ISIL and Southeast Asia: effectively challenging a growing menace
15 Dec 2015|

Police anti riot helmet Malaysia

There are growing fears that Southeast Asia is rapidly emerging as a new beachhead for the extremism of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Particular attention has focused on Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state. Scores of nationals—possibly more than 500—are believed to have traveled to participate in the group’s struggle in the Middle East, many of who were apparently recruited from prisons where a strong sense of jihadist solidarity has been allowed to develop among inmates. Several Islamist entities have also openly campaigned for ISIL, organising mass rallies across the country that have since seen well over 2,000 people express support for the movement and its cause.

Although Indonesia may be at the forefront of current concern, the problem certainly isn’t confined to this state alone. Between 30 and 150 Malaysians are thought to have volunteered to fight for ISIL in Syria and Iraq, many of who have returned home exhorting the virtues of domestic militancy. Several planned attacks linked to those volunteers have already been pre-empted, some of which have disturbingly involved individuals who have subsequently been linked to the official state apparatus. And in the Philippines there are strong indications that ISIL elements have sought to recruit followers from universities in Mindanao, while at least two rebel organisations have pledged oaths of allegiance to the movement: the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

On a wider level, there are concerns that veterans from ISIL’s campaigns in the Middle East could work to rekindle the type of cross-border Southeast Asian terrorism that previously occurred with Jemaah Islamiyah. It’s known that Indonesians and Malaysians have worked together in the Middle East and in August 2014 came together under the ISIL banner to form the Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiyah—a special Malay-speaking unit of roughly 100 men. An entity of that sort could certainly be leveraged as the vanguard of a transnational fighting force that spearheads attacks not just nationally but also more broadly throughout the region.

ISIL’s spreading influence in Southeast Asia has led to the introduction of a suite of domestic counter-measures aimed at blunting the group’s operational activities and limiting the space in which it can pursue its logistical and operational activities. Although those moves are to be welcomed, problems remain. In Indonesia, for instance, prisons continue to act as a major hub for ISIL recruitment and little if anything has been done to outlaw support for the group’s radical ideology. Equally in Malaysia the introduction of draconian national security legislation has sparked protest from civil libertarians and the Bar Association who assert that it threatens basic rights, is an unnecessary departure from due process and is open to abuse for silencing bona fide critics of the government.

More generally, efforts to debunk the ISIL propaganda machine remain underdeveloped, especially in terms of generating an effective counter-narrative that credibly resonates with a target demographic. In addition, region-wide counter-terrorist strategies have yet to take on a forceful stance as they continue to be held hostage to the prevailing ASEAN norms of unanimity in decision-making and non-interference in internal affairs.

In looking to the future, a number of recommendations can be made. Nationally, three priorities stand out. First, governments must strive to ensure any measures they introduce are proportional, transparent and accountable. Second, moves to extend mitigation efforts to radical, but non-violent Islamists should be carefully weighed against their potential to ingrain a perception of general repression. Third, the counter-terrorist mission should always remain under the overall ambit of the police, as at root the challenge posed by sub-state extremism is a law enforcement issue.

Regionally, greater emphasis needs to be given to formalising genuine counter-terrorist cooperation. That’s an obvious area for collaboration that could give real meaning to ASEAN’s emergent Political and Security Community.

Australia, which has also witnessed a worrying trend of ISIL-inspired domestic radicalisation, is well placed to support those efforts, both on a bilateral basis as well as within multilateral forums such as the meetings of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus. However if Canberra is to credibly advance the importance of balanced and limited counter-terrorist strategies, it’s essential that its policies are consistent with this missive. To that end, the current administration of Malcolm Turnbull would be wise to address lingering questions that have been raised over the country’s own emergent response to ISIL, not least be ensuring any introduced measures are subjected to adequate control and justified through vibrant and transparent political debate.