Since the beginning of 2016, a growing body of indisputable evidence has emerged that clearly indicates ISIS is making significant progress in pushing its twisted ideology to ASEAN member states despite being widely rejected by local Muslim populations. Nevertheless, the growing confidence of groups such as the ISIS-affiliated Abu Sayyaf, which recently brutally decapitated Canadian hostage John Ridsdel, should keep security experts and policymakers awake at night.
If ISIS’ recent activity in the region were not reason enough to give ASEAN governments serious cause for concern, the fact that some analysts have suggested Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s so-called Islamic State could join forces with al-Qaeda should force Southeast Asian leaders to take real steps towards neutralizing the threat posed by Islamist extremist groups.
In a March 2016 article for Foreign Affairs magazine, Bruce Hoffman, Professor and Director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, wrote: “[T]he ideological similarities between ISIS and al-Qaeda are more significant than the differences. Both groups fundamentally adhere to the principle first articulated by al-Qaeda founding member Abdullah Azzam three decades ago: It is an obligation for Muslims everywhere to come to the defense of their brethren wherever they are threatened and endangered.”
A global partnership between ISIS and al-Qaeda could effectively unite all ASEAN terror groups under one common umbrella, enabling them to pool resources and greatly increasing the chances that massive terror attacks could occur in ASEAN member states. Indeed, beyond Abu Sayyaf, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) pledged allegiance to ISIS, while Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, is an al-Qaeda affiliate. A failure to grasp the scale of the threat posed and formulate effective policy to counter it could see other ASEAN nations become the next victims of atrocities on a scale similar to those recently suffered by Paris and Brussels.
ASEAN maritime patrols help
As I wrote in January after the botched Jakarta attacks, it has never been more vital that all ASEAN member states unite to formulate a credible and effective strategy to halt the growing influence of Daesh and other jihadi groups that have been allowed to flourish in their region. It seems that since then, little if any progress has been made towards finding an answer. The most significant development came on May 6th, when Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines agreed to jointly set up coordinated maritime patrols to crack down on ship hijackings carried out by Islamist militants in their waters.
Otherwise, ASEAN leaders and their constituents appear to have been too preoccupied with their own domestic political squabbles and scandals to face down the growing threat from ISIS and other extremist organizations. This has left many woefully ill-prepared for the very real possibility that they will be hit by a major terror attack in the not-too-distant future. In Malaysia, the media remains obsessed with the hyped up 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) saga, as well as with the personal donation Prime Minister Najib Razak received from Saudi Arabia that has been used by the opposition as a means of taking him down. At the same time, Indonesia has been trapped by multiple corruption scandals, culminating with the resignation of the now-disgraced House Speaker Setya Novanto, while the Philippines is in the throes of a painful presidential campaign where Trump-style demagogue Rodrigo Duterte holds a double-digit lead in polls.
While all of these issues are undoubtedly deserving of public scrutiny, they seem to have offered the region’s leaders the wiggle room required to fudge the question of how to deal with the growing threat posed by radical Islamists, and kick the thorny issue of how to stop the radicalization of Southeast Asia’s young Muslim men into the long grass. Except for Malaysia’s highly effective hard line taken against wannabe terrorists, that features a complex prevention strategy (by giving extended powers to counterterrorism outfits), an internationally recognized deradicalization program, as well as a regional counter-messaging center sponsored by the United States. The latter was launched in March and aims to curb the digital influence of the Caliphate by attacking the narratives put forward by ISIS’ recruiters. So far, Malaysia has derailed several ISIS plots and has arrested 40 people believed to be involved with terrorist activities. It’s no surprise Kuala Lumpur called on Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo in a recent April visit to implement similar laws.
ASEAN leaders must step up to the plate now and put behind them political squabbles. The region needs to not only crack down on active Islamist terror groups that pose an immediate threat to the safety of its people, but also formulate an effective counter-narrative to stem the spread of the twisted jihadi ideology that is radicalizing so many of its young people. Otherwise, it will take a tragedy on the scale of Brussels or Paris to force the region’s governments to collectively seek out the solutions required to stop Southeast Asia becoming one of violent jihad’s newest heartlands.
Jon Connars is an investment risk analyst and researcher with an expertise in the ASEAN region who currently shuttles between Singapore and Bangkok.
Copyright 2016 Jon Connars
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.