Battered in the Middle East, Islamic State eyes South-east Asia as next terrorism hotspot

An Indonesian Special Forces Police counter-terrorism squad member walks by burned motorcycles following a blast at the Pentecost Church Central Surabaya in Surabaya in May 2018. It was one of three churches targeted by three Islamic State-linked families of suicide bombers in attacks that killed over 30 people. — Reuters pic
An Indonesian Special Forces Police counter-terrorism squad member walks by burned motorcycles following a blast at the Pentecost Church Central Surabaya in Surabaya in May 2018. It was one of three churches targeted by three Islamic State-linked families of suicide bombers in attacks that killed over 30 people. — Reuters pic

SINGAPORE, Feb 2 — The terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) is today a shadow of its once-formidable self in the Middle East, with its army in tatters and its territories reduced to a sliver of turf.

But the IS ideology — which includes the setting up of a caliphate — is far from dead and buried.

And its supporters, including those who have returned home after fighting wars in Iraq and Syria, have now set their sights on turning South-east Asia into the next terrorism hotspot.

For IS, the region has all the ingredients needed to become its next cauldron of violence: Porous borders, existence of logistical bases, weak regimes, poor enforcement measures and disenchantment among marginalised Muslims.

 “South-east Asia has been dubbed as the second front for IS,” said Professor Mohd Kamarulnizam Abdullah, who researches on terrorism and religious violence at Universiti Utara Malaysia.

The region already has had a taste of IS-style terror in recent years. In 2016, IS-linked militants launched a gun and bomb assault in the centre of Jakarta, killing several people.

Last Sunday (January 27), a Roman Catholic cathedral on the island of Jolo in southern Philippines was bombed as worshippers gathered for mass. IS claimed responsibility for it.

Although Singapore has been fortunate enough not to have experienced any violent attack, it will become increasingly harder to keep the country secure from the threat as the web of terror closes in on the island.

While the Singapore Government has repeatedly stressed that a terror attack here is not a matter of if but when, there remains a sense of complacency among Singaporeans.

A recent report by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) showed that only 20 per cent of Singaporeans felt that the terrorist threat was imminent.

The MHA’s Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report 2019 also said that the Republic’s “most pressing threat” comes from IS.

In 2016, an IS-inspired plot to attack Marina Bay Sands from the Indonesian island of Batam — a 40-minute boat ride from Singapore — was foiled.

Mr Joseph Franco, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said: “Even if you’re strong security-wise but exist in a bad neighbourhood, you can’t help but always look over your shoulders.”

The region: A second wave of terrorism

The first wave of terrorism crashed into South-east Asia in 2002, starting with the devastating bombings in Bali that year. It lasted till 2008, according to last year’s Global Terrorism Index, with terrorist groups the Philippines’ Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) — which has ties to Al Qaeda — being responsible for 301 and 274 deaths respectively.

The second wave came in 2016, amid IS’ rise. As a result, South-east Asia saw a 36 per cent increase in deaths due to terrorism from 2016 to 2017.

In 2017, militant and insurgent groups championing separatist causes, which later forged alliances or became affiliated to IS, committed 348 terror acts which resulted in 292 deaths. They came from countries including Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand.

Research fellow Muhd Faizal Abdul Rahman from RSIS’ Centre of Excellence for National Security pointed out that “partnerships” between militant groups are not new.

They existed back in the days when Al Qaeda was at its zenith, forming ties with JI. The latter group sent its members to Afghanistan to train and gain combat skills under Al Qaeda and learn its doctrine.

Similarly, aligning themselves with IS “facilitates the exchange of talent, skills and material resources” with local and regional groups, said Faizal.

Smaller militant or terrorist groups would also attain a higher level of legitimacy and support if they associate themselves with IS’ ideology, which seeks to establish a caliphate through a final battle between good (Muslims) and evil (non-believers).

“It is more important to sustain the will to fight even when the means to fight is suppressed by security forces,” said Faizal.

Counterterrorism analysts also pointed out that by working together, the different groups can eliminate their common enemies — Western forces and governments that they claim to have exploited and marginalised Muslim communities — on multiple fronts.

