The ‘Islamic State’ and the rise of violent extremism in Southeast Asia

A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi, Head of ASEAN Studies Program, The Habibie Center.
 
 
Despite the popular conception of Southeast Asia as a religiously diverse, tolerant and peaceful region, the past decade has nevertheless seen a worrying rise in violent extremism. Cases in point include various campaigns of violence perpetrated by Islamist groups demanding separate Muslim homelands in the southern Philippines and southern Thailand as well as calls for an Islamic caliphate encompassing the Indonesian archipelago. Most notable were the Jemaah Islamiyah-orchestrated Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 and the Jakarta bombing of 2003, 2004 and 2009.
 
More concerning is that the rise in violent extremism is not limited to a small number of Islamist groups but has instead arguably found wider appeal among the public. In the case of Indonesia, for example, incidents of discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and violence has not only been perpetrated against non-Muslim minority groups, such as Christians and Buddhists, but also Muslim minority groups such as Ahmadiyah and Shiite communities.1 Incidents include Christian churches being forced shut by local Muslim communities and the Ahmadiyah declared as heretics by the then Minister for Religious Affairs.2
 
It should be noted, however, that violent extremism should not be considered as an Islamic problem only. Religious violence led by extremist Buddhist monks in Myanmar against the minority Rohingya has also been a worrying trend in the ASEAN region in the past decade. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that extremist groups in reforming Indonesia and Myanmar have exploited their newly found democratic freedoms of expression to espouse religious hate and violence.
 
Nevertheless it is the rise of the “Islamic State” — also known as ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh — that, according to ASEAN, now poses an “imminent threat” to Southeast Asia.3 In his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this year, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that ISIS posed “a very serious threat to the whole of Southeast Asia,” explaining,
 
“It is not so far-fetched that ISIS could establish a base somewhere in the region, in a geographical area under its physical control like in Syria and Iraq, to have territory in Southeast Asia somewhere far from the center of power of state governments….”4
 
Not only is Southeast Asia home to 15 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, but according to official estimates, as many as 514 Indonesians have moved to Iraq and Syria to fight with the Islamic State (as of March 2015), in addition to at least 50 Malaysians (as of  December 2014) and even several from Cambodia.567 Furthermore, a number of Islamist groups in Southeast Asia have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State including the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines.8 It is these statistics that led Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to describe Southeast Asia as “key recruitment center for ISIS.”9
 
Worryingly, Indonesian officials have admitted difficulties in identifying and quantifying the exact number of Indonesians joining to fight with the Islamic State.10 In the past week, Indonesia acknowledged that it had been in the dark over reports that two Indonesian commercial pilots with suspected sympathies for the Islamic State were being monitored by Australian intelligence.11
 
The key question worrying security analysts and policymakers in the region is what will happen once the Islamic State recruits return to Southeast Asia armed with battle-hardened experience, skills, and training. It should be remembered that many of the key individuals who were instrumental in the previously mentioned campaigns of violence in Indonesia, southern Philippines and southern Thailand were veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War that lasted from 1979-1989.
 
Given the threats posed by the Islamic State to Southeast Asia, it is unsurprising that authorities — both at the national and regional levels of ASEAN — have taken steps to counter the violent extremist group. Malaysia, the current chair of ASEAN, announced plans to hold a Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism on October 2, 2015 in Kuala Lumpur. As ASEAN Chair, Malaysia also pushed for a joint statement by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers on “the Rise of Violence and Brutality Committed by Terrorist/Extremist Organizations in Iraq and Syria” — a move that was hailed by US Secretary of State John Kerry who praised ASEAN for taking a strong stand against the Islamic State.12
 
At the national level, Kuala Lumpur passed a White Paper on Combating the Threat Posed by Islamic State.13 The fact that the White Paper was only the third ever produced by Malaysia was seen as a clear demonstration of the seriousness the Malaysian government attached to the threat. Similarly, the Indonesian government produced its first–ever blueprint for tackling terrorism in December 2014.14 The 152-page document emphasizes counter-radicalization, deradicalization, and traditional law enforcement measures. Indeed, it was reported that Jakarta was mulling tougher measures including revoking the passports of Indonesians who joined the Islamic State.15
 
It remains to be seen, however, how effective these steps will be in countering the threat of terrorism and violent extremism. Criticism was made of the “vagaries” of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Joint Statement that notably failed to mention the Islamic State by name, instead preferring to use the term “terrorist/extremist organizations and radical groups in Iraq and Syria.”16 It has also been noted that the Islamic State’s threat was still growing in the region “in spite of initial measures taken to counter the movement’s appeal,” thereby suggesting some weaknesses and failings in those measures.
 
One expert in particular criticizes “the simplistic assumption that inter religious conflict occurs because there are no laws against it” in Southeast Asia.17 A similar criticism could be applied to violent extremism and acts of terrorism. Thus, despite the various joint statements, blueprints and white papers issued by ASEAN and its member states to counter the Islamic State, the threat it poses continues to exist.
 
It is in this sense that more attention should be given to the Indonesian blueprint’s emphasis on counter-radicalization and deradicalization. As the chief of Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), Comr. Gen. Saud Usman Nasution, argued, hard and punitive approaches are unable to address the root of the problem. Instead, “the most important thing is a soft and persuasive approach” to prevent individuals from becoming attracted to radical thinking.18 Indeed, the blueprint lists seven key factors it believes are necessary in addressing the root problem of radicalization, namely: poverty, political disagreement, poor education, social, cultural, and psychological conditions, as well as technology.19
 
Certainly, there has been growing recognition that the exclusive use of security-focused approaches to countering violent extremism only serves to create “an increasingly insecure world in which Western and regional powers have proven incapable of defeating non-state actors like ISIS.”20 Such security-focused approaches fail to address the fact that many recruits to the cause of violent extremism often (1) feel a sense of hopelessness; (2) perceive little prospects for a future with a meaningful stake in their society; and (3) hold genuine despair and existential fear.21
 
Overall, in order to effectively counter violent extremism in Southeast Asia, relevant authorities must go beyond traditional security approaches and/or the introduction of statements, laws, and whitepapers. Whilst important, they can only ever be part of the solution. A permanent long-term solution requires a more comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes. Reforming the region’s various education systems so that the peoples of Southeast Asia are economically productive members of society is one element. So, too, is ensuring greater democratic freedoms so that pent-up anger and frustration against governments and their policies can be resolved through the ballot box rather than the resort to violence under the guise of religion. When officials from the region gather for the Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting later this year, it is thus incumbent on them to be mindful of the need to not only agree on immediate, short term measures to address the imminent threat of the Islamic State but also to find a comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes of violent extremism so that the ASEAN can be the religiously diverse, tolerant and peaceful region it so wishes to be.
 
Notes
 
2  Ibid.
 
 
 
 
 
 
8  Ibid.
 
9  IISS (2015, May 29). Op.cit.
 
 
 
12  Luke Hunt (2014, October 2). Op.cit.
 
 
14  Indra Budiari (2014, December 13).Op.cit.
 
 
16  Luke Hunt (2014, October 2). Op.cit.
 
 
18  Indra Budiari (2014, December 13).Op.cit.
 
19  Ibid.
 
 
21  IbId.
 
 
 
UPCOMING EVENTS
05 July 2015

The ‘Islamic State’ and the rise of violent extremism in Southeast Asia

Despite the popular conception of Southeast Asia as a religiously diverse, tolerant and peaceful region, the past decade has nevertheless seen a worrying rise in violent extremism.