Is Southeast Asia vulnerable to ISIS?

Photo Credit: Gunawan Kartapranata/Wikimedia Commons

By Jolene Yeo

A wave of religious radicalisation has spread over Southeast Asia, as the region finds itself in a strategically and historically vulnerable orientation to falling prey to the ideology of the so called Islamic State (ISIS). Even Singapore, with its barbed-fence-high-security reputation and ‘safe city’ honorific, is rapidly bolstering its counter-terrorism measures following the detention without trial this week of eight radicalised Bangladeshi nationals—part of a secret group called the Islamic State in Bangladesh, charged under the Internal Security Act.

Terrorism attacks and attempts

In April, Joseph Liow, Dean of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), appeared before a US Congressional Subcommittee on Counter Terrorism and Intelligence with the observation that terrorism is not a new phenomenon in the region; rather, it goes as far back as the era of anti-colonial struggle. He added that terrorism gathered pace after 9/11—with a series of attacks perpetrated mostly by Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah.

Southeast Asia is also home to a quarter of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslim population, and thus is a natural “strategic reserve” for ISIS. The International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore has confirmed that ISIS has started a campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate across Asia—a form of government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world.

Perhaps temporary shrouded by the clout of ISIS, Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch continues to remain a powerful force, posing a growing risk to merchant ships in vital waterways. The militant group takes advantage of the chaos in Yemen’s ongoing civil war, seizing ports along strategic waterways to amass fortunes to fund their militant efforts. Captain William Naut, Chief of Staff with the multi-national Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) said that Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch has a “stated capability and intent to conduct a maritime terrorist attack”.

The various ways in which terrorism threatens the sanctity of human lives and security of nations not only on land, air and sea, but also through means of cyberterrorism poses an imminent danger. Not only has ISIS used social media as what proves to be a very effective means of shocking the world with their extremist ideology, ISIS has also recruited thousands of followers from Europe and hundreds from Southeast Asia by radicalising and inspiring them to violence.

In US President Barack Obama’s 2015 closing speech of the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, he put forth the understanding that groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS attempt to portray themselves as religious leaders—holy warriors in defence of Islam. They then propagate the faux notion that America—and the West, generally—is at war with Islam. President Obama earned a resounding round of applause after the proclamation that America is not at war with Islam, but at war with the people who have perverted the Islamic faith.

While ISIS is now almost a derogatory term finding itself into parliamentary debates over national security, ISIS is not the only militant group that this region should be concerned about. Multiple militant groups—who are at odds with each other, and neither seek affiliation to nor are enamored of ISIS, have longed plagued the region. These groups are namely the Jemaah Islamiyah, Jemaah Anshar Khilafah terror networks, as well as the Abu Sayyaf militant group.

Just last month (April 2016), The Indonesia government was reported to have considered the offer of an Abu Sayyaf terrorist Hisyam bin Ali Zein, to assist the Indonesia government in negotiating the release of ten Indonesia sailors kidnapped by militants. That, however, came in exchange for the remission of his crimes. His crimes involve the Christmas Church attacks in Jakarta in 2000, and the 2002 Bali Bombings, resulting in his 20-year sentence behind bars at Porong prison in East Java since 2012.

In January 2016, ISIS also claimed responsibility of the attacks in Jakarta Indonesia, where multiple blasts and gunfire wreaked havoc in the Indonesia capital, resulting in two civilians and five assailants dead. Indonesia has been on heightened alert for terrorism after the police arrested several Islamic State-linked militants who were planning attacks during the holiday season in December.

The Jakarta attacks serve as a clear indication by ISIS as intent to expand its operations into Southeast Asia. Associate Professor and Head of Policy Studies in RSIS Singapore, Kumar Ramakrishna, said that Indonesian police have found the modus operandi of the Jakarta reminiscent of the Paris assault by ISIS—directed mobile squads in November 2015, in which 130 people were killed.

Putting defences up

Singapore and Brunei are currently co-hosting an 11-day ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) from the 2 to 12 May. The Counterterrorism Field Training Exercise, hosted under the banner of ADMM-Plus, seeks to promote and accentuate the importance and relevance of the ADMM Plus—as a nascent premier venue of defense and security issues in the region.

Brigadier-General Desmond Tan responded in an interview with Channel NewsAsia that with the recent arrest of eight Bangladeshi workers, Singapore as a nation is not spared from the threats. Singapore has to work with partners within and beyond the region to deal with this threat collectively.

In line with this spirit of unity in an uphill fight against terrorism, the Bangladesh High Commissioner in Singapore, Mr Mahbub Uz Zaman, said Bangladesh is cooperating with the Singapore government in anti-terrorism efforts and measures, further stating Bangladesh’s eye for “zero tolerance for militancy”.