The Rise of ISIS in Southeast Asia
Much of the region has witnessed a democratic regression that's fueling the spread of violent extremism.
Part 1—On January 14, militants struck in one of Jakarta’s busiest shopping and office districts. At around 11 am, one attacker blew up a suicide bomb at a Starbucks. Then, a group of attackers grabbed foreigners from the area, started firing wildly into the street, and drove a motorcycle toward a nearby police station and attacked that. The surviving militants then engaged in a running gun and bomb battle with Indonesian police, leaving a total of eight people dead, including five of the attackers. After the attacks, it quickly emerged that the purported ringleader, an Indonesian man named Bahrun Naim, had been living in the Islamic State’s “capital,” Raqqa, where he had reportedly organized the Jakarta violence.
Although the brazenness of the attack shocked some Indonesians, the fact that militants inspired by ISIS committed violence in Jakarta was not particularly surprising. Since the previous autumn, Indonesian police and intelligence had been receiving reports of ISIS-linked militant cells organizing on Java and other islands; a month before the attack, Indonesian police had made a string of arrests, across the archipelago, of militants allegedly linked to the Islamic State. One of Indonesia’s leading specialists on militant groups, Sidney Jones of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, had warned that ISIS has “transformed the terrorism threat [in Indonesia] after years of mostly foiled [terrorism] plots” in the archipelago. And the Indonesian government had estimated that hundreds Indonesians had traveled to Islamic State-held territory in Syria and Iraq and then returned home. So many Indonesians and Malaysians had traveled to Islamic State territory that IS had started a brigade of fighters just for visiting Indonesians and Malaysians.
Indonesia was not alone in facing the threat of militants linked to or inspired by the Islamic State. Some Southeast Asian intelligence organizations place the total number of Southeast Asians who have made the trip to ISIS territory as between 1,200 and 1,800. Even in Singapore, a city-state with an extremely effective intelligence service, radicals inspired in part by the Islamic State have returned to the island, according to public speeches by Singapore’s prime minister.
In addition, several veteran militant groups in Southeast Asia whose existence predated the rise of the Islamic State, such as those fighting in the southern Philippines, have publicly pledged their allegiance to IS in 2014 and 2015. Whether these pledges are designed to bring more notoriety to the veteran groups, or actually constitute real linkages with IS, remains unclear, but their impact is to strengthen Islamic State’s image as a group with real global appeal.
Yet of all the Southeast Asian nations facing rising militancy—the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Brunei, and Indonesia—Indonesia is actually the best equipped to combat the challenge of radicalism. The Indonesian government confronted an earlier rise of militancy, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when many Indonesian militants were inspired by al-Qaeda; Indonesian security forces effectively penetrated the earlier militants’ cells and broke up many terrorism plots, without comprising Indonesia’s democratic transition. To be sure, as Jones notes, that earlier decade of militant activities left some radical networks in place, networks that IS sympathizers now may try to activate in the archipelago. The Islamic State’s powerful social media messaging may help militants regroup in Indonesia. But these militants will have a difficult time seriously threatening Indonesia’s social fabric, or upsetting the political gains Indonesia has made since the end of the Suharto dictatorship.
Indeed, while much of Southeast Asia backslides into authoritarian or semi-authoritarian politics, highlighted most notably by Thailand’s harsh military rule, Indonesia’s political system has continued to mature, becoming a consolidated and essentially federal democracy. This maturation, and the maturation of Indonesia’s religious establishment, has created many ways to co-opt radicals through the political process, undermining the appeal of militant groups to the broader public—and making it easier for police to identify and arrest the small number of extremists planning violent attacks.
