Joseph CY Liow
May 5, 2016
Appearing before a United States Congressional
Subcommittee on Counter Terrorism and Intelligence on April 27, 2016, I
delivered an assessment of the Islamic State (IS) threat in South-east Asia.
with the observation that terrorism is not a new phenomenon to the region, but
goes as far back as the era of anti-colonial struggle. It gathered pace after
9/11, with a series of attacks perpetrated mostly by al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah
this backdrop, the recent IS-inspired attacks in Jakarta and the southern
Philippines serve as a timely reminder of the threat terrorism continues to
pose to South-east Asian societies.
to IS, the threat takes three forms. First, the danger of attacks perpetrated
by local groups or individuals inspired by IS. These groups or individuals
might not have direct links to IS-central.
they possess local grievances for which the abstraction that is IS provides
impetus and inspiration, usually via the Internet. Jakarta was an example of
threat posed by returnees from Syria and Iraq. In particular, the possibility
that hardened militants would be returning with battlefield experience and
operational knowledge to either plan or mount attacks in the region. But this
has not yet happened. Thus far, the returnees in custody are deportees who
failed in their attempt to get to Syria and Iraq.
threat posed by militants who will soon be released from prison. At issue is
the weak prison system in Indonesia, and the radicalisation that occurs within
bear in mind, however, that not all of these soon-to-be released militants are
IS supporters or sympathisers. In fact, the vast majority are members of
militant groups known to be anti-IS.
how serious is the threat posed by IS? The threat is certainly real and
warrants our attention for the reasons I have mentioned. But at the same time,
we must take care not to exaggerate it. Let me make three points.
One, when we
speak of IS in South-east Asia, we have to be mindful of the fact that, at
present, there is no such thing as an “IS South-east Asia”, nor has IS-central
formally declared an interest in any South-east Asian country.
most part, we are dealing with radical groups and individuals who have taken
oaths of allegiance to IS of their own volition. The Abu Sayyaf group, for
instance, was previously allied with al-Qaeda, but pledged allegiance to IS two
On April 9,
Abu Sayyaf attacked a Filipino military unit on Basilan island, killing 18
soldiers. IS-central said the attacks were carried out by its fighters.
number of South-east Asians fighting in Iraq and Syria remains comparatively
small. We are talking about 700 at most, almost all from Indonesia. By way of
comparison, thousands are coming from Europe.
to this, a large proportion of South-east Asians there — around 40 per cent,
according to director of Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of
Conflict, Sidney Jones — comprise women and children.
our anxiety over IS, we must be careful not to miss the forest for the trees.
There are multiple militant groups operating in South-east Asia. Many are at
odds with one another; not all seek affiliation to, or are enamoured of, IS. In
fact, I would argue that the greater, long-term threat comes from a rejuvenated
JI, which has a larger network and is better funded than the pro-IS groups in
terrorism in South-east Asia, more generally?
it is imperative that we keep things in perspective. Yes, for South-east Asia
today, the question of terrorist attacks is, unfortunately, no longer a matter
of “if”, but “when”.
Even if IS’
influence diminishes over time — and it will — terrorism is part of the lay of
the land, and will not be eradicated anytime soon.
terrorism — whether perpetrated by IS or JI — is not an existential threat to
South-east Asian societies. All indicators are that from an operational
perspective, the threat remains at a low level. Of course, given the resilient
and evolutionary nature of terrorism, this situation might well change.
alluded to earlier, one possible factor that could prompt a change is a
deliberate shift of attention of IS-central to South-east Asia. This, however,
seems unlikely for now as the group is preoccupied with its immediate priority
of holding ground in Iraq and Syria, and expanding its fight to Libya and
being complacent, we should also recognise that regional governments are today
better equipped and prepared to deal with the threat compared with a
decade-and-a-half ago, although capacity can, and should, be further improved
with cooperation among themselves, and with some help from the US. — TODAY
Joseph CY Liow is Dean of the S Rajaratnam School
of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University and currently Lee
Kuan Yew chair in South-east Asian Studies at Brookings Institute, Washington
DC. This piece first appeared in RSIS Commentary.