The threat the Islamic State (IS) poses to Western nations is very real — witness in recent weeks the thwarting of a public beheading in Sydney, the raids on terrorist cells in Melbourne, raids in The Hague and Brussels, possible threats to subways in Paris and New York, and the recent averting of a terrorist plot in London. As nations continue to come out with support for the aerial bombing of IS targets in Iraq and Syria, concern is these nations and their citizens will also be targeted as enemies of the Islamic State. To date, many of these threats are conceived by homegrown terrorists with claimed links to terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria.
A more serious threat, however, comes from those fighters returning home from battle with new fighting skills, radical ideologies and extensive networks. The U.K. government estimates some 500 of its citizens have joined the Islamic State group to fight in Syria and Iraq, and 103 of its citizens have been arrested after returning from Syria. Canada believes 80 of its citizens returning from war zones were planning to carry out terrorist activities in Canada. Some analysts and governments are downplaying the seriousness of the threat of returnees, believing that IS fighters will have their hands full in Iraq and Syria and are incapable of mounting attacks across multiple fronts. Yet as witnessed in recent weeks, IS does not need large forces to inspire terror — small cells or individuals are capable of spreading fear among governments and citizens.
While much of the media attention is focused on the U.S., Europe and Australia, less attention is being paid to the nations of Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is home to about 15 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, many of whom have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria under the banner of IS, or have been radicalized while at home. A recent statement on the website of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) highlighted their concern, “Asean denounces all acts of destruction, violence and terror in all its forms.” The ASEAN grouping comprises Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei.
Indeed, actions are already underway in much of Southeast Asia, as governments from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines actively monitor social websites and online chat rooms used by radicals to post inflammatory content, recruit followers and even plot terror attacks. The fear of governments in Southeast Asia is of radicalized Muslims from around the region becoming inspired by the group’s declaration of an Islamic caliphate, and taking up arms after the call to jihad on July 4 by IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, “Your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades”. While the call to jihad is assumed to focused on the nations taking part in the bombings in Iraq and Syria, how real is the threat of IS in Southeast Asia to those nations who are not participating in the bombing?
In Malaysia, authorities announced this week the arrest of 14 suspected militants, three of which are accused of being the main recruiters for IS in the country. The three recruiters evidently used Facebook to attract supporters and paid for their journey to Syria. Malaysia bans the practice of Shia and other non-Sunni forms of Islam outright, and under its Security Offences Special Measures Act of 2012, authorities may detain potential jihadists. Malaysia claims at least 30 of its citizens have gone to Syria to fight for IS, while at home, 37 suspects have been arrested for links to the terror group since April. Among those arrested were terrorists plotting to attack a disco and pubs in Kuala Lumpur, and a Carlsberg factory in a suburb outside of Kuala Lumpur.
Another high-profile threat comes from the Philippines, where Abu-Sayyaf militants are threatening to kill one of two German hostages. The Abu Sayyaf group, which earlier claimed links with al Qaeda, is demanding $5.6 million in ransom and for Germany to halt its support for the U.S.-led bombing campaign by October 17.
Islam is the oldest recorded monotheistic religion in the Philippines, yet Muslims only account for between 5 and 11 percent of the predominantly Roman Catholic population. Two militant Islamic groups from the south of the Philippines, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Abu Sayyaf rebels, recently pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State in clips uploaded on YouTube. Abu Misry Mama, a BIFF spokesman, confirmed the authenticity of one of the videos, saying “We have an alliance with the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi…if they need our help, why not?” The BIFF claims that it has sent 200 fighters to join IS in Iraq.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, banned support for Islamic State and warned its citizens against joining IS back in August. Indonesian nationalism is founded on the doctrine of Pancasila, which stresses pluralism and diversity, and strongly opposes the establishment of an Islamic state. According to Indonesia’s National Agency for Combating Terrorism (BNPT), at least 56 Indonesians have become Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, and three have died. To date, a number of Indonesian suspects have been found in possession of IS paraphernalia and seven suspected militants have been arrested, including four members of China’s ethnic Uighur minority community who are suspected of trying to meet Indonesia’s most wanted extremist, Santoso, also known as Abu Wardah.
The leader of the country’s al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Abu Bakar Bashir, pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State from his jail cell in August (JI was behind the Bali bombings in 2002 that killed 202 people). Earlier this month, BNPT announced the arrest of Afif Abdul Majid for allegedly declaring support for the IS and for contributing to the funding of a terror training camp in Aceh province in 2010. Last month, Indonesian authorities increased security in central Java at Borobodur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, after an apparent bomb threat by IS-affiliated Islamists.
In Thailand, still under martial law following the seizure of power by the military, police are actively heightening security measures for embassies, hotels, restaurants, and churches – indeed, any place frequented by Westerners. Thailand’s actions highlight not only how the threat of returning IS militants threatens a country’s citizens, but how the threat will also effect tourism across Southeast Asia, as foreign governments issue travel warnings for their citizens. Tourism accounts for almost 10 percent of GDP in Thailand and tourism revenues have fallen since the imposition of martial law.
While Southeast Asian nations are not actively supporting the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, they should nonetheless take heed of events worldwide and tighten security. Many of their citizens have homegrown grievances and are likely to be emboldened by the success of IS and declare ties to the terrorist organization, and potentially carry out terrorist actions. Further, battle-hardened militants returning from Iraq and Syria will bring both skills and networks with which to join forces with locals and threaten their home country. Malaysian authorities are already expressing concern over networks forming between Malay-speaking militants from Malaysia and Indonesia, who have formed a combined unit in Syria, and whom may join forces once home. The potential of IS to threaten Southeast Asia is real and should not be dismissed – after all, returning militants from the Afghan war against the Soviet Union from 1979–1989 were responsible for the founding of both Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and JI in Indonesia, both of which are still active today.