A plainclothes police officer aims his gun at attackers during a gun battle as a body lies on the ground in Jakarta, Indonesia on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Attackers set off explosions at a Starbucks cafe in a bustling shopping area in Indonesia’s capital and waged gun fights with police, leaving bodies in the streets as office workers watched from high-rise buildings. (AP Photo)
Part 2—After Jakarta’s initial successes against militants such as those from Jemaah Islamiah, a new generation of Islamists began to emerge in Southeast Asia in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Some had been students in schools set up, in the 1990s and 2000s, by earlier generations of radicals, while others had taken part in plots and attacks in the 1990s and 2000s and had survived the region-wide crackdown on Jemaah Islamiah and other militants. As Indonesian militancy expert Sidney Jones notes, many of these survivors lacked the discipline and organizing principles that had been characteristic of Jemaah Islamiah in the late 1990s and 2000s. Jones notes that the Indonesian authorities were saved in January 2016 primarily by the militants “incompetence,” but if radical groups continue to grow and train in Syria, they may eventually perfect more deadly bombing and shooting plots in Southeast Asia.
The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State has provided new inspiration for the younger radicals and, for some willing to travel to Syria and Iraq, a new place for young Southeast Asian militants to train and meet fellow militants from around the world. In some ways, for Southeast Asian radicals the Islamic State’s wars in Syria and Iraq were a kind of modern version of the Afghanistan of the 1980s, a place for foreigners to come, learn how to fight, and mingle with other radicals. However, it was far easier for Southeast Asians to make the journey to Islamic State territory than it had been to join the mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Social media, for one, made it far easier for young Southeast Asians to learn about life in Islamic State territory and plan trips to Islamic State-controlled regions than it had been for radicals who wanted to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In addition, the Islamic State’s theatrical brutality, tailored to social media, seemed designed to inspire radicals in other countries to adopt more brutal tactics.
Some Islamic State leaders apparently see the value in recruiting and training Southeast Asians. After all, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and Indonesia and Malaysia are two of the most prominent moderate Muslim-majority states in the world, countries with close relations with the United States, France, China, and other countries either involved in the battle against Islamic State or targeted for attacks by Islamic State leaders. In the past four years, the Islamic State has not only created a brigade of its fighters for Indonesians and Malaysians, who speak a common language, but also released video messages, shared on social media, targeted at Southeast Asian recruits and including efforts to Southeast Asian women to travel to Islamic State territory and potentially marry fighters. Jones’s Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict estimates that as many as forty percent of Indonesians who have traveled to join the Islamic State are women and children.
At the same time as the Islamic State is spreading its message into the region, Southeast Asian states are struggling with other factors that could spark radicalism. These factors include: The expansion of social media and Internet access, and the growing use of apps like WhatsApp and Zello that are harder for the authorities to track; the growth in foreign-funded religious schools in Southeast Asia; and, incompetent Southeast Asian prison systems, which tend to group Islamists together and often brutalize them; and, some Southeast Asian leaders’ response to the growth of the Islamic State, a response that has too often morphed into outright Islamophobia.
In Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and other countries in the region, a lack of political freedom has been probably the biggest driver of militancy. Once touted as a democratic beacon for other developing regions, since the late 2000s, much of Southeast Asia has witnessed a democratic retrenchment. In its report on global freedom in 2009, Freedom House ranked the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Timor-Leste as “partly free” nations, and ranked Indonesia as “free.” Twenty years earlier, only the Philippines ranked as “partly free” in the region; the rest of these countries were graded “not free,” while Timor-Leste did not even exist as an independent nation. In Thailand, for instance, throughout the 1990s and much of the 2000s, Thailand appeared to have left its era of military interventions behind; Thai army commanders insisted the era of coups had passed and that the armed forces would become a normal military, run by elected civilian ministers. Thailand passed a progressive constitution in 1997, and in the 1990s and 2000s the country held multiple free elections. Malaysia, meanwhile, seemed poised to develop a competitive two-party system in the 2000s and early 2010s. In Cambodia, unexpected gains by the opposition coalition in 2014 national elections led to a brief period of compromise between opposition politicians and longtime prime minister Hun Sen.