Such collaboration was exemplified during the Marawi siege in southern Philippines in 2017.

Pledging allegiance to IS, a number of militant groups banded together to attack and take control parts of the city, before they were defeated by government forces after months of battle.

Although the militants lost, the siege underscored IS’ reach in the region, said analysts.

The Global Terrorism Index report said that the battle of Marawi was a “defining moment” in Islamist terrorism in the Philippines. Following that, IS’ online propaganda has urged foreign fighters to travel to the Philippines and other South-east Asian outposts.

Franco said that even after the Marawi siege, there continues to be militant groups — whether aligned to IS or not — operating in the Mindanao region.

“With access to illegal firearms, they continue to pose a threat,” he said.

About 18 years after the Sept 11 attacks in the United States — which were carried out by the Al Qaeda — the terrorism threat has evolved and possibly become more potent, said analysts.

Dr Mohamed Ali, an RSIS expert in religious extremism, pointed out that previously, the definition of a terrorist was clear-cut: He or she had to pledge an oath and be a member of a terrorist group.

Now, however, individuals can just carry out attacks in their homelands without having to go through military training.

“They can be anyone and can strike alone and out of the blue,” he added. “That makes them more dangerous.”

The rising exclusivist sentiment in the region, namely in Indonesia and Malaysia, has also added fuel to fire.

Last December, thousands of Muslim Indonesians took to the streets to commemorate the series of rallies held in 2016 that targeted a former Jakarta governor, who is a Christian.

Days after, Malaysians rallied in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur to call on the government to preserve Islam as the country’s national religion and protect the rights of the Malays.

Faizal stressed that exclusivism “forms the pathway to terrorism”.

“A person goes through the cognitive process of exclusivism before he is further radicalised into a terrorist. Exclusivism conditions an individual’s mind and values into believing that others are less human, less moral and deserves to be harmed,” he added.

Dr Mohamed Ali warned that the harm caused by exclusivist ideas could be more damaging than the effects of terror attacks. It leads to different racial and religious communities alienating one another and breeding suspicion. The result: A weakening of the country’s unity and social fabric, he added.

Indonesia: Changing faces of terror

Last May, an Indonesian family of six were involved in back-to-back attacks on three churches in the country’s second-largest city of Surabaya.

The incident drove home the point that the terrorism threat in Indonesia had evolved in two areas: The people conducting the attacks and the weapons used.

Indonesian counterterrorism expert Dr Noor Huda Ismail noted that terrorist operations have morphed from group operations to lone wolves, and later involving women as well as the entire family unit.

It is part of the IS doctrine to involve the entire family as part of efforts to establish a caliphate, he pointed out. In its propaganda magazines Rumiyah and Dabiq, it has been stated that the role of women is to breed the next generation of terrorists.

Another reason why terror attacks now involve women and the entire family is because Indonesian authorities have successfully destroyed many terrorist networks in the country.

“So, IS supporters have to change their tactics,” added Dr Noor Huda, who founded the Institute for International Peace Building to rehabilitate and reintegrate former terrorists into the society.

Using household items as weapons to inflict damage is also the new norm. No longer is it necessary to make or smuggle in traditional bombs or firearms to carry out an attack, said Dr Najib Azca, the director of the Centre for Security and Peace Studies at Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University.

IS has indoctrinated its followers to believe that if they cannot join its fight in Syria and Iraq, they can carry out attacks in their homelands as part of the jihad (armed struggle), he said.

To do that, they can use vehicles to ram into crowds, or simply use household items like a kitchen knife to stab as many people as they can, said Dr Najib.

He cited the case of an Indonesian woman Dian Yulia Novi, who planned to use a pressure-cooker bomb to attack the Presidential Palace in 2016, but was arrested before she could do so.

“Those (household items) are also equally effective in killing people,” he added.

In Indonesia, the authorities also have to deal with another conundrum: Radicalisation taking place behind bars, partly due to the lack of capacity in the prisons.

The country’s 477 prisons are meant to house 125,000 inmates, but have ended up being crammed with more than 254,000 prisoners.

This has resulted in arrested jihadists being placed in the same cells as offenders of other crimes. “That’s where they influence the others,” said Dr Noor Huda.

