On January 14, militants claiming to be affiliated to Da’esh killed seven people while wounding a dozen by launching gun and bomb assaults in the heart of Jakarta, capital of the world’s largest Muslim country. And it seems as if Southeast Asia is once again back on the center stage of Islamic terrorism: recent developments in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia show that Da’esh’s foot-hold is rapidly expanding in the region – and Paris-like attacks may become more frequent.
Public concern after Paris and Jakarta
The recent attacks in Paris did not only send out a shockwave throughout Europe, but around the globe. Unfortunately, respective concerns of numerous leaders in Southeast Asia after
the assaults in November 2015 have only been confirmed by this month’s tragic attacks in Jakarta. After the incidents in Paris, Singapore’s defense minister Ng Eng Hen warned that Da’esh poses a ‘clear and present danger’ to Southeast Asia due to trained foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq linking up with local groups; Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed said that Da’esh-inspired Paris-like attacks could be repeated in his country due to the fertile ground for Islamic radicalism in the region; and Singapore’s Home Affairs and Law Minister Shanmugam warned after the attacks in Jakarta two weeks ago of an ‘explosion of terrorism, based on religion’ in Southeast Asia.
Islamic Terrorism in Southeast Asia – The idea of a regional Caliphate
Since decades, countries in Southeast Asia are dealing with attacks of Islamic terrorist groups, culminating in the Bali-bombings in 2002 and 2005. Since then, counter-terrorism initiatives led by Australia and the USA strengthened regional cooperation in explosives investigation, forensics, counterintelligence and the fight against funding of terrorist networks. The result was the fractionation of terrorist groups, the prevention of a regionally connected network and the prohibition of mass casualty attacks – until now.
One of the well-known terrorist networks in Indonesia is Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group that is held responsible for the Bali bombings. It evolved as an al-Qaeda linked grouping in Southeast Asia in the course of the 1990s, drawing together former Mujahideen who had fought in Afghanistan from across the region. JI’s ambition was to create a Southeast Asian caliphate, but thanks to extensive counterterrorist efforts, the group has largely disintegrated. However their ideology lives on and serves as a perfect ground for Da’esh’s ideology in the world’s largest Muslim country. In addition, JI has had cells in several other Southeast Asian countries, whereas there is an array of smaller Islamist militant groups, like Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.
The Philippines are fighting Islamic terrorism in the form of Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern provinces of the country. Comparable to JI, both seek an independent Caliphate. Although the Philippines government entered into peace negotiations with MILF, the absence of state authority in some parts in the southern provinces causes not only local, but also regional destabilization because they serve as a strategic bridge between the Philippines and Malaysia. Abu Sayyaf, the currently most active terrorist network, takes advantage of that situation by conducting cross-border kidnappings and killings in this region.
In contrast to the Philippines and Indonesia, Malaysia doesn’t have a strong record of Islamic terrorism. However there have been rumors that Malaysian splitter groups such as Darum Islam Sabah could join networks such as Abu Sayyaf and JI that already pledged allegiance with Da’esh in 2014. With growing insecurity in the border region to the Philippines and foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, the allegiance of those groups to Da’esh may become a serious challenge to Malaysia and the whole region. Only thanks to the efficient counter-terrorist framework in the country, a number of attacks on Malaysian soil have been thwarted. Since Da’esh rose to prominence in 2013, 150 terror suspects have been arrested only in Malaysia.
Up to today, experts agreed that none of those small militant groups has the capabilities to establish a functioning caliphate, and even after the recent attacks such a development seems to be at a very nascent stage. There is no geographic proximity with the conflict in Syria and the number of people from Malaysia and Indonesia going to fight for Da’esh is, with a maximum of 1000, still much lower than those from Europe. But fertile ideological ground in Indonesia, governance issues in the southern provinces of the Philippines and recent developments in Malaysia are pointing towards a reunification of regional Islamist efforts under the Da’esh umbrella. The influx of foreign fighters from Syria and thus Da’esh’s efforts to revitalize dormant regional terrorist groups can be the game-changer. This is why reports about links between Da’esh and regional terrorist networks are increasingly worrisome.
Da’esh’s strategy in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia – Tying the knot
In May 2015, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: ‘ISIS has so many Indonesian and Malaysian fighters that they form a unit by themselves — the Katibah Nusantara – Malay Archipelago Combat Unit,’ and added: ‘The threat is no longer over there, it is over here.’ In September 2015, the head of Indonesia’s national counter-terrorism agency warned of the imminent deployment of foreign terrorist fighters. In a rare interview with ABC, he added: ‘We need to stay vigilant, more so because there is information that in Malaysia there are thousands, a lot of foreign terrorist fighters there who are about to be deployed — we don’t know where to — under the ISIS network.’ Singapore’s Defense Minister and Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister raised exactly the same concerns, the latter adding that lately weakened groups such as JI and Abu Sayyaf are just looking for an umbrella organization like Da’esh to re-strengthen their position and to establish a regional Caliphate by attracting trained fighters from Syria. Based on Da’esh’s ideology, such a province could cover Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines – with a regional stronghold in the southern provinces in the Philippines.