Today, few people are touting democracy in Southeast Asia as an example of political freedoms. Since the 2000s, Thailand has suffered more than a decade of political turmoil capped by a military coup in May 2014, the second coup in the kingdom in less than a decade. The country is still ruled by a junta, and even if elections are held in 2017, Thailand’s new constitution, written under junta rule, will dramatically restrict democratic freedoms and undermine democratic institutions. In 2015 Hun Sen’s government ended the rapprochement with the opposition. The Cambodian government pursued criminal charges against opposition leader Sam Rainsy, forcing him into exile, and Cambodian police did nothing as a mob of people, potentially organized by the ruling party, attacked opposition lawmakers just outside the parliament building. In Malaysia, the story is similar. After the 2013 general election, which the ruling coalition narrowly won, relying on gerrymandering and alleged vote fraud, the government jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and used a new law to crack down on other opposition politicians and civil society activists.
In Myanmar, since the end of junta rule in 2010-11, Muslims have been the targets of brutal violence. Gangs and paramilitary organizations, apparently tolerated by the state, have launched waves of attacks on Muslim communities in western Myanmar and other parts of the country; over 130,000 Muslim Rohingya, an ethnic minority, fled their homes, and often wound up in camps for the internally displaced that seemed more like internment camps than centers designed to aid refugees.
In southern Thailand, meanwhile, increasingly autocratic rule has added to popular alienation from the Thai state and made it easier for militant cells to recruit, according to a study of recruiting by Don Pathan, an expert on the southern Thai conflict who writes for The Nationnewspaper. The government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the last popularly elected leader before the May 2014 coup, had attempted to launch peace negotiations with the southern militants. But after the coup the Thai army essentially jettisoned the talks. In late 2015 and early 2016, several representatives of the southern insurgents held informal meetings with army negotiators in an attempt to restart the talks, but these informal meetings have yet to produce any tangible results.
In Malaysia, the government’s increasing repressiveness and desire to burnish its Islamic credentials have combined to fuel radicalism. Malaysia’s government has not only passed legislation that could suppress opposition voices, but also used its powers to entrench economic and political preferences for ethnic Malays, disempowering ethnic Indians and ethnic Chinese. Malaysian leaders also have used speeches to increasingly try to portray Malaysia a state for Malay Muslims, and tarred opposition leaders by portraying them as stooges of non-Muslim ethnic minorities. As a result, although Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak has been vocal, on the international stage, about the need for moderate Muslim voices to combat militancy, his government has allowed Malay Muslim nationalist voices to dominate the governing coalition and to wield extensive power over public discourse. At the same time, the government’s crackdown on public protests, nonprofits’ operations, and independent media have limited the means by which Malaysians, including Islamists, could participate peacefully in public discourse. Religion has become central to Malaysians’ identities, as economic and social policies entrench the linkage of faith and identity. “More and more Malays identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims. In a poll carried out [in 2015], Merdeka Center found that 60 per cent of Malays consider themselves as Muslims first, 27 per cent as Malaysians first, and only a peculiarly low 6 per cent saw themselves as Malays first,” writes Penang Institute analyst Kok-Hin Ooi in an analysis for New Mandala.
Of course, the extremism that has bloomed in Southeast Asia from failed democratization does not only entail Islamism. Southeast Asia’s failed democratization has sparked many forms of extremist groups, all of which pay little heed to legal, constitutional means of resolving political conflicts. In Thailand, the stalled democratization has fostered a rise in militant Buddhist organizations, some of which have pushed to make Buddhism the state religion. It also has sparked the growth of hardline, conservative, royalist street demonstrations. These royalist street demonstrators, some of whom also belong to militant Buddhist groups, paralyzed Bangkok with protests in late 2013 and early 2014, disrupted planned parliamentary elections, and ultimately set the stage for the May 2014 coup. (During the 2013 and 2014 protests, many of these royalist groups openly called for an end to the franchise for poor Thais and/or a restoration of the absolute monarchy.) In Myanmar, incomplete democratization, and the vacuum of political power left by the end of authoritarian rule, has also allowed radical Buddhist nationalist groups to gain power. Some of the new Buddhist nationalist groups have alleged links to hardline, anti-Muslim political parties; others allegedly are linked to the gangs and paramilitaries that have terrorized the Rohingya and other Myanmar Muslims.