In some parts of the country such as Solo, he noted that jihadists sit at the top of the moral hierarchy in prisons as they are regarded as “pure and enlightened”.

“So, what happens is that other prisoners will go to them for Islamic teaching, and they too get radicalised. For the jihadists conducting the teachings, they become more hardcore.”

The Indonesian authorities also have to grapple with the return of citizens who had taken part in foreign wars.

A study by the US-based non-profit organisation Soufan Center and the Global Strategy Network released last year tracked 5,600 fighters who had returned to their home countries.

Among them were 50 Indonesians.

Dr Noor Huda said that in areas such as the Indonesian city of Medan, the returning fighters would be welcomed as “mujahideen”, a title given to those who had engaged in jihad. They could then pass on their experience and the teaching they had received.

The release of extremists from prisons and back into society poses yet another threat.

Last week, the government of President Joko Widodo faced a backlash after it announced that the JI’s spiritual leader and mastermind of the Bali bombings, Abu Bakar Bashir, would be released early from prison on medical grounds. The Indonesian government later said it will review the issue.

There were concerns over the move as the 80-year-old ailing cleric is still regarded as influential, and could continue to inspire others to wage jihad.

Dr Najib said the announcement of Abu Bakar’s release comes at a politically sensitive time, as the Muslim-majority nation is preparing to elect its next president in April.

“But it could come at a cost, because those individuals could influence others to be radicalised,” he added.

“For Indonesia, the battle against terrorism is still ongoing and there are always new elements that we have to deal with.”

The Movida bar in Selangor, Malaysia after the grenade attack on June 28, 2016. — Reuters pic
The Movida bar in Selangor, Malaysia after the grenade attack on June 28, 2016. — Reuters pic

Malaysia: Porous borders a challenge

According to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, 70 convicted extremists in Indonesia were released between January 2017 and August 2018.

More are expected to be freed by the end of this year. 

Some came from the neighbouring countries of Indonesia and the Philippines. Others from as far as the Middle East. These foreigners entered Malaysia on work permits, and were later employed as labourers or construction workers.

While many were in Malaysia to earn an honest living, some others had nefarious intentions.

According to Malaysia’s authorities, 445 terror suspects had been arrested since 2013 and more than 120 of them — or over a quarter — were foreigners, some of whom were directly involved in a number of plots planned by extremists groups.

Since 2013, the authorities have thwarted 23 planned attacks, including a plot to launch an assault at the closing ceremony of the South-east Asian Games held in Kuala Lumpur in 2017.

However, in July 2016, Malaysia experienced its first successful IS attack after a grenade blast wounded eight people at a nightclub in Selangor.

Prof Kamarulnizam of Universiti Utara Malaysia attributes the influx of such extremists to the country to the region’s porous borders as well as Malaysia’s openness in welcoming Muslims from other countries.

“It is easy to slip in and slip out. You can go to the Philippines through Sabah, for example,” he added.

“Extremists who come to Malaysia, they either stay here to plot attacks in the country, or they use Malaysia as a launching pad to other South-east Asian countries to carry out attacks.”

Ahmad El-Muhammady, a counterterrorism analyst at the International Islamic University Malaysia, said the country has seen fewer arrests since the peak of 2013 to 2016.

This, however, does not mean the “end of terrorism”, he cautioned.

“This is just a hibernation period,” said Mr El-Muhammady. “On the surface, it looks safe, but beneath it, extremists are secretly making plans and radicalising others.”

Even though the authorities have managed to crack down on terrorist networks such as JI, Al Qaeda or IS, analysts said they still pose a significant threat: Their ideologies are still floating around — whether online or offline — and are deeply entrenched in the minds of supporters and sympathisers.

“Total eradication of ideology is almost impossible. It can be tamed and ‘domesticated’, but not total eradication,” stressed Mr El-Muhammady.

Prof Kamarulnizam said that another worry is the return of Malaysians who had fought overseas. The study by Soufan Center and the Global Strategy Network estimated there were eight such fighters who had returned to Malaysia.

