Event ReportsPublished on Apr 22, 2015
The ISIS has the potential to become the unifying terrorist force in the South East Asia region, posing a bigger threat to the region, according to terrorism expert Mr. Vikram Rajakumar. He also pointed out the emerging pro and anti ISIS factions in the region, counter balancing the ISIS.
World focus on West Asia, but terrorism is on the ascent in South East Asia

Terrorism fuelled by religious fundamentalism has been on the rise during the past two decades and it has hit a crescendo with the evolution of ISIS, according to Mr. Vikram Rajakumar, Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (IPVTR) at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Initiating a discussion on "Terrorism in South-East Asia" at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation on March 28, Mr. Vikram Rajakumar said while the global dialogue on terrorism has been largely centred on West Asia, terrorism is on the ascent in South-East Asia.

He poined out that the global focus now is on West Asia, which has been a fertile ground for sectarian conflicts and religious fundamentalism, both luxuriant conditions for fostering terrorist activity.

Mr. Vikram Rajakumar, who specialises in security threats and terrorism-related issues in South and South-East Asia, presented an overview of terrorist-threat in the region, covering Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Philippines.

On terrorism-based on religious fundamentalism, Mr. Vikram Rajakumar said that Indonesia is a hotbed of terrorism and functions as the regional base for Islamic fundamentalist forces. The Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which emerged out of the Darul Islam Movement, is a home-grown, decentralised terrorist outfit that is heavily influenced by the Al Qaeda ideology. The decentralised character of the outfit equips itself with significant fluidity in absorbing new members and aligning with local agendas to further their ideology.

Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, though behind bars, still exerts considerable influence in spreading the fundamentalist propaganda. Despite the success of Densus 88 (the Indonesian counter-terrorism special forces) in destroying extremist operational capabilities in this region, support and endorsement of terrorist outfits continue, since the legal system does not criminalise endorsement unless the person partakes in terrorist activity, he said.

Ethno-nationalist conflict

On Thailand, Mr. Vikram Rajakumar said, the country has been rather peaceful if we chose to overlook the regular military coups. Unlike Indonesia, Thailand is not a jihadist hub. Southern Thailand bordering Malaysia is an ethno-national conflict and has no roots in religious fundamentalism. Over 90 percent of the population in this Southern Thai region are Muslims and they want to be ceded to Malaysia. This demand has resulted in a separatist struggle with the Thai central government.

The conflict has exacerbated owing to the lack of empathy by the army, the Thai government’s heavy-handed approach in dealing with the separatists, failure to create trust with the Muslim community and to provide adequate mechanisms to address their grievances. Albeit not being a jihadist struggle, this conflict has the potential to escalate into one, if the situation is to be picked up and supported by any of the international jihadist groups such as the ISIS.

Domestic history

Commenting on the terrorist situation in Philippines, Mr. Vikram Rajakumar said that terrorism in Philippines is rooted in its domestic history. The unsuccessful integration of Muslim population into the Christian dominated country, followed by the neglect of religious and cultural rights of the Muslims and alleged repression of this community by the government, has resulted in insurgency.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Rajah Suleiman Movement (RSM) are the three major armed insurgent groups operating in Philippines. ASG has bases all over the Philippines archipelago and they fund their operations by smuggling, kidnapping and extortion. There is no concrete coordination or an alliance among these groups and their agenda is mostly rooted in local issues.

Holistic approach

Speaking on Singapore and Malaysia, Mr. Vikram Rajakumar said that both these countries have managed to address the threat of Islamist fundamentalism quite effectively. Singapore has adopted a holistic approach to prevent, deter and manage terrorist threats.

It has adopted the policy of zero tolerance and total defence towards terrorist organizations. Legislations such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act provide for swift measures against extremist groups alongside religious counselling, rehabilitation and community engagement for fundamentalists seeking transformation.

Terrorism in South East Asia, though driven by religious ideology, is still localised and rooted in regional issues and interests. There is no ideological coordination between the various armed groups operating in this region, thereby invalidating the possibility of a concerted attack on any of these countries. However, the ascendency of ISIS provides a possibility to change the current equations in South East Asia.

Vikram noted that the ISIS is acting a catalyst and a divisive force in this region. On one hand through its impeccable online propaganda, the ISIS has a far greater reach than the yester year Al Qaeda. The organisation has been able catalyse radicalization, especially among the youth, in regions far away from the conflict zone (West Asia). This has resulted in an influx volunteers (read as jihadists) from across Europe and South-East Asia.

jihadists returning from conflict zones carry with them the fundamentalist propaganda and they seek to radicalise the local population. Hence the ISIS has the potential to become the unifying terrorist force in this region. Counter balancing this facet of the ISIS is the rising pro and anti ISIS factions emerging among the various militant groups in this region, Mr. Vikram Rajakumar said.

(This report is prepared by Deepak Vijayaraghavan, Chennai)

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