By Holly Reeves
As you read this, there is a Chinese destroyer warship off the coast of Singapore. It is hunting down terrorists. At the same time, a Canadian family is making plans to bury their father, brother, husband. Cut down by a black snake under a deadly flag.
The beheading of the retired Canadian mining executive John Ridsdel, by the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines last week, is a bloody reminder that terrorism is no empty concern. The threat to ASEAN nations from the so-called Islamic State (IS), or its affiliated organisations, is real, and present, and dangerous.
The warship’s exercise happening off Singapore for the next ten days is just that for now. A practice run at joint military training, sailing in formation, escorting, searching at sea, landing helicopters on each other’s warships – all part of regional efforts to cooperate in the fight against terrorism.
But the problem Southeast Asia faces is huge, say experts Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq bin Jani: “IS, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) or Daesh (in Arabic), has embarked on a global campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate across Asia.
“To fulfill the vision of its self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, even affiliated militant groups in Southeast Asia have been injected with their jihadi doctrines, turning them into a unified force.”
Fuelling the threat is the movement of IS supporters to the Middle East, and back. The number of Indonesians going to fight in Syria and Iraq has already surpassed that which went to Afghanistan between 1985 and1994.
Learning lessons from history, the experience these fighters gained during that period were brought home, in effect producing an ‘Afghanistan alumni’. The fear now is of a returning ‘IS alumni’.
Reports say an estimated 514 Indonesians have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight. Around half of these are Indonesian students or migrant workers that were already living nearby in the build-up to the rise of Islamic State. In comparison, around 40 Malaysians, 200 Filipinos and 60 Australians have taken up the battle cry.
Ahmed Hashim, a counterterrorism and defense policy expert with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, explains that it is a vulnerable time for Southeast Asia: “Not too many have come back yet,” but “the biggest danger is for Malaysia and Indonesia.”
Jakarta has already taken a black eye in the fight against IS. Attackers pledging allegiance to the group attacked a Starbucks in January, killing four people and injuring another 25. But Indonesia is fighting back hard.
The hunt for Santoso, the leader of the IS-affiliated East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT) and long-time agitator, is reported to be closing in on a group of around 25 of his followers in the jungles of Central Sulawesi. He has been hunted for many years, but is said to be out of food, and almost out of options.
But cut the head off this snake, and others will emerge say the experts. “IS is more dangerous in the case of Indonesia… because they perceive Indonesia as not Dawla Islamiya – not an Islamic country,” said Jakarta police chief Tito Karnavian.
Indonesia has a long history of terrorist incidents. The extreme Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah, affiliated with al-Qaeda, has been waging a separatist war for decades.
“JI is currently in preparation level. They have not done any operations but they are recruiting people, strengthening their knowledge, education, network and finances,” said Mr Nasir Abas, a former member. “I would not underestimate them.”
Malaysia has already been warned, but not hit. In a video released in Malay, fighters made unveiled threats against Kuala Lumpur: “If you catch us, we will only increase in number but if you let us be, we will be closer to our goal of bringing back the rule of the Khalifah (caliph).”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said: “This threat is very real and my government takes it very seriously… This is a challenge that faces us all around the world. We are far from immune to this danger in Malaysia.”
In light of the very real threat, security measures have been increased in public areas, such as malls and tourist spots. Precautionary measures are also being taken at border areas to prevent possible terrorist infiltration. Police have arrested 157 suspected militants, including 25 women since 2013
For Malaysia, it is surely not a question of if a terrorist attack will succeed. But rather, when.
At the national level, Malaysia and the Philippines will this week send their foreign ministers and military leaders to Jakarta for trilateral talks on measures for tightening security.
ASEAN is also stepping up efforts to create a united front to counter terrorism – with the ADMM+ Maritime Security and Counterterrorism Exercise, complete with Chinese Destroyer, as a big, bold and well-publicised example.
But it is in the forests, the dark corners, the disillusioned minds and the loss of ISIS territory in the Middle East that the threat lies. Action now must be to strengthen anti-terrorism laws and ban membership of terrorist groups for all ASEAN citizens.
Add to that better monitoring of returnees from countries where they may have received terrorist training and more initiatives to engage young people in positive networks, both in person and online.
Southeast Asia is finally dropping its borders and coming together to roar as the Asian tiger. But the snake and its flag work hard to spread poison and fear. Tread carefully.