Southeast Asia could be a haven for dis­placed Is­lamic fight­ers

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - David Ig­natius

— The Is­lamic State hasn’t had much suc­cess in recruiting mil­i­tants among the vast Mus­lim pop­u­la­tions in Southeast Asia. But what hap­pens when the caliphate’s cap­i­tals in Syria and Iraq are de­stroyed, and hun­dreds of for­eign fight­ers from In­done­sia, Malaysia and the Philip­pines try to go home?

Ex­perts here in Aus­tralia see the coun­tert­er­ror­ism chal­lenge as a re­gional prob­lem, rather than sim­ply an af­flic­tion of the Mid­dle East and North Africa. They fear that a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous new phase may lie ahead, as the ji­hadists look for new sanc­tu­ar­ies.

Gov­ern­ments in Southeast Asia have been work­ing qui­etly with the United States, some for more than a decade, to mon­i­tor and try to dis­rupt radical Is­lamist groups, and they’ve had con­sid­er­able suc­cess.

CANBERRA, AUS­TRALIA

The United States helped train an In­done­sian po­lice unit known as De­tach­ment 88, which has largely de­stroyed Je­maah Is­lamiah, the al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate re­spon­si­ble for the 2002 Bali bomb­ing that killed more than 200 peo­ple.

But the prisons, slums and youth gangs of Southeast Asia pro­vide an ecosys­tem where ter­ror­ism could fes­ter anew, ex­perts say. Is­lamic State op­er­a­tives in Syria have tried to reach out to these po­ten­tial ji­hadists, as in the bomb­ing in Jan­uary in Jakarta that killed eight peo­ple, for which the Is­lamic State claimed credit.

Most Southeast Asian Mus­lims re­ject such vi­o­lence, but to plot mass­ca­su­alty at­tacks, it takes only a tiny fringe. “We have more ac­tiv­ity among ji­hadi groups than at any time in the last 10 years,” said Sid­ney Jones, di­rec­tor of the Jakarta-based In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Anal­y­sis of Con­flict, in a speech in April in Aus­tralia.

The would-be cat­a­lysts for vi­o­lence are the ji­hadists who trav­eled from Southeast Asia to Syria and Iraq. Ex­perts es­ti­mate that this for­eign-fighter network in­cludes as many as 500 to 600 In­done­sians, 110 Aus­tralians, about 100 Malaysians and a small num­ber of Filipinos. This Southeast Asian con­tin­gent is far larger than the num­ber who trav­eled to Afghanistan to join al-Qaeda be­fore Sept. 11, 2001. And in Iraq and Syria, the vol­un­teers have fought and killed.

“We haven’t yet seen the worst” in Southeast Asia, said Aaron Con­nelly, a re­search fel­low at the Lowy In­sti­tute, a for­eign pol­icy think tank in Syd­ney that ar­ranged my visit to Aus­tralia.

Ex­perts worry about three risk fac­tors that could ex­pand the cur­rently small ter­ror­ist network in Southeast Asia: dec­la­ra­tion of an Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate in the law­less jun­gles of the south­ern Philip­pines, re­cruit­ment of new Is­lamic State vol­un­teers in the Malaysian army and a ji­hadist push by re­leased prison­ers in In­done­sia.

Is­lamic State fight­ers from Southeast Asia pro­posed a Philip­pines ca- liphate in a video that was re­leased in June. This re­gion could be a haven for ji­hadists; a Mus­lim re­volt against the Catholic-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment has been sim­mer­ing there for a cen­tury.

“Kill the dis­be­liev­ers where you find them and do not have mercy on them,” Abu Ab­dul Rah­man al-Filip­ini urged in the video, which was recorded in Raqqa and trans­lated by SITE In­tel­li­gence Group .

In Malaysia, the army has been a wor­ry­ing source of re­cruits. The country’s de­fense min­is­ter told par­lia­ment last year that at least 70 former mem­bers of the mil­i­tary vol­un­teered for the Is­lamic State. Malaysian au­thor­i­ties long wary of West­ern help have been work­ing closely with the United States and Aus­tralia since last year to con­tain such ji­hadist ac­tiv­i­ties.

In In­done­sia, po­lice have cam­paigned ag­gres­sively against ji­hadists, killing or im­pris­on­ing many lead­ers. But as in Iraq and Syria, the prisons have been a breed­ing ground for ex­trem­ism. Based on her re­search in Jakarta, Jones ar­gued in a re­cent study: “The prison sys­tem — where plots are hatched, travel ar­ranged and [Is­lamic State] sup­port­ers re­cruited — needs ur­gent at­ten­tion.” Ex­perts worry that as many as 200 former ji­hadists are due to be re­leased from In­done­sian prisons soon.

For nearly 15 years, the United States has been qui­etly fund­ing coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­forts in Southeast Asia. A study pub­lished last year by the Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Cen­ter at West Point noted that the United States had pro­vided $441 mil­lion in se­cu­rity as­sis­tance to the Philip­pines, mostly for its mil­i­tary, and $262 mil­lion to In­done­sia, mostly for its po­lice. Po­lice ef­forts ap­pear to be a bet­ter bet: Ter­ror­ist at­tacks in­creased in the Philip­pines by 13-fold be­tween 2002 and 2013; at­tacks de­clined 26 per­cent over that pe­riod in In­done­sia.

The Is­lamic State may lose its caliphate in Syria and Iraq. But there could be a boomerang ef­fect — a big­ger ji­hadist threat in coun­tries to which the fleeing fight­ers re­turn.

David Ig­natius is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at da­vidig­natius@ wash­post.com.

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