There is little question that the rise of IS has dramatically changed the security landscape in Southeast Asia. This is particularly interesting considering the diverse political and social landscapes in the region. Nonetheless, the threat of terrorism in the region is not new and continues to mutate and evolve. Thus, authorities’ adaptability and innovation is critical to countering such an evolving threat.
In 2014, a formal IS wing for Southeast Asia, known as Katiba Nusantra, was established. In addition to planning attacks, they drive recruitment, dissemination of radical ideology, and training for IS. The organisation’s training ground is in Indonesia. One reason it is so dangerous at present is that as IS loses territory, Katiba Nusantra will manage the returnees, bringing instability to the region. They will have gained military experience and will be more armed with radical ideology and propaganda tactics to foster the building of networks at home.
In the past two years we’ve witnessed a string of terror attacks in the region. The IS-inspired attacks in Jakarta in January 2016 were not unlike those witnessed in Europe the same year with the target of a crowded shopping mall rhyming with the IS-affiliated attack on London’s Borough Market or Barcelona’s La Rambla. Similarly, the 2016 IS-affiliated attack in the Philippines killed 14 and wounded 70 at a crowded market, prompting President Duterte to escalate security measures.
The appeal for IS among the Southeast Asian Muslim community varies by country. For instance, in Malaysia and Singapore, religious and ideological elements are most important. In Malaysia, the UNMO-led political system has contributed to the growth of religious conservatism and seeks to derive its legitimacy from its perceived religious integrity. In Indonesia, on the other hand, religion has remained somewhat more moderate, despite the long presence of a radical fringe. Kinship networks and group rivalries are more important in driving IS recruitment. Additionally, Indonesia’s radical Islamic establishment, Jemaah Islamiya, which was responsible for previous terror attacks in the Country, has publicly denounced IS due to ideological differences.
Governance of the Sulu Sea is another critical security weakness of the region. These lawless waters have facilitated the movement of militants and terrorists. Alongside this, the area has developed its own breed of a vibrant economy mainly reliant on human and arms trafficking.
States are undoubtedly taking the threat seriously and investing considerable resources towards security. Malaysia has arrested 250 terror suspects between 2013 and 2016. Since the 2002 Bali Bombings, the Indonesian Government has grown its counterterrorism capabilities, in particular their preemptive security apparatus. The country’s terror laws have been amended to aid authorities’ enhancement of preemptive (rather than purely reactive) capabilities.
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