Many recent developments in all three countries tend to confirm the statements about ties between Da’esh and terrorist groups in Southeast Asia: the Jakarta-attacks were allegedly directed by Muhammad Bahrun Naim, a leading figure within the aforementioned Katibah Nusantara unit with contacts to local terrorist networks in Southeast Asia; Da’esh appointed Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines province of Basilan, as head of the so-called Islamic State in the Philippines; and Da’esh was allegedly able to infiltrate the Malaysian Armed Forces while planning an attack on Army camps and police stations to enlarge its arsenal of weapons. In the meanwhile, Abu Sayyaf holds training camps for regional jihadists in the southern Philippines, while the head of Indonesia’s counter-terrorism agency reported of Da’esh training camps in Poso, port town in Sulawesi, Indonesia. An alleged meeting between Da’esh, Abu Sayyaf and MILF in an autonomous province in the southern Philippines in November 2015 is therefore a very worrying development.
Post-Jakarta: Terrorist Networks Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs)
The attacks in Jakarta show that the consequences of such developments could be devastating for the region. But they are not a single incident as reports about previously planned plots show: In March 2015, a returnee from Syria tried to detonate a chlorine bomb in an Indonesian shopping mall. In September 2015, Malaysian Police prevented a plot to detonate bombs in Kuala Lumpur’s major tourist area Bukit Bintang and just last week another seven suspects have been arrested in the Malaysian capital while identifying targets for several attacks. Even further reports from 2014 confirm planned attacks on hotels, discotheques and a Carlsberg Brewery in Kuala Lumpur while the Malaysian anti-terrorism chief Ayob Khan confirmed that arrested militants linked to a local Da’esh cell planned to kidnap officials to exchange for jailed colleagues.
According to the Indonesian police, the Jakarta-attacks show similarities to the November-attack in Paris and thus Da’esh’s TTPs: barricade-style assaults, killing as many civilians as possible before confronting responding security forces. Such attacks require low technical sophistication, but a high level of planning and organization. Urban centers such as Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur can thereby be the battlefields for terrorists targeting open tourist places like in Jakarta and Istanbul this month, specific buildings as happened during the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, or places of critical infrastructure – thinking of Mumbai 2008. Similar to past attacks of Da’esh, they will be conducted by large assault-teams, able to efficiently disrupt public order and spread terror by practically executing people in public space. Ahmed Salah Hashim, Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, describes such TTPs very well in a recent research paper: ‘In the context of the urban terrorist assault, the purpose of these suicide assault teams or ‘storm troopers’ is to assault buildings with overwhelming firepower, win the firefight against the first police responders (invariably not the heavily armed SWAT teams or paramilitary police squads), keep medical and civil defense units at bay, and proceed to kill their civilian targets. The individuals within these assault teams will invariably wear an explosive suicide belt.’ Attacks are thereby becoming increasingly hybrid, possibly including low-level CBRN material.
Regional Action Points: Capability Building, Critical Infrastructure Protection and Intelligence Sharing
Besides the cost of human lives and its impact on public order and safety, a series of such highly-coordinated hybrid-like attacks could have serious consequences for tourism in the region and therewith for economic stability – playing in the hands of Da’esh that only strives to find new recruits in impoverished regions. To prevent Da’esh from building a regional terrorist-hub in Southeast Asia, regional governments can learn from their success in the 2000s that led to fractionized terrorist networks and an increase in prevented attacks.
A prime example is thereby the establishment of the Indonesian Densus 88 Special Force with support of the Australian Federal Police and the U.S. government. After the Bali bombings, they efficiently undermined JI structures in the country and led to the imprisonment of its core leadership. Important respective capability building in C-IED and counter-terrorist Special Forces is currently taking place at the Malaysian Police, Armed Forces and Navy, showing that the country that has yet prevented all terrorist plots takes the rising threat very serious. Another prime example of regional capability building are the national Bomb Data Centers that had been built up with support of the Australian Federal Police. Superintendent William Senoron, Chief of the Philippines Bomb Data Center, presented at NCT eXplosive Asia in Kuala Lumpur in May 2015 that attempts of IED attacks remained relatively stable between 2008 and 2014 (2008: 150; 2014: 134), while more IED attacks had been prevented (2008: 37%; 2014: 46%). These three examples show that investment in counter-terror units, respective equipment and intelligence is of outmost importance and shows remarkable results.
Such measures must be accompanied by investments in border control and critical infrastructure protection. The proliferation of weapons, insufficient control of borders between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as the free flow of money between terrorist networks are at the root of the problem. Respective capability building must not only take place at intelligence agencies, but also at airports, ports and border crossings. Further safety measures must be introduced in urban centers and soft-targets such as tourist places, public transportation, important buildings and ammunition storages.
Such investments can obviously not take place without regulations that enhance governance and intelligence sharing. To start with, it is essential that the Philippines do not only fight groups like Abu Sayyaf but take back control of remote areas in the southern provinces and foster social and economic welfare in these regions. The peace negotiation with MILF are therefore a step in the right direction. In the meantime, countries need to make sure that their Armed Forces and civil servants are not infiltrated by Da’esh. Singapore for example has an outstanding track-record when it comes to deradicalization policies. This goes hand-in-hand with increased international intelligence sharing. As the Paris-attacks in November 2015 show, Da’esh concentrates on cross-border operations. They were planned in Syria, organized in Belgium and conducted in France. As mentioned above, the same applies for the attacks in Jakarta that were linked to the Katibah Nusantara unit.
In the end, it all comes down to not only national, but regional capability building. While the established Bomb Data Centers in Southeast Asia are a prime example of such regional cooperation, a lot still needs to be done on ASEAN level. As Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, therefore said in a recent interview: ‘Southeast Asian governments should reflect deeply on what happened in Paris and understand there’s a new threat landscape emerging in Southeast Asia. There needs to be a shift from rhetoric into action. There needs to be an understanding that there should be a common framework for fighting terrorism in ASEAN.’ The Jakarta-attacks should have been a respective wake-up call.