Friday, January 6, 2012

Changing terrain of terrorism in South-East Asia

South-East Asian governments continue to manage home-grown extremism reasonably well, but the problem is not going away. Indonesia used to have one major attack a year - last year, there were seven separate plots, of which five ended in violence, although the efforts were amateurish and the casualty rate was low.

Several factors could affect the development of terrorism over the coming year: the increasingly frequent alliance, particularly in Indonesia, between jihadists, armed with bombs or guns, and thuggish anti-vice or anti-apostasy militants, who in the past have preferred rocks and sticks; the coming of age of younger siblings of slain or detained terrorist suspects; revival of the Rajah Sulaiman Movement (RSM) under another name in the Philippines; and possibly, fallout from the Arab Spring, particularly in Yemen.

Indonesia remains the stronghold of extremism in the region, by virtue of its size, openness and lack of consensus among the moderate majority about the nature of the threat. As larger jihadi organisations like Jemaah Islamiah have fragmented, new groups have emerged without the trained leadership or lengthy recruitment and indoctrination process that characterised the old ones.

Their members are often educated in state high schools, not Muslim boarding schools, and radicalised by clerics who lecture openly about the need to fight enemies of Islam, including the government.

In the past, there were clear ideological lines within the radical fringe between Islamist thugs and jihadists. Today those lines have blurred, making deterrence more difficult.

For the last two years, the focus of Indonesian terrorists has been overwhelmingly on domestic targets, primarily the police, but also local Christians. The focus on foreigners has receded to the background and is likely to stay there - even the killing of Osama bin Laden at American hands did not bring it back.

Nevertheless, it could return under certain conditions and within a few limited constituencies. For example, a few Indonesians studying in Pakistan or Yemen could be recruited by extremists, as has happened in the past, and return home committed to the global jihad. New militants could also emerge from the remnants of terrorist leader Noordin Top's group - particularly younger siblings of those arrested or killed after the second Bali bombing in 2005 or the twin hotel bombings in Jakarta in 2009.

The Philippines is also a place to watch. Early last November, a man calling himself Abu Jihad Khalil al-Rahman al-Luzoni (that is, from the island of Luzon, not Mindanao) posted a video in Arabic on YouTube asking for support. Many believe he is in fact Khalil Pareja, a former prisoner and leader of the RSM. The organisation of mostly converts to Islam worked with the Abu Sayyaf group in the past but fell into decline in recent years. If Khalil is back on the job, looking for funds and recruits, it could mean that Manila will see more systematic jihadi activity.

Finally, there is the Arab Spring, which has had very little impact thus far in South-east Asia. Yemen could be the exception, where some 2,000 Indonesians were studying before the political turmoil began, most at non-radical schools in the Hadramaut. A few have had more sinister links, including one of those involved in the Jakarta bombings. If the Islamist element in the country should grow stronger, then the prospect of more Indonesians or other South-east Asians being recruited could grow.

All of this suggests a need for continued vigilance and improved regional cooperation. Last July and November, police in Indonesia and Malaysia arrested 30 members of an organisation known as the Abu Umar group, after its leader. The group's reach extended through Jakarta, Sulawesi and East Kalimantan in Indonesia to Sabah in Malaysia and Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga and Jolo in the Philippines - its full extent remains under investigation. Its existence underscores how much the terrorism problem transcends national boundaries and how much law enforcement officials in the region need to learn from one another.

But it also underscores how easy recruitment into violent groups continues to be and how much more effort needs to be put into strengthening community resistance to extremist doctrine. The problem, at least in Indonesia, is that no one can agree where the threat is coming from, and fear of stigmatising Islam remains high. The result is political paralysis on counter-radicalisation efforts, despite good law enforcement. Many Muslim leaders at the district level remain convinced that the terrorism issue is a plot by the police to divert attention from corruption scandals and keep the counter-terrorism funds flowing. Until the region's largest country can come to grips with the issue domestically, broader regional efforts will be hampered.

Sidney Jones, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group based in Jakarta.

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