SINGAPORE—Islamic State’s collapse in Syria and Iraq leaves global jihadists looking for a new home.
Governments in Southeast Asia, a region that is home to some 270 million Muslims, fear that their part of the world may now turn into the extremists’ new area of growth. These nations are sidelining old rivalries and working together to make sure that doesn’t happen.
This cooperation includes a fresh boost in intelligence sharing and joint maritime and air patrols in the Sulu Sea, where Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia meet. The region’s nations are also tightening immigration rules and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country is passing new antiterrorism legislation.
Islamic radicalism has a long tradition in Southeast Asia, fueled by a separatist guerrilla war that raged since the 1970s in the predominantly Muslim parts of southern Philippines, a separatist insurgency in southern Thailand, and the communal tensions in Indonesia that allowed al Qaeda’s affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah to flourish more than a decade ago.
In addition to concerns about the Sulu Sea area, the historic hotbed of Islamic militancy, regional officials increasingly worry that the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh may create another extremist hot spot on the coast of Andaman Sea.
“When we are talking about terrorism, Iraq and Syria already are finished. The future threat will be in the Sulu Sea and in the Andaman Sea,” Inspector-General
the deputy head of Indonesia’s National Counter-Terrorism Agency, said in an interview. “While ISIS has been defeated, its ideology remains.”
Several hundred radicals from Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, traveled to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq when it proclaimed its “caliphate” in 2014. Many of them fought in the so-called Nusantara Brigade—and many have since then returned to the region.
Islamic State also tried to establish a ministate of its own in the Indonesian regency of Poso, on Sulawesi island, in 2015. After failing to take hold in Poso, the group focused on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, where fighters linked to Islamic State seized the city of Marawi in May 2017. Philippines forces regained Marawi only after a five-month military campaign that displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Since then, Islamic State’s activity in Indonesia picked up again. Last month, militants affiliated with Islamic State, also known as Daesh, carried out a series of church bombings in the city of Surabaya, the country’s deadliest attack in a decade. There were several other incidents, including the attack on police by sword-carrying militants on the island of Sumatra.
“The challenges do not end when the military declares victory. While pro-Daesh groups failed to establish a strong foothold in southern Philippines and in Southeast Asia, their initial accomplishments provide a viable blueprint for terrorism operations in the region,” the Philippines secretary of national defense,
warned at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore over the weekend.
“The terrorist threat continues to threaten Southeast Asia,” echoed the Australian minister of defense,
“Nobody wants to see Daesh take root in our region after being denied territory and legitimacy in the Middle East.”
In Indonesia, increased police capability to monitor militants’ social media and electronic communications means that many future attacks will likely be planned by close-knit groups such as the family that carried out last month’s Surabaya church bombings, said Mr. Hamidin of the Counter-Terrorism Agency.
While Indonesia is able to keep the militant threat in check, that would become challenging if the largely dormant networks of Jemaah Islamiyah become activated again by a regional crisis such as the plight of the Rohingya, and start cooperating with the remnants of Islamic State, he added.
“We have learned from what has been happening in Indonesia: if there is conflict and violence against Muslims, terrorists usually go there,” said Mr. Hamidin.
In Indonesia, the appeal of Islamic State’s brand of radicalism is limited by the fact that rival Islamist movements have been able to achieve their goals through peaceful means. Mass Islamist-sponsored demonstrations against alleged blasphemy by the Christian governor of Jakarta in December 2016 led to his defeat in elections last year, and to a subsequent imprisonment on blasphemy charges.
There is no such peaceful outlet in the Philippines, where a state of emergency remains in force across Mindanao.
“Foreign terrorist fighters consider the south Philippines as their alternative home base. They agitate the grievances of the locals and provide ideological justifications to continue the armed rebellion,” said
chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, a think tank in Manila.
“But even without the foreign terrorist fighters, the locals are fighting for self-determination, and they want acknowledgment of historical injustice committed against them,” he said. “The foreign terrorist fighters only add fire to existing local grievances.”
In Marawi, where fighters from other Southeast Asian nations and places as remote as Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Chechnya participated in last year’s battles, Islamic State-affiliated militants surprised the Philippines army with their use of drones, radio-frequency scanners and advanced sniper rifles, among other sophisticated weaponry. Though battered after losing Marawi, many of its fighters and its key leaders, the militant group remains a potent threat in Mindanao and the nearby islands of the Philippines, security experts agree.
“In Mindanao, they still have the capabilities, they still have the money, and they still have some territory,” said Solahudin, a terrorism expert at the University of Indonesia.
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at email@example.com