April 27, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Eyes Southeast Asia
Long-held assumptions about Southeast Asia not being fertile ground for violent extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State tend to downplay the previous several decades of terrorism in the region. Terrorist groups have embedded themselves in several areas of Southeast Asia lacking effective government control. Criminal-terror groups such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have fed off of local economies and battled with government forces for years, while espousing the ideology of bin-Ladinism. Since its founding, al-Qaeda has maintained a presence in the region; a crucial planning meeting for the September 11, 2001 attacks was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the region's most infamous terrorist group, was closely aligned with al-Qaeda and sent hundreds of people to Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, concern is building among countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore that the Islamic State has the region in its crosshairs.
Two factors are combining to produce this widespread concern. The first involves the return of foreign fighters intent on attacking their home countries. The region has seen between 700-1,000 of its citizens travel to Syria to join the Islamic State; Indonesia accounts for the majority of these travelers, due to the size of its population. However, these numbers are actually relatively low in terms of per capita outflow and total numbers of foreign fighters. What concerns governments in the region is that it takes just a handful of people trained in combat or with experience fighting in Syria to create a wave of mass-casualty attacks, as demonstrated in Paris and Brussels. The difference between the Paris attacks, which left 130 dead, and the attack in Jakarta, which left four dead, was the element of training. The inability of governments to track the travel of foreign fighters has been repeatedly exposed in Europe—the geography of Southeast Asia makes the challenge even more of a security nightmare.
The second factor is the aforementioned presence of several persistent terrorist groups that have withstood varying degrees of military and law enforcement pressure. Jemaah Islamiyah has been effectively routed by Indonesian forces, particularly Detachment (Densus) 88, the nation's elite counterterrorism unit. However, the Philippines and Malaysia still struggle against groups such as ASG and MILF, which are beyond the writ of central government. A January 2016 battle between Filipino police and MILF fighters resulted in 44 dead security officers—only the latest tragic reminder of how difficult it is to carry out sustained campaigns against terrorist groups in remote areas.
The Islamic State is looking for such areas to expand into a crucial region. The group has yet to establish a Southeast Asian Wiliyah, but it is likely that it will do so this year, as its grip on Syria and Iraq weakens. The Islamic State needs a vacuum to continue its claim to territory and a caliphate. The group is finding Libya a difficult place to 'remain and expand,' and it is very possible that places like the southern Philippines will become its next priority. The region's well-deserved reputation for relative tolerance will be increasingly tested in the coming months and years.
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