Dealing with the IS threat in Southeast Asia

Author: Kumar Ramakrishna, RSIS

On 14 January 2016, four Indonesian militants mounted a brazen lunchtime assault on a Starbucks Café and a police post in downtown Jakarta. The general area boasts government offices, shopping malls and eateries as well as a United Nations office and the United States embassy.

The attackers were killed by the security forces. Three civilians also died in the fire fight. Another 20 were injured including four foreigners from the Netherlands, Algeria, Austria and Germany.

The modus operandi of the Jakarta militants appeared reminiscent of the devastating Paris assault by Islamic State (IS) directed mobile squads in November 2015 in which 130 people were killed. It eventually emerged that the assault was apparently directed by Muhammad Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian extremist blogger and activist with ties to local terrorist networks. Naim is also allegedly a leading figure within the Syria-based Katibah Nusantara unit, comprising largely Indonesian and Malaysian fighters, and part of the so-called Islamic State.

Though the casualty toll was comparatively low, the Jakarta attack should be viewed as a statement of intent that Indonesia and regional governments should heed, for two reasons.

First, aside from its importance for global maritime trade, Southeast Asia is home to a quarter of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslim population and is a natural ‘strategic reserve’ for IS. The IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, does not merely seek to consolidate the Islamic Caliphate he declared in June 2014 within its current territorial epicentre. He also, however improbable this may be, seeks to expand it worldwide.

Southeast Asia has been targeted for incorporation within the imperial designs of the IS leadership. Some argue that Southeast Asia’s ‘Islam with a smiling face’ is well placed to deal with the violent Islamist fringe represented by IS and its ilk. Such assumptions are misplaced.

Regional bastions of Southeast Asian Islam have in recent times been engaged in a rearguard struggle against what is sometimes called ‘Wahhabi colonialism’ — a reference to the conservative interpretation of Islam being circulated in Indonesia and the region by a network of religious and educational institutions, and pressure groups funded by Middle Eastern donors.

The rigidly puritanical fundamentalism of Wahhabism arguably sustains the virulent IS ideology. It would be unwise to imagine that this intertwined theological and ideological challenge to Southeast Asian Islam can be addressed in an ad hoc fashion.

The second reason for concern is that the Jakarta attacks signal a commitment by IS to an indirect approach internationally, in addition to the direct strategy being applied in the Middle East. In its statement claiming the Jakarta attacks, IS declared that its ‘soldiers of the caliphate’ had struck a blow against ‘the crusader alliance’. This indicates that foreign nationals from the countries in the US-led coalition that is currently bombing IS positions in Iraq and Syria were targeted in the Indonesian capital. The apparent targets in the attack — Starbucks and the Sarinah Mall — are certainly frequented by Westerners.

This strategy of avoiding a direct confrontation with a militarily superior coalition in the Middle East while attacking its interests in areas of relative weakness, including soft targets in Southeast Asia, is not new. Paris was one application of this strategy; Jakarta is now another. IS may well be compensating for its steadily deteriorating strategic situation in Iraq and Syria in the face of coalition military pressure by upping the ante overseas.

As far as Southeast Asia is concerned, the IS indirect strategy can be operationalised in several ways. It could recruit returning IS fighters from Syria to mount new attacks in Southeast Asia.

Syria-based IS leaders could co-opt sympathetic individual militants as well as existing cells and groups, such as Mujahidin Indonesia Timur in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines, turning them into operational adjuncts of IS.

Third, IS could again encourage relatively less sophisticated lone wolf attacks against coalition nationals. Similar attacks could also be carried out by self-radicalised ‘insiders’ — from commercial airline pilots as has occurred seen in Indonesia to armed forces and even airport screening personnel as in Malaysia, to national servicemen as in Singapore. The IS indirect threat, in short, is multi-faceted and ignored at our peril.

A two-pronged response is needed to deal with this threat. First, the real-time physical threat needs to be addressed. Possible steps to improve Indonesia’s counter-terrorism capabilities include enhanced intelligence exchange on terrorist identities, movements, logistics and funding between and within regional governments and with key foreign partners; capacity-building programs to assist regional countries in reducing their susceptibility to penetration by IS and affiliated groups; calibrated force twinned with enhanced legal frameworks to deal nimbly with rapidly emerging cells and newly released militants who may still pose a threat

Second, the underlying conditions that give rise to the physical threat in the first place also require urgent policy measures. These include better political and socio-economic governance to diminish the grievances that IS extremism feeds upon and wider understanding of the drivers of radicalisation. Expanded grassroots awareness of the attitudinal and behavioural indicators of self-radicalisation is also needed.

It is crucial that there are intensified regional and international exchanges of best practices in counter-ideological strategies and related theological efforts to defeat IS extremism both online and offline.

Nothing radically new is required to combat IS in Indonesia and the region. Rather, as the British General Sir Gerald Templer once asserted decades ago in another context, what is really needed is that existing methods are applied at a higher tempo and much more effectively.

Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Professor and Head of Policy Studies in the Office of the Executive Deputy Chairman, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A version of this article previously appeared here as an RSIS Commentary.