ANALYSIS: Is Asia’s Terrorism Threat Level Rising?

ANALYSIS: Is Asia’s Terrorism Threat Level Rising?
Malaysian military and police personnel patrol an outside shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. Malaysia's leader has defended strict security laws to fight terrorism as the Islamic State group warned of revenge over a crackdown on its members. (AP Photo/Joshua Paul)

What you need to know

Experts take stock of an increase in terrorist activity in Southeast Asia during the holy month of Ramadan, and a new report reveals a high number of Chinese joining Islamic State.

Religious leaders in Southeast Asia must develop a robust ideology to counter the justification of terrorism using Islamic concepts and misreading Muslim history, a Singapore-based terrorist expert says.

A global spate of terrorist attacks during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan linked to Islamic State (IS) stretched to Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

In a recent paper, Rohan Gunaratna a professor of security studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, notes some of the worst attacks during that period were staged within the last 10 days of Ramadan, “which is the climax of spirituality.”

“The extremists and terrorists driven by rewards afterlife believed that attacking during the last ten days would bring greater rewards,” Gunaratna says.

Gunaratna says he believes an IS-centric threat is replacing the threat previously posed in Southeast Asia by Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

“Southeast Asian recruits that travelled to Syria and Iraq were directing the attacks in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.”

And he says that both Indonesia and Malaysia pre-empted other attacks, including “a major attack” in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city.

Indonesia Terrorism
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
Indonesian police officers deploy with their riot gear in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015. Despite foiling an alleged plot by Islamic militants to assassinate public figures, Indonesian officials believe a credible threat of terrorist attacks remains in the festive season, especially against minority Christians, in this Muslim nation. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

Ramadan attacks

During Ramadan, Malaysia suffered its first IS attack – eight patrons were injured when a grenade exploded at a bar in Selangor on June 27.

Gunaratna says the “mastermind” behind the attack was Syria-based Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi.

In Indonesia, Gunaratna says, the suicide bomber who blew himself up outside a police station at Solo, on July 5, Nur Roham, “reported to Bahrun Naim, the IS external operations wing leader for Indonesia based in Syria.”

“Nur Rohman knew that his arrest was imminent and was told that Ramadan is the best period to wage jihad,” he says. “His target was the police station in Solo, the nerve centre for counter terrorist operations in central Java.” He did not kill anyone else in the attack.

Another planned attack, in Surabaya, Indonesia, foiled by police, was linked to the IS Thamrin attack cell that hit Jakarta on Jan. 14, Gunaratna says.

“The attack in Surabaya was planned for the 17th day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which falls on June 22, 2016,” he says. “Like the Jakarta bombing, the Surabaya bombing was a suicide attack where the attackers believed that they will go to heaven.”

He notes that there were also multiple attacks, in the Philippines, where IS has its “strongest” Southeast Asian base.

“The fighting between local groups and the armed forces of the Philippines escalated especially in the island of Basilan in the southern Philippines where Abu Sayyaf Group Basilan leader Isnilon Hapilon was accepted as the IS leader by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-appointed Caliph,” he says.

Filipino military reportedly killed 40 Abu Sayyaf fighters in early July.

Photo Credit: Dado Ruvic / REUTERS / 達志影像
A man types on a keyboard in front of a computer screen on which an Islamic State flag is displayed, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 6, 2016. Twitter Inc has shut down more than 125,000 terrorism-related accounts since the middle of 2015, most of them linked to the Islamic State group, the company said in a blog post on Friday. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic - RTX25PB7

Hundreds of Chinese joining IS

U.S. think tank New America released a report authored by Middle East expert Nate Rosenblatt analyzing foreign fighter registration forms collected by IS officials on the Syria-Turkey border between mid-2013 and mid-2014 and leaked earlier this year by an IS fighter who defected.

The report shows that hundreds of fighters joined IS from China, with almost all coming from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, home to most of China’s Muslim population. Xinjiang’s 114 fighters represented the fifth-highest number of foreign fighters, on a provincial level – after Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh, Qassim and Mecca areas, and Tunis, Tunisia, the report says.

The report also notes the “significant economic disparities between the ethnic-majority Han Chinese and the local Uyghur Muslim population, who are subjected to substantial state repression through restrictions on Islamic practices like growing beards or wearing head coverings.”

Across nearly every top origin province, recruits join IS “in regions with restive histories and tense, local-federal relationships” – like the Uyghurs in China, it says.

Based on contextual evidence, China’s anti-terrorism campaign in Xinjiang could be a push factor driving people to leave the country and look elsewhere for a sense of ‘belonging’, the report suggests.

It also points to the impact of “slick” IS promotional videos, which “encourage a sense of belonging among potential Uyghur recruits” and “spout anti-Chinese government slogans.”

Andrin Raj is the Southeast Asia regional director for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals-Centre for Security Studies. The Washington-headquartered organization has offices throughout Southeast Asia.

Kuala Lumpur-based Raj told The News Lens International a key “root cause” behind foreign fighters joining IS is the Ikwan group, which, he says, was banished from Egypt in the early 1940s for being “extreme.”

“This group of people went to Europe, U.S., Africa and Asia and set up communities [...] with extreme religious views,” he says. “Certain Saudi political groups and organizations saw a platform in this group and exported Wahhabism and funded these groups to preach Wahhabism and encourage jihad in their teachings.”

Raj agrees that the IS videos – he particularly points to one released in October 2014 – have given fighters “a sense of ‘belonging’ to an entity, and the ability to join a ‘military’ that they never thought they could.”

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole