When four Islamic State militants carried out a series of bombings and shootings in the heart of Jakarta on January 14, they demonstrated the threat Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s 'caliphate' poses to Southeast Asia. In the event, the quick, effective response of Indonesia’s security forces limited the impact of what could have been a much more destructive attack. This highlighted both Indonesia’s experience in dealing with terrorist groups, and how much ground ISIS still has to cover if it wants to replicate in ASEAN members its affiliates' impact in Egypt and Libya. Every ASEAN member can take measures to limit ISIS expansion and consolidation, but divergent approaches to Islamist militancy means some of these countries are better equipped to counter radicalism than others.
Indonesia has been fighting jihadism within its own borders since the early 2000s. After the Bali nightclub bombing that killed 202 people in October 2002, the government cracked down on al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and succeeded in arresting or killing most of its top leadership, although splinter groups such as the Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) and Jemaah Ansyarusy Syariah (JAS) are still operational. In response to the Bali bombings, Indonesia began developing a multifaceted counterterrorism strategy, taking a holistic view of radicalism and resisting the temptation to make the extremist problem a purely military one. Counter-radicalisation programs were developed to dissuade those considering jihad and to help reintegrate those arrested and sentenced to prison. Even so, President Joko Widodo has pushed to revise Indonesia’s anti-terrorism statutes since the Jakarta attacks. As it stands now, the approximately 500 Indonesians who have travelled to join ISIS have not broken any laws in doing so.
In many ways, the efforts of Muslim-majority ASEAN states such as Indonesia and Malaysia reflect wider challenges facing the Islamic world, where moderate voices and political leaders are working to define a mainstream narrative that undercuts radicalism’s appeal to the disaffected and the marginalised. Kuala Lumpur has invested heavily in this type of outreach, focusing on Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Global Movement of Moderates (GMM) approach. The Malaysian government and the GMM Foundation have followed up on Najib’s propositions by, among other measures, convening an international group of Shia and Sunni theologians to articulate an alternative vision of an 'Islamic State' and sponsoring (with Google) a content workshop on countering extremist narratives. As one of more than 60 countries in the US-led coalition against Islamic State, Malaysia is engaged in counter-messaging operations alongside the US, UK, and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Discrediting ISIS at home and abroad is an increasing focus for Malaysian authorities, with thousands of Malaysians reportedly sympathising with the group, and two Malaysian ISIS fighters killing over 30 people in suicide attacks in Iraq and Syria.
In other states, such as Thailand and the Philippines, Islamist movements are wrapped up in wider issues of minority rights. The Muslim and ethnically Malay population of Thailand’s southernmost provinces has agitated against the Buddhist central government since the mid-20th century, although the insurgency kicked into high gear in 2004. In the Catholic-dominated Philippines, the Mindanao island region and its Muslim majority have hosted separatist movements since the 1970s. Even though the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) finalised a peace treaty with the government in 2014, at least one leader in the overtly jihadist and transnationally-minded Abu Sayyaf group officially declared allegiance to ISIS later that same year.
Manila’s approach to its insurgent problems balances military action with a willingness to compromise, but army-ruled Thailand has become more aggressive since the 2014 coup. Rather than addressing the root causes of disaffection, particularly linguistic and cultural differences and economic marginalisation, Bangkok’s junta seems to believe conflict resolution is to be found down the barrel of a gun. Its counterinsurgency efforts, as analyst Zachary Abuza pointed out to Deutsche Welle, are predicated on obtaining an unconditional surrender without any political concessions on Bangkok’s part. After the Bangkok bombings in August, Thai security forces have undertaken sweeping security measures (such as massive fingerprint and DNA collection), yet those guilty of abuses toward the Muslim community are spared from accountability. A lasting solution to the insurgency would require healing longstanding rifts between Buddhists and Muslims, but the heavy-handed, inherently sectarian approach preferred by the military means such a nuanced outlook is likely out of the question.
The junta’s single focus counterinsurgency strategy reflects a wider refusal to compromise with political opponents and brook even the mildest criticism from inside (or outside) Thai society. While continually postponing democratic elections, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and his security apparatus have aggressively prosecuted dissenters under the country’s strict lèse majesté laws. Even the American ambassador, Glyn Davies, faced official accusations of denigrating the monarchy after he criticised the spate of prosecutions. Yingluck Shinawatra, the elected civilian leader Prayuth overthrew in his coup d’état, was also barred from leaving the country to accept an invitation from the European Parliament. Given the government’s authoritarian turn, it is little surprise its counterinsurgency operations have the same tone.
When it comes to defeating extremist groups, a willingness to work with outside partners is essential for ASEAN states wishing to succeed. Indonesia and the Philippines both received hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance from the US since the 2002 Bali attacks. These funds helped create Indonesia's Detachment 88 counterterrorism force, and paid for training and advisors to Filipino military and police forces. Built in large part on the personal friendship between President Barack Obama and Najib Razak, Malaysia’s enrollment in the anti-IS coalition has brought with it an agreement from the US to jointly build a regional messaging hub to counteract ISIS propaganda in Southeast Asia.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have all found proactive ways of countering jihadism’s appeal, making their own efforts to win 'hearts and minds' alongside law enforcement and counterinsurgency operations. Thailand, on the other hand, has failed to incorporate a diplomatic component into its overall strategy, setting itself up to fail and risking transnational jihadist networks (especially ISIS) finding a foothold in Thailand’s southern provinces should they see fit to expand there. As a regional group, ASEAN can and should address the ISIS problem collectively, as it began to do under Malaysia’s leadership last year. ASEAN’s purview in security matters is extremely limited, however, and it will be up to individual member states to respond to the challenge of jihadism within their own borders.
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