ISIS is increasingly focusing on South East Asia where large populations of moderate Muslims reside, while governments are intensifying efforts towards deradicalisation and counter terrorism.
By Hamsini Hariharan (@HamsiniH)
In the last week of Ramzan, terrorist attacks have taken place in Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq, Yemen, Malaysia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. While some of these incidents remain claimed by different terrorist groups, the influence of the ISIS tactics have been pervasive. In South-East Asia, where large Muslim populations reside have not been immune to the spread of ISIS ideology. The semi-state has already established presence in Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia. At the beginning of Ramzan, Furat Media (which is affiliated with the IS) released its first Malay newsletter Al-Fatihin, aimed at Malay speakers across South-East Asia.
This was the IS ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy where the group decided to turn to countries eat of West Asia where huge Muslim populations reside. It first began in 2014 when the Katibah Nusantara, a military wing consisting Malay and Indonesian speaking fighters was formed. Since then, several local groups have pledged allegiance to the group. A Pew Study showed that 11% of Malaysians and 4% of Indonesians displayed favourable view of ISIS.
Countries in South East Asia have been taking proactive counter terrorism efforts. The region is not new to fighting terrorism as radical groups (both local and with links to groups in West Asia) have a long history in the region. However, the governments have responded with swift crackdowns and long interrogations against potential perpetrators. In 2015, over 100 people were arrested and seven plots were foiled in Malaysia while in Indonesia, approximately 74 people were arrested and nine plots detected in time to prevent them. Singapore also followed suit with stringent security measures enforced all over the island. The three countries are focusing on re-vamping their legal framework to boost counter terrorism efforts.
The ISIS has garnered limited support in South East Asia because of the effective deradicalisation programmes carried out by governments and awareness programs to sensitise moderate Muslims. Indonesia in 2013 published a National Deradicalisation Blueprint to intervene and persuade people away from radical narrative. While it does face issues with recidivism, it has focused on prisons as a site for radicalisation since the early 2000s. Malaysia’s deradicalisation programmes date back to the 1960s, though it was initially aimed at reintegrating communist insurgents and reducing marginalisation. In October 2015, the Malysian Deputy Prime Minister claimed that the deradicalisation programme had a 97 per cent success rate and was recognised by the United Nations and Interpol.While this certainly is a tall claim, Malaysia’s deradicalisation has largely proved that it has faced even fewer extremist related attacks than Indonesia.
ISIS territory may be wrested from their control however, it will not be the end of the group, the ideology or the tactics. The ISIS also works on the principle of radical networking and even if they do manage to establish a caliphate, it is possible that their supporters all over the world continue with their agenda. While countries in South East Asia grapple with diverse religious challenges (from growing extremism of various religions, communal clashes to persecution of minorities), they have still proved adept at dealing with religious terrorism. Examples from Malaysia and Indonesia can prove helpful at tackling the threats in other countries with large moderate populations with the potential to be radicalised.
Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH