JANUARY 16 ― Nestled in the heart of Jakarta’s Thamrin district, an area lined with hotels, shopping centres, and several embassies, a refurbished Starbucks cafe stands as a poignant symbol of Indonesia’s resilience against terrorism.
It was here a year ago on Jan 14, 2016, that customers and bystanders bore witness to multiple explosions and gunfire which eventually claimed the lives of four civilians and left more than 20 injured. The attacks claimed by Islamic State (IS) marked the first time the terror group had unleashed its violence on South-east Asia.
They were followed in June by a bomb blast in a nightclub in Puchong, Malaysia, which injured eight people. An attack on Marina Bay was foiled by the Indonesian authorities in Batam.
While Indonesia and Malaysia have succeeded in thwarting several militant plots in recent months, experts we spoke to say that the threat of radicalisation and terrorism still loom large over the region.
As IS continues to lose ground in Iraq and Syria, South-east Asia has to prepare itself for the return of hundreds of battle hardened jihadists who might unleash violence at home.
An additional threat lies in IS’ call to its supporters and sympathisers to carry out attacks in their own countries.
“The fall of the caliphate by no means suggests that there would be a let up in terms of the spread of extremist ideologies that form the basis of the caliphate,” said Associate Professor Syed Farid Al-Atas from the National University of Singapore’s department of sociology. “Wahhabism and other forms of Salafism are going to continue to spread throughout the Muslim world and certainly in South-east Asia.”
Since 2013, a total of 119 suspects have been arrested in Malaysia for links to IS, including at least seven returnees from Syria.
Some 280 Indonesians are known to have joined IS’ campaign in Syria, of which 20 have returned home. Of these 20, at least 13 have been arrested. Meatball seller, Ahmad Junaedi, was one of them.
He said he left for Syria in 2014, after being radicalised at a mosque in Malang, East Java, Indonesia, where he was made to watch videos of the fighting in the Middle East.
“From the videos, I could see how cruel the Assad regime was”, Junaedi said, referring to Syrian leader Bashar Assad. “I saw many mosques being bombed from above, by jet fighters. Very often, I saw mothers carrying their children being killed. Children were burnt to ashes while their parents were being killed.”
“I was told that if I couldn’t aid them financially, I should contribute with my life by travelling to Syria to fight against the injustices there.”
Although he was at first reluctant to leave his wife and young children behind, Junaedi was eventually lured by the promise of a huge payout by one of the Indonesian IS leaders, Abu Jandal.
After five months in Syria, Junaedi grew weary of the fighting and the squalid living conditions. He also learnt that the promise of a huge payout was a lie. But money is not all he has lost. In March 2015, six months after he returned to Malang, he was arrested by the Indonesian authorities and sentenced to three years in prison. He has not heard from any of his family members since.
While Junaedi regrets travelling to Syria, and is committed to completing the de-radicalisation programme in prison, he defends his actions as stemming from a desire to help other Muslims.
“I just wanted to defend fellow Muslims who were being oppressed,” Junaedi said.
To be sure, the Palestinian conflict, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Iraq have all been exploited and sometimes twisted by extremist groups in its propaganda.
Groups like IS prey on ill-informed members of Muslim societies, especially those who feel disenfranchised with their current socioeconomic conditions.
“That’s the sad thing, because religion is just being used to lure them,” said Ms Yenny Wahid, daughter of former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid and the director of The Wahid Institute which runs de-radicalisation programmes in Indonesia.
“They are just being told that if you carry out jihad, you can go straight to heaven. So you don’t need to do prayers, you don’t need to do any other activities that most Muslims do. So they are being misled.”
Strong anti-terror measures such as the tightening of border security, as well as beefing up intelligence gathering and surveillance could help counteract the growth of extremists in this region. But it will take much more than that to eradicate the radical ideologies that these terror groups espouse.
“You can defeat IS, but you cannot kill the ideology,” said Dr Ahmad El Muhammady, an adviser to the Royal Malaysia Police Rehabilitation Programme. “We thought that we killed Jemaah Islamiyah, but I met with one member of Jemaah Islamiyah who said to me, you can kill the organisation, but you cannot kill the ideas. The idea might lay dormant for a while, and might re-emerge after 10 years.”
Analysts have also warned that there is a lack of state-run discourse to offer a counter narrative to extremism, especially in countries such as Malaysia where religion has increasingly been exploited as a political tool by both the ruling and opposition parties.
“Islam calls for dialogue, Islam calls for conversations, Islam calls for mutual respect,” said Dr Maszlee Malik, a Malaysian political scientist. “But unfortunately this dimension of Islam never surfaced and most of the religious authorities are preaching the idea of exclusivity, rather than inclusivity.”
One silver lining lies in the fact that the type of Islam practiced in South-east Asia has long been seen as being more moderate and accommodative towards other faiths. Furthermore, the region’s multicultural societies provide a conducive environment for dialogues on religion to take place.
The question is how many more attacks does the region have to endure before the right steps to eradicate the roots of terror are taken.
*This is the personal opinion of the writers or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.
**Charles Phang and Tan Jia Ning are producers of Channel NewsAsia’s INSIGHT programme. You can watch an episode on Battling Islamic Radicalism on Toggle or channelnewsasia.com.