Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Beware, Asia, The 'Lone Wolf' Terrorist Belongs to a Pack

The horrifying spate of terrorist attacks in France this month, as well as earlier attacks in Australia and Canada, makes it plain there is a resurgence of violent extremism that threatens global security. It's not just those attacks that played out so brutally on television screens in Paris, as well as in Sydney and Ottawa.

Although some have taken comfort in the "lone wolf" factor, particularly in the Sydney atrocity, the head of internal security in Britain recently stated that Islamic State in Syria had "directed or provoked" 20 terror plots and that three Islamist plots had been intercepted in Britain before they could be carried out.

Even if most of these plots were aimed at targets in Europe, perhaps reflecting the preponderance of recruits for ISIS from the West, there is no room for complacency in south-east Asia. There are several reasons why a terrorist attack is likely to occur in the region.

First, we know that IS has attracted recruits from south-east Asia. Militants from Indonesia and Malaysia fighting in Syria appear to have formed a military unit for Malay-speaking ISIS fighters called Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiyyah, or Malay archipelago unit for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In the latest video of a mass beheading of Syrian prisoners, several south-east Asian faces were among those who gleefully played with knives before severing the heads of their captives.

Across the whole region, from Muslim Mindanao, to Malay Muslim Southern Thailand, to Sulawesi in Indonesia, authorities are concerned about the supply of recruits to IS, who on their return could well be motivated or mobilised to launch a new terror campaign in the region.

Indonesia is a significant cause for concern because there are many remote rural communities that are susceptible to the appeal of jihadism, particularly in some of the more remote Eastern islands. There have been arrests, many of them in Malaysia, which is a transit point for those flying into the Middle East.

Somewhat alarming has been the recent discovery of former servicemen and officials from Malaysia heading to join the ranks of IS, along with women.

Many governments in the region have taken measures to work with their Muslim communities to highlight the dangers and track down former fighters. A major concern is that some of these individuals may be going to Syria to seek training so that they can return and carry out terrorist attacks at home - in similar fashion to the way Jemaah Islamiyah established itself more than 15 years ago, drawing on the ranks of those who had trained with the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s.

The question therefore is less about whether such people will return with these intentions, and more about what opportunities to launch and cultivate violent extremism exist – and the measures that need to be taken to stifle them.

Much of the anger we are seeing from Islamists in the Western context is directed at non-Muslims who exercise free speech to criticise or parody religious faith. In south-east Asia, religious communities are much more sensitive to the concerns of different religious faiths, which partly explains the persistence of strict media controls in multi-racial societies such as Singapore and Malaysia.

Yet it is important to highlight a new and alarming source of violent extremism, one that is putting additional strain on the tradition of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence in south-east Asia. Outbreaks of communal violence in the past two years have inflamed Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Myanmar and generated xenophobic sentiment that is widely propagated through social media.

The violence in Rakhine State has angered Muslims elsewhere in the region. In Indonesia there have been attacks on Buddhist shrines, and in Malaysia violence targeting Myanmar nationals. There are several contributing factors to the growing friction between Muslims and Buddhists, which could in turn fuel violent extremism on both sides of the religious fence.

They include more open political contests that drive political actors to exploit religious platforms to seek votes, the greater differentiation between Buddhist and Muslim communities that the trend towards greater religious piety in society has produced, and exposure to hate speech made more accessible through social media.

This is a very worrying trend as it threatens long established traditions of communal harmony in south-east Asia where Muslims and Buddhists have lived peacefully as neighbours for centuries. Indeed, it threatens to generate a broader divide between mostly Theravada Buddhist mainland south-east Asia and mainly Muslim Island Southeast Asia. Were this to happen, we could expect religious conservatism to gain ground and upset the traditional pluralistic moorings of society.

In addition to deploying counter terrorist measures, which in some countries like Indonesia have been reasonably effective over the years, it is also incumbent on ASEAN leaders to place the threat to religious and ethnic harmony high on its list of policy priorities. They could start by discussing how to manage the clash of religious cultures and traditions to prevent the rise of violent militant or extremist movements. Just as ASEAN developed a security blueprint a decade ago, it is time to draw up a social and cultural blueprint for the coming decade.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss Foundation dedicated to resolving armed conflict through dialogue.


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