Southeast Asia Faces up to Islamic State Threat

Southeast Asia Faces up to Islamic State Threat

The fight against the Islamic State (IS) group is on the rise in the Middle East. Reports from the region regularly hit the headlines. But the recent terrorist threats to strike Brazil during the Olympics prove that terrorism must be fought on multiple fronts.

The international efforts so far have not reduced the terrorism capability and global reach. Southeast Asia, an overlooked region, may be the next battle field in the global fight against the extremist group.

The recent IS-inspired attacks in Jakarta and the southern Philippines serve as a reminder of the threat that terrorism poses to Southeast Asian societies.

The Islamic State has declared its intend to establish a province of its «caliphate» in the region. Several jihadist groups in Southeast Asia have pledged allegiance to the group, including Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, whose leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, made the announcement from his prison cell last year. Losing ground in the Middle East the extremist group will inevitably try to expand to Southeast Asia and then spread across the entire Asia-Pacific region. Terrorism there is already part of the lay of the land. It cannot be eradicated anytime soon but should be countered resolutely, as the July 2016 ASEAN Regional Forum stated.

It is imperative to keep things in perspective. For Southeast Asia today, the question of terrorist attacks is no longer a matter of «if», but «when». 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 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. The IS has so many Indonesian and Malaysia fighters that they form a unit by themselves – the «Katibah Nusantara – Malay Archipelago Combat Unit».

Having gained experience, the criminals can return to their native countries. According to the report issued by the security firm the Soufan Group, the Philippines and Malaysia have each sent about 100 fighters to fight in Iraq and Syria.

Some Southeast Asian intelligence organizations place the total number of Southeast Asians who have made the trip to IS territory between 1,200 and 1,800. Even in Singapore, a city-state with extremely effective intelligence service, radicals inspired by the Islamic State have returned to the island.

As a result, the war has already started in the Philippines. The country has seen a surge in violence from extremist groups in the islands of Mindanao, Sulu and Basilan.

The greatest challenge for the region as a whole is the policing and governance of the triborder waters encompassing the Sulu Sea (Philippines), waters off Sabah (Malaysia), and the Celebes/Sulawesi Sea (Indonesia). This porous and ungoverned region has presented, and will continue to present, a major problem by virtue of the ease of movement for militants and terrorists across borders. It has developed its own political economy over many decades, which involves not just the movement of militants and terrorists, but also human and arms trafficking. Local authorities are often unable to curtail such activities. The challenge posed by the ungoverned space in this triborder area will require multi-national cooperation to surmount. None of the regional states can do it alone. At present, there is ongoing conversation and exchange of intelligence and information in various forms between Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore. But cooperation needs to be taken a step or two further, to involve joint patrols and where necessary, joint operations.

On July 25-26, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took part in three multilateral diplomatic forums organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, which this year holds the rotating presidency of ASEAN. Six years ago Russia joined the East Asia Summit (EAS), which was launched in 2005 as a forum to bring together ASEAN members and their non-regional partners to discuss a broad range of strategic, political and economic issues of mutual interest. The most important subject is the formation of regional security architecture. Russia’s long-term goal is reaching a comprehensive security agreement for the entire Asia-Pacific region. The Russian Minister drew attention to the fact that, despite multiple closed and half-closed mechanisms aimed at ensuring security and stability, a structure to unite all Asian Pacific countries without exception has not come into existence.

The security in the region has already been undermined by the disputes over the islands in the South China Sea.

The North Korean nuclear and ballistic missiles tests have served as a pretext for the US and its allies to justify the deployment of missile defense to threaten the security of Russia and China.

There is a host of problems to be tackled urgently.

The European security is in trouble today because NATO rejected the Russia-proposed security system stretching from «Lisbon to Vladivostok». It may be different in the Asia-Pacific. The countries of the region should not repeat the same mistake. Three years ago Russia launched an initiative supported by China on starting a dialogue in the framework of East Asia Summit on building a new security architecture. The sixth round of the talks is planned for the next year in Thailand. This is an opportunity not to miss.

The region needs a reliable security organization to «ensure maritime security and safety, freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded commerce; promote self-restraint, non-use of force or the threat to use force and the resolution of dispute through peaceful means in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law», as is stated in the Sochi Declaration adopted at the Russia-ASEAN Summit held in May.