August 16, 2021

IntelBrief: Deep Roots and Recent Boosts: The Evolution of the Terrorist Landscape in Southeast Asia After 9/11

(AP Photo/A.K. Hendratmo)

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Islamist terrorism in Southeast Asia has deep roots, and the internet has enlarged the audience of violent extremist propaganda.
  • The network of returning foreign fighters remains active and poses real security threats in the Southeast Asian region. 
  • The increased involvement of women and youth in terrorism in Southeast Asia is a notable trend, impacting recruitment and counterterrorism efforts. 
  • The issue of Southeast Asians in Syrian detention camps must be addressed seriously by national governments and the global community. 

The attacks of September 11, 2001 have strongly shaped the evolution of the global security threat landscape in Southeast Asia. In the last twenty years, local and international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) have established their networks against the background of local conflicts and operated clandestinely within various of Southeast Asian countries, recruiting local actors to carry out their aims and objectives through the utilization of terror. The region’s deadliest terrorist attacks were the 2002 Bali, Indonesia bombings that killed 202 people, mostly Western tourists. To deal with the growing violent extremism problem, we must understand its deep roots and recent boosts. 

The roots of terrorism in Southeast Asia run deep. In the Indonesian context, the existence of a terror network dates to the 1940s, when the Islamist group Darul Islam (House of Islam) fought for the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia. At its height in the 1950s, Darul Islam was reputed to have control over vast swathes of territories in Aceh, South Sulawesi, and West Java. Although Darul Islam was neutralised in the 1960s, its offshoots and splinter groups, which included Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), have continued to expand and intersect with other violent movements across Southeast Asia—particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines—especially after Indonesian fighters participated in conflicts across the globe, ranging from Afghanistan in the 1980s to recent struggles in Syria. 

Many returned foreign fighters have taken up new roles within violent networks in the region. These include serving in extremist groups as military trainers, financiers, recruiters, advisors, and even participants in ongoing violence or attacks. Additionally, these returned fighters’ previous experience often enhances their capacity to commit acts of violence and can provide a focal point for organizing those who failed to do hijrah to Syria. For example, at least one member of Indonesia’s homegrown ISIS supporter group, the Jamaah Anshoru Khilafah (JAK) cell in Bekasi, Jakarta, sent two of its young members to Marawi in 2016 to escalate the conflict in the Philippines. JAK has since begun rebuilding contact online with Indonesian foreign fighters there to join them. 

Some sixty-six Southeast Asian nationals, mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia, and, according to the Philippine government, a couple of Singaporeans, took part in the 2017 Marawi siege. Another forty from further afield—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Chechnya—reportedly also fought alongside the leader of the Islamic State in the Philippines. Isnilon Hapilon’s ragtag (but well-armed) army of militants were drawn from his Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Maute clan, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP), and disaffected members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Even after the militants were routed and lost Marawi, foreign fighters continued to travel to the southern Philippines, including a few well-publicized cases of Europeans who were stopped before they could board flights to Manila. Data on those who managed to slip in, however, is difficult to confirm. 

The Filipino island of Mindanao, with its long history of Moro insurgency, has always offered itself as a jihadi playground, where foreign fighters can reframe the Moro narrative into a global conflict between local Islam and Christianity backed by the West. A Muslim land under attack by a foreign force is always a powerful cause when it comes to mobilizing fighters, although the practical reality is that many young militants, especially those in Indonesia attracted by the notoriety of ISIS, just want to join their peers already fighting overseas. Mindanao is not only accessible to these youths, but it is also a safe haven for foreign fighters. 

These deep roots and dynamics have been bolstered by the growth of the internet. The speed, accessibility, and decentralized nature of the internet enlarge the potential audience of violent extremist (VE) propaganda. The intertwined online and offline elements of VE propaganda and recruitment enable the creation of a collective identity among potential recruits through the “echo chamber” phenomenon, helping to reinforce individual grievances and radical ideology, and providing the intent and capability to commit acts of terrorism. 

With the help of the internet, the region has also witnessed a shift in the last ten years in the roles of women in violent extremism. For example, the Indonesian couple who perpetrated the deadly 2019 Jolo Cathedral attack in the Philippines had wanted to join ISIS in Syria with their four children years earlier, but only their eldest son made it to Syria from Turkey, while the rest of the family were arrested by Turkish authorities and deported home in January 2017. Desperate to show their strong support for the caliphate project, the couple travelled separately to the southern Philippines with their remaining three children in 2019 on the orders of leaders of their ISIS-linked Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) group. In this extremist event, women were not only identified as the victims, but also as the perpetrators, and an entry point to involve the whole family to commit violent extremism. The terrorist network also includes children in its operations, many of whom were recruited through their parents. In a patriarchal society like Southeast Asia, respecting parents’ orders is often seen as an important social norm. Exploiting this kind of cultural setting, the perpetrators of violent extremism have evolved from being solely individuals to entire families. 

Oversimplifying the complexity of Southeast Asian foreign fighters traveling to Syria as a purely domestic issue is also counterproductive. Already, both President Recep Erdo?an of Turkey and Kurdish authorities have stated that they will likely release detained foreign ISIS followers and repatriate them back to their home countries. This raises the possibility of pro-ISIS Southeast Asians leaving Syrian camps and passing through the region’s extensive and porous borders independently and undetected. Furthermore, there are already reports of detainees of other nationalities escaping from detention camps. In addition, cross-cultural marriages between pro-ISIS individuals from different countries make formal entry into the region often hard to detect because of their access to resources (e.g. travel documents) from different fraternities of the global ISIS network. Currently, on social media, pro-ISIS groups in the region are already mobilizing resources to bring their fellow Indonesian pro-ISIS affiliates back home independently or to encourage them to migrate to the “Khorasan, the blessed land of Afghanistan.”  As the U.S. withdraws, Afghanistan’s lure returns for Southeast Asians extremists—women and children included. 

To respond to the above phenomena, the governments in the Southeast Asian region must devise gendered strategies to conduct risk and needs assessments of returnees and families, because men and women experience the process of radicalization differently; carry out legal screening for prosecution, as also encouraged by the United Nations Security Council; and employ customized approaches for rehabilitation and social reintegration through more candid and open sharing community engagement, particularly when government-driven initiatives can be met with scepticism. In this context, civil society organizations (CSOs) in Southeast Asia can play a crucial role in being conduits between the government and the community and initiating more ground-up initiatives to tackle the constant rise of extremism and support rehabilitation and reintegration efforts in the region. 

Noor Huda Ismail is a Visiting Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam Institute of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.