These empowered extremist groups are not necessarily fueled primarily by economic grievances. The three provinces of southern Thailand are not the poorest in the country, and are far from the poorest areas of Southeast Asia. In fact, the southernmost provinces are far richer than some areas of Thailand’s rural, drought-hit northeast. The extremist royalist groups that helped topple the Yingluck government and pave the way for the coup were led by middle class and upper class Thais, including some of the richest people in the kingdom. In Malaysia, meanwhile, the most hardline Malay Muslim groups, and the militant Islamist cells that have been uncovered, do not usually attract the poorest in Malaysian society, but rather middle-class and lower-middle class Malays, especially those who apparently fear that urbanization and more open politics might mean a dilution of state privileges for Malays.
Indonesia, by contrast, has not regressed politically over the past decade, and its continued democratic transition has blunted the appeal of radicalism. Along with the Philippines, it is the only Southeast Asian nation to be consistently ranked among the freest nations in the developing world by Freedom House. In his first two years in office, President Joko Widodo has helped further entrench democratic culture and institutions, even if he has been less aggressive in pushing on long-term political and economic reforms than some of his supporters had hoped. (In particular, Jokowi has tended to fall back into statist, economic nationalist policy prescriptions.) Still, as President Jokowi has maintained the system of regional and local elections, installed prominent anticorruption activists at the center of his cabinet, and transformed the style and image of the presidency from that of a remote, almost monarchical figure to that of a public servant listening to public concerns.
Meanwhile, by the middle of the 2010s, Indonesia’s massive decentralization of legislative authority and government budgets had greatly empowered local politicians and local populaces. Decentralization allowed for a degree of differentiation in how localities handled issues like the selling of alcohol, the regulation of gambling, and other issues that Islamic parties and Islamist militant groups tended to emphasize. (Occasionally, these local laws catered to devout Christians, such as in predominantly Christian areas of Papua, rather than to Muslims.) And decentralization and democratic consolidation have greatly helped Indonesia’s battle against a new generation of militants.
Decentralization, for one, helps reduce the appeal of Islamic parties and militant groups on the national level. Devout voters can obtain many of their demands through local legislation, reducing the appeal of national Islamic parties—or of militant groups who pledge to force change through violence. Freedom of expression means that Indonesians can openly advocate for the imposition of harsher Islamic laws or other goals of militant groups; the state does not stifle their voices.
Confidence in Indonesia’s political system, and the impact of Indonesian presidents’ public speeches against militants, has clearly had an impact on the Indonesian population. In a poll released in November 2015 by the Pew Research Center, nearly 80 percent of Indonesians had an unfavorable view of the Islamic State, a much higher unfavorable figure than in Malaysia, Turkey, and Pakistan, among other countries. In Malaysia, for instance, only about sixty percent of the population in the same poll, had an unfavorable view of the Islamic State. It helps that the largest Indonesian religious organizations have added their weight to the countermilitancy campaign. Nahdlatul Ulama, an Indonesian religious movement with some 50 million members, has developed a sophisticated public campaign promoting a tolerant version of Islam. The campaign also emphasizes to Indonesians how alien the Islamic State’s form of Islam is to Indonesia’s Islamic traditions.
These national campaigns have helped the Indonesian security forces, who rely on tips from the populace. Although militants were able to strike in Jakarta in January, in December 2015 Indonesian security forces made a string of arrests in five cities of people allegedly linked to Islamic State and planning a larger attack.
To be sure, Indonesia has not eradicated militant groups. Terrorist attacks are always a possibility in Indonesia, even if the government has shifted public opinion against Islamists and destroyed many militant cells. The archipelago’s porous borders, notoriously corrupt immigration checkpoints, and open society all allow militant groups to come and go with impunity. Yet Indonesia’s open society has helped inoculate the country against the possibility that militant groups inspired by the Islamic State will gain large numbers of followers.
Part 3—Southeast Asia’s decade of democratic regression, which I examined in the previous blog post, reflects a worrying global retrenchment. Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, which measures the spread or retrenchment of freedom globally, has reported ten straight years of declining global political freedom. In Freedom House’s 2016 edition of Freedom in the World, more than seventy countries registered declines in political freedom as compared to the prior year.
