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Southeast Asia in the crosshairs of 'Islamic State'

Rodion Ebbighausen
October 15, 2019

A recent knife attack on the security minister of Indonesia is a reminder of the danger of Islamist extremism in Southeast Asia. Security measures alone are not enough to combat radicalization, say experts.

The city of Marawi in southern Philippines
Image: DW/S. Petersmann

Last week, Indonesian Security Minister Wiranto was stabbed twice as he was getting out of a car in the city of Pandegland in West Java. He suffered severe injuries and is currently being treated at a military hospital in Jakarta. The minister is said to be in a stable condition.

Wiranto's attacker was 31-year-old Syahril Alamsyah, a member of the terrorist organization Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD).

Read more: Why is radicalism growing among Indonesian students?

JAD is one of the many terrorist groups in Southeast Asia that have allied with the "Islamic State" (IS). Other outfits include Abu Sayaf and the Maute group in the Philippines, along with more than a dozen Islamist terror organizations that are active across Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines.

However, not all of these groups have joined IS. For example, the terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Indonesia carried out a bombing on the island of Bali, a famous tourist destination, in 2002 that killed over 200 people.

After this attack, security forces were able to get JI mostly under control. But experts say that JI is back, strengthening its network.

Indonesia's security minister, Wiranto
Wiranto is currently being treated at a military hospital in JakartaImage: picture-alliance/AP/A. Ibrahim

Region difficult to control

Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert at National War College in Washington DC, and Colin P. Clarke of the RAND Corporation recently wrote a report on the security blog Fortuna's Corner concluding that "Southeast Asia may be the newest breeding ground for militant Islam."

After IS lost its territory in Syria and Iraq in March 2019, it transformed itself into a decentralized, global terror organization. Spread over thousands of islands, Southeast Asia is difficult to control and is favorable for infiltration by IS.  

After the April 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka, Susanne Schröter, director of the Frankfurt Research Center for Global Islam, said that "jihadist structures" with an international backing are "everywhere in South and Southeast Asia."

Terrorist groups in Southeast Asia have been joining ranks with IS since 2014. Since 2016, IS publishes its newsletter "al-Fatihin" (the conqueror) every week in Malayan and Indonesian. There have been 11 suicide attacks in Indonesia since 2018, and six in the Philippines. Regional newspapers report the arrest of Islamist militants nearly every week. In Malaysia alone, more than 500 terror suspects have been imprisoned in the past six years and the country is expecting more extremists to return from Iraq and Syria. According to the Malaysian newspaper Benar News, 53 Malaysians and 100 Indonesian fighters for the IS are expected back home.

Marawi in ruins
The fighting that occurred around the Philippine city of Marawi in 2017 is a sign of what Islamist militants are capable ofImage: Reuters/E. Lopez

Different approaches

The brutal fighting that occurred around the Philippine city of Marawi on the Mindanao Island between May and October 2017 is a sign of what Islamist militants are capable of. They were able to take over the city of 200,000, and battled the Philippine military for months in a standoff that destroyed most of the city. More than 50,000 people in Marawi still live in emergency shelters.

Experts have varying assessments of the anti-terror measures used by governments in the region. In Indonesia, a new anti-terror law has resulted in the arrest of hundreds of suspects since 2018.

Read more: Why are more Indonesians favoring Shariah?

Wiranto's attacker was known to Indonesian authorities as a radical. Indonesian security expert Stanislaus Riyanta said that the man hadn't been arrested before the attack because he had yet to commit a crime.

"It is not the case that security services aren't aware of what's going on around them. But they can only issue warnings and first intervene when a terrorist attack is imminent," he said. "Terrorists have adapted their strategy to the tighter laws, and are now carrying out individually planned attacks using smaller terror cells. Because of this, it will be more difficult to identify them in time."

Regarding the Philippines, US-based experts Abuza und Clarke point out that security forces committed massive human rights violations during their operations that pushed many people, who were also dissatisfied with the government in Manila, toward the Islamists. Jihadists also used examples of reckless military operations for their own propaganda.

Under the Islamic criminal code in Indonesia's Aceh province, sex out of wedlock and same-sex sexual acts are punishable by up to 100 strokes of the cane
Under the Islamic criminal code in Indonesia's Aceh province, sex out of wedlock and same-sex sexual acts are punishable by up to 100 strokes of the caneImage: imago/ZUMA Press

Social problems

To combat radicalization and terrorist structures, security measures alone are not enough, experts say.

Berthold Damshäuser, an Indonesia expert at the University of Bonn, told DW that he has been observing a "growing intolerance” in the region for years.

Younger Indonesians, in particular, are increasingly advocating for a conservative interpretation of Islam, he said, pointing out that populist political parties have been more than willing to fulfill these demands. This, in turn, is leading to increasing Islamization of society, Damshäuser explained.

Religious tolerance is supposed to be one of the five fundamental principles ("Pancasila") guiding the Indonesian state. But observers say this principle has been undermined in recent years, with some regions gaining special rights to enforce their fundamentalist moral concepts.

The stronger emphasis on the interests and rights of the regions in the modernized Indonesian constitution has encouraged the strengthening of fundamentalism, say experts.

According to Susanne Schröter, it would be important to position regional Islamist excesses by strengthening the overarching democratic principles of the constitution.

Additional reporting by Rizki Akbar Putra.