The world is becoming a more dangerous place. Political violence and terrorism are on the rise and governments are struggling to adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the threat.
According to the Aon Terrorism & Political Violence Map 2017, the number of terrorist attacks increased worldwide by 14 percent in 2016. The risk is also spreading: 43 percent of countries are now at risk from terrorism. That amounts to 87 countries facing a terrorism and sabotage peril — up from 78 two years ago.
While there is no single factor explaining the surging level of violent risks worldwide, jihadist terrorism accounts for many of the attacks – with the threat posed by Islamic State (IS) spreading in particular: 29 countries were attacked by IS or IS sympathizers last year, 10 more than in 2015.
IS has, until recently, focused much of its efforts on establishing a caliphate in the Middle East while launching sporadic attacks against Western targets. Now it is increasingly targeting Southeast Asia.
Julian Taylor, Head of Crisis Management Asia, Aon Risk Solutions, says that: “With the emergence of IS, there comes the radicalization of local populations in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, even China. In 2017, we expect to see a further increase in terrorist activity in Asia. This is associated with the rise of IS throughout Asia, and the number of Asian citizens who have returned from fighting in the Middle East, radicalized, to their home countries.”
Governments across Southeast Asia have woken up to the jihadi terrorist threat that is rapidly spreading across the region and have developed new policies to counter it. Even Singapore, long-known for its safety and security, has upgraded its terror risk level – aware that it has become a key target.
The Spreading Threat
The threat of radical extremism is no longer confined to one or two hot spots. IS has made statements suggesting a desire to establish a new caliphate in Southeast Asia and according to the Singapore defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, at least 31 regional groups have pledged alliance to the militant group, with evidence of growing transnational cooperation between them.
In its Terrorism Threat Assessment Report 2017, the Singaporean Ministry of Home Affairs said that their city-state had been targeted, with the authorities aware that foreign IS militants have plotted to carry out two attacks in the past year.
There has also been a significant rise in the number of radicalized Singaporeans detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). Since 2015, 14 radicalized Singaporeans have been detained under the ISA, compared to 11 between 2007 and 2014.
Across the Johore Strait, Malaysia is also battling against a rise in the radicalization of the local population, as well as threats from pro-IS groups in neighboring countries. The June 2016 grenade attack carried out on a nightspot in Puchong, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, was orchestrated by Muhammad Wanndy, a Malaysian IS militant based in Syria. Wanndy has been seeking to recruit young Malaysian Muslims to join IS’s war in the Middle East.
Security experts are increasingly concerned about the situation in Myanmar. The persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority has led to a new Muslim insurgency in the country and a number of bombing attacks. There are fears that Islamist militants from neighboring Bangladesh and parts of Southeast Asia will use this situation as an opportunity to build an extremist presence in the country.
The Front Line
The focus of radicalization and terrorist activity in the region is in the Philippines and Indonesia. In May 2017, the radical Islamist group Maute took control of several neighborhoods in the city of Marawi, home to around 200,000 people, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The attack resulted in the deaths of more than 150 people and prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare a state of martial law across the entire island.
The attack highlights how the Philippines has become the front line for Islamist extremism in the region. IS has promoted the country as a “wilayat”, or regional headquarters, and encouraged those militants not able to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the fight in the Philippines.
Local Islamist groups such as Maute, Abu Sayyaf, and Ansar Al-Khilafah – who have been responsible for multiple attempted bombings across the country for more than 25 years – have pledged allegiance to IS and have established bases across the cluster of small islands and heavily forested terrain that make up the southern Philippines.
Meanwhile, neighboring Indonesia continues to be the focus of a significant terror threat. The country has experienced several attacks by Islamist militants in the past two decades that have killed hundreds. More recently, a number of pro-IS groups have emerged, such as Jamaah Anshorut Daulah (JAD) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), and IS claimed responsibility for the suicide-bombing and shooting at a Starbucks in Jakarta in January 2016 that killed eight people.
The Indonesian government also estimates there to be around 500 Indonesian nationals currently fighting in Iraq and Syria.
How Governments In Asia Are Working To Counter The Threat
Authorities across the region have stepped up their counter-terrorism efforts in response. Malaysian authorities claim to have disrupted seven plots and arrested 119 militants in 2016, while their Indonesian counterparts disrupted 15 plots and arrested over 150 militants in the same year.
However, there is an awareness that more needs to be done – with more regional cooperation by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to counter IS gains in the region. While Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have so far stepped up efforts to check the threat posed by IS, the RSIS July 2017 Counter Terrorist report argues that more action is required in places like the Philippines and Thailand – such as coordinated operational efforts and improved intelligence sharing.
Together with the U.S., Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have recently offered assistance to the Philippines to deal with the terrorist situation in Marawi. The three have also launched trilateral maritime patrols in the waters of the Sulu archipelago off Mindanao, near the conflict area.
ASEAN could also look to improve its anti-radicalization efforts through developing better local, data-driven approaches to halt the rise in cyber-radicalization. Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), launched in 2003 to rehabilitate detained Jemaah Islamiyah members, has since broadened its scope to include all radicalized individuals.
The government of Singapore has also sought to step up terrorism awareness among its citizens, creating the national movement SGSecure – to sensitize, train and mobilize Singaporeans to play a part in preventing and dealing with a terrorist attack.
Regional Issues With Global Implications
The spread of the Islamic extremist threat in Southeast Asia has the potential to turn into a global security issue. Unchecked, it could provide IS with a new base to consolidate its organization, develop operations and launch attacks around the world.
As Ng Eng Hen told the Shangri-La Dialogue conference: “Porous borders and dense jungles provide easy access and safe havens for terrorism training camps. If these groups further entrench themselves in our region, more attacks will occur.”
Southeast Asian nations are working hard to counter the rising terror threat. But there remains a significant need to improve efforts on preventing radicalization, particularly in nations where existing political and societal cracks risk creating a breeding ground for the next generation of extremists. If regional efforts to combat and contain the threat fail, nations from further ahead will inevitably become more involved.
“The threat in this region has heightened and is likely to worsen with the potential return of more fighters from the Middle East. The events at Marawi, where tens of thousands of civilians were forced from their homes, is worrisome, as it reminds us that mass migrations from extremist terror can occur in Southeast Asia, too.” – Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Defence, Singapore
“The emergence of the phenomenon of ISIS in Southeast Asia and the traction it appears to have garnered is illustrative of how resilient but also evolutionary the threat of terrorism has become.” – Joseph Liow Chin Yong, Professor of Comparative and International Politics, RSIS