaders for an ASEAN summit, which included US President Barack Obama.

A leaked police memo revealed that a meeting between members of the armed Philippine groups the Moro National Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf, along with those from Islamic State, had taken place in the previous week. Plans had been made to deploy fighters to Kuala Lumpur, as well as Sabah.

In all, Malaysian police had foiled seven terrorist plots in 2015, including one plot to kidnap Prime Minister Najib Razak. More than 100 arrests had been made in relation to those operations.

Meanwhile, Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister, K. Shanmugam, announced on 18 March – just days before the Brussels attacks – that steps would be taken to ramp up counter-terrorism security measures, given that the threat of an attack in the city-state was at its highest level in recent times.

After the Brussels attacks, Mr Shanmugam said there would be a major upgrade of measures to respond to terrorist attacks.

“ISIS wants to establish a caliphate in this region, encompassing Singapore”, he said. “We are in the epicenter of the caliphate that ISIS wants to establish,” he said, using the terror group’s alternative name of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Mr Shanmugam announced that critical infrastructure like Singapore’s Changi Airport and government buildings, as well as soft targets like shopping malls, would see a “significant expansion” of CCTV coverage.

“It is no longer a question of whether an attack will take place, but really, when is an attack going to take place in Singapore and we have to be prepared for that”, he said.