Ironically, the authorities had received personal requests from Malaysians who had fought in Syria, asking to be brought home, said Prof Kamarulnizam. They had burnt their passports after pledging allegiance to IS.

“Of course we cannot entertain them. The risk is too huge,” he added.

The situation in Malaysia, however, is not as bad as in Indonesia, said analysts. For instance, there has yet to be an entire family unit radicalised and plotting terror attacks, though Prof Kamarulnizam pointed out that there was a case of a family who had sold their land and used the money to travel to Syria.

Another issue of concern for Malaysia is “political radicalisation”, said analysts.

Mr El-Muhammady said it involves spreading exclusivist views where Muslims are told they cannot celebrate the festivals of other faiths and that they should not accept non-believers.

“It is a perfect ingredient for individuals to be led down the path of terrorism, when political radicalisation and terrorist radicalisation are merged together,” he added.

Singapore: Lingering complacency

Like many other countries, Singapore faces the risk of home-grown, self-radicalised “lone actors”, the authorities have said.

Since 2015, a total of 22 radicalised Singaporeans have been dealt with under the Internal Security Act — double the number between 2007 and 2014, according to the Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report 2019.

Singapore is also not immune to having radicalised foreigners on its home turf. Since 2015, 14 radicalised Indonesian domestic workers have been repatriated after they were found to have been radicalised.

Last year, three Malaysian work-permit holders were arrested for their suspected involvement in terrorism-related activities. Two were allegedly involved in a Johor-based group linked to IS which was plotting attacks in Malaysia.

Dr Noor Huda said that domestic helpers working abroad are susceptible to radicalisation. They are alone in a foreign land with no friends and families. Muslim domestic helpers, in some instances, might also find it hard to reconcile working for non-Muslim employers.

One tactic employed by IS militants is to forge “romantic relationships” with the domestic helpers. Using various online platforms, they would target those searching for love.

Once romance is in the air, the radicalisation process begins. “Furthermore in Indonesia, marrying a religious man is seen as a step up,” said Dr Noor Huda, who recently organised a seminar on the issue for Indonesian domestic workers at the Indonesian Embassy.

Analysts said that Singaporeans’ attitudes towards terror-related issues are a source of concern.

“There’s still that thinking that terrorism is a Middle East problem. It will never happen here,” said Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore.

According to the MHA threat assessment report, a survey last year showed that 97 per cent of the respondents agreed that all Singaporeans have a role to play in preventing and dealing with a terror attack.

In addition, 60 per cent of the respondents recognised that Singapore is a target for terror attacks.

But there was also this finding: Only around 20 per cent felt that the threat is imminent, that an attack might occur in Singapore within the next five years.

Faizal, the RSIS research fellow, said that “some complacency” still exists as “some Singaporeans may take our long period of peace for granted”.

He added: “But at the same time, it may also reflect that Singaporeans have a high level of confidence in our security agencies.”

MHA’s Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sun Xueling said that such a perception is “not completely unexpected”.

In an email response to TODAY’s queries, she noted: “Our security agencies have worked hard to keep the terror threat at bay, but therein lies the challenge of how to keep complacency at bay.”

As such, the government is boosting its SGSecure efforts, a nationwide movement launched in 2016 to sensitise, train and mobile the society to prevent and deal with a terror attack, said Ms Sun.

Recently, she announced new initiatives under SGSecure, which include organising roadshows in suburban malls.

Ms Sun said ramping up SGSecure will “sustain the awareness amongst Singaporeans of the terror threat, and give more people the opportunity to pick up emergency preparedness skills”.

Asked whether SGSecure focuses more on preparing Singaporeans, and not so much on informing them of the different types of terrorism threats, she said that “being aware is an important first step, but it is not enough”.

SGSecure aims to prepare the community to collectively and effectively respond to such threats, and to an attack when it takes place, Ms Sun added.

In building an informed citizenry, Assoc Prof Singh noted that the government could end up seen as being “too paranoid” if it puts out too much information.

Faizal said that the authorities, in any case, should devise new ways to make the information attractive and easily digestible. They could do this based on current patterns of information consumption and themes that are currently popular.

He added: “We need different methods of communication to inform people of different ages, social groups and backgrounds.” — TODAY