The implications of this democratic regression are broad and significant. On a human level, the regression of democracy means that, compared to a decade ago, more of the world’s people are living today under governments that restrict economic, social, and political rights. People living under authoritarian rule are more likely to have shorter and less healthy lives, as shown by indicators of human development; over time, democracies have proven more effective in fostering key aspects of development including life expectancy and reduced child mortality. The global democratic regression may lead to more interstate conflict.
In addition, political retrenchment may foster extremism, creating favorable conditions for groups inspired by the self-proclaimed Islamic State or for other types of extremists, such as Buddhist nationalist extremist groups in Myanmar or hardline royalist groups in Thailand. Already, outside Southeast Asia groups linked to the Islamic State have made headway in states where political freedom has regressed, or never fully emerged, and where people feel they cannot create political change by working within the system. In Egypt, for example, where a military government has thrown leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in jail, and also crushed more liberal political groups, Islamists have increasingly turned to violence, attacking police, military, and government targets in the Sinai and other parts of the country. In Libya, where the collapse of the Qaddafi dictatorship led to a chaotic political environment, the Islamic State has established a large foothold, and have reportedly started heading south to recruit fighters from sub-Saharan African states.
Overall, notes Edward Delman of The Atlantic in a study of the Islamic State’s international recruiting, “the countries that send the largest numbers of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, either in absolute terms or on a per-capita basis, tend to be either politically repressive (Saudi Arabia, 2,500 fighters), politically unstable (Tunisia, 6,000 fighters), discriminatory toward a Muslim minority (Russia, 2,400 fighters), or a combination of the above.” Notably, Southeast Asian nations are not on the list of countries that send the most foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq.
Yet Southeast Asian nations that do not embrace political reform could face a greater threat from Islamic State-linked extremists. To combat the spread of Islamic State-influenced groups in Southeast Asia, the region’s leaders need, most importantly, to reverse Southeast Asia’s democratic regression. The region’s leaders should not overreact to the actual threat of terrorist attacks, but rather should more effectively address the root causes of popular alienation from normal politics. After all, even if 1,500 or even 2,500 Southeast Asians have traveled to Islamic State-controlled territory and returned to the region, this figure is a miniscule fraction of the total population in Southeast Asia. And as Delman notes, countries in the Middle East and Europe have contributed a far higher number of fighters to the Islamic State than Southeast Asian nations.
Yet if Southeast Asian nations respond to the militant threat by subverting the rule of law, and promulgating legislation that gives the security forces excessive powers, they risk further alienating populations and actually pushing more people into joining extremist groups. Instead, Southeast Asia’s leaders should battle militants within legal frameworks. In Indonesia, the Jokowi government had not, before this month, sought legislation that would allow security forces to detain suspects for extended periods of time without charge, as is possible in some other countries in the region. Potential changes to counterterrorism laws in Indonesia currently being debated still would not give security forces the sweeping powers they enjoy in other Southeast Asian nations. Still, Indonesia is going to probably get tougher. The country is about to potentially pass preventative detention laws that could allow the authorities to hold terrorism suspects for up to six months, a significant shift that could undermine the rule of law in the archipelago.
Adhering to the rule of law bolsters popular support for antimilitancy efforts and does not run the risk that regional governments can use detention for broad roundups of political opponents. Jokowi’s government also has sent a signal that it will not tolerate extrajudicial killings by the police and other security forces. Although Indonesia’s security forces hardly enjoy a clean reputation, Jokowi has suggested that an independent, nonpartisan investigating body will analyze suspected rights abuses by the security forces, such as in places like Papua. Other governments in Southeast Asia should copy this approach, relying on legal, humane strategies to investigate and arrest militants, and fostering more effective oversight of security forces.
In addition, countries in Southeast Asia need to strengthen institutions that can resolve political conflicts, so that they do not have to rely on undemocratic, archaic institutions to resolve disputes. In Thailand and Myanmar, political conflicts too often are resolved by the military; in Cambodia and Malaysia disputes are often resolved in backroom negotiations involving a small handful of business and political elites. These weak institutions foster cycles of political conflict, and make it easier for militants to claim that democracy is failing to create peace and security.
This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.