Reports of ISIS losing ground in Syria and Iraq have not only signified the group’s depleting influence in the area, but have also contributed to growing concerns that the so-called caliphate will try to consolidate power in other regions of the world, most notably Southeast Asia.
Against this backdrop, the House Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a hearing on April 27 to assess the threat of Islamic radicalization in Southeast Asia and the influence that ISIS affiliated militant groups have in the region.
“The spread of Islamist terrorism around the globe is a major concern for US homeland security,” said Subcommittee Chairman Peter King (R-NY). “Addressing this threat requires steadfast monitoring and proactive actions in every corner where ISIS and Al Qaeda ideology is spreading.”
King continued, “While rightfully focusing on Syria and Iraq in our fight against ISIS, we should not ignore the growth of extremist activity and ideology in other parts of the world.”
Between the years of 2014 and 2016 there have been 75 known ISIS linked terror plots against the West, with 43 percent of plotted attacks carried out successfully. One-third of these attacks directly involved ISIS while the remaining were inspired by the hardline militant group.
One such attack was carried out in Jakarta, Indonesia in January of this year. Gunmen charged a Starbucks coffee house in the downtown area. The attack left four civilians dead and 23 injured following a suicide bombing and an armed confrontation with police. Five terrorist attackers were also killed.
Although Southeast Asia is no stranger to terrorist activity, with a turbulent history of militantism in the region, attacks such as this one highlight growing concerns of radicalization in the area and the resurgence in power of existing Islamist groups in the region. These include Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesia-based clandestine terrorist network formed in the early 1990s withthe purpose of establishing an Islamic state encompassing southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the southern Philippines.
Indonesia has the largest population in the Southeast pacific area and boasts a relatively stable political climate. However, radical elements within the country have caused some concern.
“Indonesia is often touted for its ‘moderation’ in Islamic thought and practice, a radical Islamic fringe has been part of the Indonesian social and political landscape for a long time,” Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies Joseph Liow testified during the hearing.
Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world and an estimated 88 percent of its population of 250 million identify as followers of the religion. The radical sentiment in the country represents a minuscule minority. However, King urged caution.
“Many are skeptical that the violent Islamist extremist groups in Southeast Asia could present a real threat to US allies, interests, or the US Homeland,” King noted. “This is the same skepticism that ignored the threats from Yemen, Nigeria, and Libya until they had grown out of hand.”
There has been an Islamist presence in the region for decades, most notably in the Philippines, which has led to speculation that ISIS may try to unite pre-existing Islamist groups in the region under one banner.
There have already been recruitment efforts in the region with reports of numerous media campaigns being launched by terrorist organizations. There are more than 3,000 pro-ISIS websites in Southeast Asia, and 70 percent of these websites are hosted on servers in Indonesia, according to Strategic Policy Analyst Supna Zaidi Peery.
Although efforts to thwart the recruitment of foreign fighters has been largely effective, an estimated 700-800 fighters from the region have gone to Syria and Iraq, with the majority hailing from Indonesia.
“Returning fighters pose a threat to national security in the area since the ability to track these individuals by governments of the region are overstated,” Director of Special Projects Patrick Skinner testified during the hearing.
Counter-terrorist operations are becoming crucial in preventing recruitment from already established groups. Task forces, such as Detachment 88, a counter terrorism unit in Indonesia that was founded after the Bali attacks, have proven to be successful in fighting Islamic extremism. The unit, which receives funding from both the United States and Australia, has also established rehabilitation programs in the area with a success rate of 50 percent.
Stabilizing the political region, as well as eradicating extremist rhetoric in the area, is more crucial than ever, since local and extremist sentiment tends to thrive in areas that are politically and economically unstable. Moving extremist rhetoric away from populations that are vulnerable to radicalization, as well as proactive and aggressive actions from countries within the area will very quickly change the dynamic of ISIS in the region, according to Peery.