Southeast Asia forges fresh approaches to combat Islamic State

Southeast Asia forges fresh approaches to combat Islamic State

The Islamic State is expanding its presence in Southeast Asia. However, local governments are developing new approaches to combat terrorism.

2016 has witnessed Islamic State (IS) make significant inroads in Southeast Asia. On top of attacks in Indonesia and Malaysia, and the foiled attempt in Singapore, escalating Islamist violence in the southern Philippines is particularly concerning. However, the Marina Bay incident may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the region, with Singapore now leading the charge for a more coordinated counterterrorism strategy defined through regional and international cooperation.

Indonesia and Philippines at risk

IS has capitalised from existing militant networks in Indonesia and the Philippines, forging ties with key militant sects including the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Bahrun Naim, a central figure linked with MIT, poses a significant threat, having built a sophisticated network of Indonesian fighters. Responsible for several failed attacks, his efforts have been scorned by the international media as those of an amateur. According to Sidney Jones, an expert on Indonesian political conflict, Naim has failed ‘to take any of Indonesia’s large supply of would-be mujahidin and turn them into something more than poster children for fecklessness’. Nonetheless, based in Syria, Naim will be able to reorganize, learning from past efforts and improving his group’s operational capabilities.

Indonesia’s counterterrorism units are a great asset in this respect, ensuring that recent terror activities have made only a small impact. Detachment 88 (a U.S-trained counterterrorism unit) was formed after the 2002 Bali bombings, and a further National Counterterrorism Agency was established in 2010. They are responsible for a string of arrests of suspected IS militants, and more significantly the recent killing of Santoso – MIT commander and Indonesia’s most-wanted militant – in Poso, Central Sulawesi.

In contrast, despite significant financial and military support from the U.S, the Philippines has struggled to eliminate jihadist activity. Since IS proclaimed Mindanao as a wilayat (Islamic caliphate province) in April, it has become a Petri dish for Islamic militancy. ASG, responsible for the attack in 2004 that killed 116 people, warned of an imminent jihad there.

J.C. Liow, an expert on IS in Southeast Asia, notes that Mindanao and the other islands in the Sulu Sea have been notoriously difficult to govern. Sulu is a vast and complex region determined by competing maritime boundaries (Indonesian, Malaysian and Filipino). Repeated clashes over sovereignty and national jurisdiction have prevented a unified policing strategy, creating a chink in the ASEAN armour.

Will Indonesia join Malaysia and Singapore?

Much has been written about the failings of Indonesian anti-terrorism law; that it is not illegal for citizens to support IS, nor leave to fight for them in the Middle East. The police are hampered by these legislative constraints, and can only act once an offence has been committed.

Indonesia will soon table proposed legislative amendments that seek to bring it more in line with Malaysia and Singapore. These countries have a robust internal security apparatus which they use to detain suspected militants – whether planning domestic attacks or fighting abroad.

The proposed changes seek to allow for pre-emptive measures against terror acts – including detention without trial, tighter electronic surveillance and the revoking of citizenship for those who travel to the Middle East. However they were met with fierce opposition from human rights groups, who argue that they will infringe on civil liberties – as they have done in Malaysia and Singapore.

The reality is that terrorism has been curtailed effectively in those countries, because of those measures (although their vastly smaller populations are easier to monitor). Nonetheless the decision whether or not to implement these regressive measures will weigh heavily on President Widodo’s mind.

Regional and international security collaboration

Singapore, renowned for its stability and security, was shaken by the recent foiled attack on Marina Bay. Speaking at the National Day Rally last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that home-grown radicalisation threatened Singapore’s multiracial society. He recently launched the country’s ‘SG Secure’ programme, which seeks to promote a more vigilant and threat-aware national community. The police force also unveiled a new anti-terrorism response unit in June.

The collaboration between Singaporean and Indonesian authorities to prevent the Batam Island attack provides an excellent example of regional intelligence exchange, and there have been further developments in this regard. At the International Meeting on Counter-Terrorism in Bali last month, Singapore made arrangements with Malaysia to exchange biometric data on known terrorists and share information on the best practices in deradicalization and countering violent extremism.

These are important steps, but better cooperation is required between those governments and their military, police and intelligence forces – particularly in the Sulu archipelago, where the violence in the southern Philippines is concentrated. Sadly, parochial nationalistic mindsets have long plighted this region and prevented a more integrated securitisation strategy.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has made renewed calls for stronger cooperation between ASEAN states, and the forthcoming ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos, provides an ideal opportunity to forge such cooperation.

Liow believes that given United States’ strategic pivot towards the Asia-Pacific, there is potential for it to play a stronger role in forging regional security ties, transferring operational knowledge to regional military forces. Singapore leads the pack in terms of intelligence cooperation with the West. The bilateral partnership between Singapore and U.S is particularly strong, and in August this broadened to include the sharing of cybersecurity – important for combating IS’ social media campaigns.

Countering a growing threat

The IS threat in Southeast Asia grows on a monthly basis. In July a video was released declaring war on Indonesia and Malaysia, and in August death threats were purportedly issued to Najib Razak and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi – among other key parliamentarians. While there is yet to be a ‘core’ IS network in Southeast Asia, this could change as IS continues to make inroads in the region.

However those states are responding in kind, forging stronger intergovernmental ties at a critical time. Whether or not we are witnessing another ‘Vietnam’, only time will tell. But Southeast Asia is showing its resilience, and demonstrating the core values that reflect and reinforce ASEAN’s distinctive political iconography.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Alexander Macleod

Alex is a Manchester-based Analyst specializing in Southeast Asian political and security risk. He holds a PhD in Politics and Geography from the University of Newcastle, where he examined the role that online media play in promoting and sustaining Malaysia's racialized political landscape during general elections. Alex also freelances as a social media manager for a digital marketing consultancy. He blogs at