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How Serious Is The Threat Of Islamic State To South-East Asia?

By Joseph CY Liow

May 5, 2016

 Appearing before a United States Congressional Subcommittee on Counter Terrorism and Intelligence on April 27, 2016, I delivered an assessment of the Islamic State (IS) threat in South-east Asia.

I began with the observation that terrorism is not a new phenomenon to the region, but goes as far back as the era of anti-colonial struggle. It gathered pace after 9/11, with a series of attacks perpetrated mostly by al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Against this backdrop, the recent IS-inspired attacks in Jakarta and the southern Philippines serve as a timely reminder of the threat terrorism continues to pose to South-east Asian societies.

With regard to IS, the threat takes three forms. First, the danger of attacks perpetrated by local groups or individuals inspired by IS. These groups or individuals might not have direct links to IS-central.

Rather, they possess local grievances for which the abstraction that is IS provides impetus and inspiration, usually via the Internet. Jakarta was an example of this.

Second, the threat posed by returnees from Syria and Iraq. In particular, the possibility that hardened militants would be returning with battlefield experience and operational knowledge to either plan or mount attacks in the region. But this has not yet happened. Thus far, the returnees in custody are deportees who failed in their attempt to get to Syria and Iraq.

Third, the threat posed by militants who will soon be released from prison. At issue is the weak prison system in Indonesia, and the radicalisation that occurs within prisons.

We should bear in mind, however, that not all of these soon-to-be released militants are IS supporters or sympathisers. In fact, the vast majority are members of militant groups known to be anti-IS.

So, just how serious is the threat posed by IS? The threat is certainly real and warrants our attention for the reasons I have mentioned. But at the same time, we must take care not to exaggerate it. Let me make three points.

One, when we speak of IS in South-east Asia, we have to be mindful of the fact that, at present, there is no such thing as an “IS South-east Asia”, nor has IS-central formally declared an interest in any South-east Asian country.

For the most part, we are dealing with radical groups and individuals who have taken oaths of allegiance to IS of their own volition. The Abu Sayyaf group, for instance, was previously allied with al-Qaeda, but pledged allegiance to IS two years ago.

On April 9, Abu Sayyaf attacked a Filipino military unit on Basilan island, killing 18 soldiers. IS-central said the attacks were carried out by its fighters.

Two, the number of South-east Asians fighting in Iraq and Syria remains comparatively small. We are talking about 700 at most, almost all from Indonesia. By way of comparison, thousands are coming from Europe.

In addition to this, a large proportion of South-east Asians there — around 40 per cent, according to director of Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Sidney Jones — comprise women and children.

Three, in our anxiety over IS, we must be careful not to miss the forest for the trees. There are multiple militant groups operating in South-east Asia. Many are at odds with one another; not all seek affiliation to, or are enamoured of, IS. In fact, I would argue that the greater, long-term threat comes from a rejuvenated JI, which has a larger network and is better funded than the pro-IS groups in the region.

Dealing with Terrorism

What about terrorism in South-east Asia, more generally?

Here, too, it is imperative that we keep things in perspective. Yes, for South-east Asia today, the question of terrorist attacks is, unfortunately, no longer a matter of “if”, but “when”.

Even if IS’ influence diminishes over time — and it will — terrorism is part of the lay of the land, and will not be eradicated anytime soon.

But terrorism — whether perpetrated by IS or JI — is not an existential threat to South-east Asian societies. All indicators are that from an operational perspective, the threat remains at a low level. Of course, given the resilient and evolutionary nature of terrorism, this situation might well change.

As I alluded to earlier, one possible factor that could prompt a change is a deliberate shift of attention of IS-central to South-east Asia. This, however, seems unlikely for now as the group is preoccupied with its immediate priority of holding ground in Iraq and Syria, and expanding its fight to Libya and Europe.

A Final Observation

Without being complacent, we should also recognise that regional governments are today better equipped and prepared to deal with the threat compared with a decade-and-a-half ago, although capacity can, and should, be further improved with cooperation among themselves, and with some help from the US. — TODAY

Joseph CY Liow is Dean of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University and currently Lee Kuan Yew chair in South-east Asian Studies at Brookings Institute, Washington DC. This piece first appeared in RSIS Commentary.