Although the Islamic State group has been recruiting Southeast Asians for years, and Southeast Asians who fought with the Islamic State have steadily been trickling back to the region, only in the past six months have Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and other countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific dramatically bolstered their anti–Islamic State cooperation. The threat was there before, even though the numbers of Southeast Asians who traveled to Islamic State territory was relatively small—by some estimates, 800 to 1,000 Southeast Asians traveled to Islamic State–controlled territory, a low figure compared to the numbers who traveled from Tunisia and other North African nations to fight with the Islamic State. But now, with the siege of Marawi in the southern Philippines, a spate of recent violence in Indonesia such as the May 2017 attack, a new flood of Islamic State propaganda encouraging Southeast Asians to adopt Islamic State tactics and wage war at home, and the revelations that core Islamic State leaders in Syria had been funding the Marawi militants (according to a report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict), Southeast Asian nations are getting more serious about the Islamic State threat.
Even before the past six months, the danger was there. The fact was that the Islamic State allowed an entire brigade in Syria and Iraq to be filled with Malaysians and Indonesians, and Islamic State–linked attackers launched a terrorist attack in downtown Jakarta in January 2016. Leading Southeast Asia terrorism analysts, such as Jakarta-based Sidney Jones of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, long have been warning that Southeast Asians returning to the region from joining the Islamic State in the Middle East could win recruits in Indonesian prisons, where radicalism has thrived. Many terrorism experts warned that Islamic State–linked radicals could take advantage of lawless parts of Southeast Asia, like the Sulu Sea and the southern Philippines, to attract young Southeast Asian militants looking for somewhere to fight, but unable to battle the Malaysian or Singaporean governments at home, since Malaysia and Singapore have much stronger rules of law than the Philippine south.
But as I noted in a recent Expert Brief, the administration of Rodrigo Duterte did not, until recently, focus enough attention on the growing threat of Islamic State–linked radicals in the southern Philippines. Manila mostly ignored what appeared to be Islamic State–linked groups’ warm-up attempts for the Marawi siege, like seizing another, smaller town in Mindanao prior to the Marawi siege. Duterte, for most of his first year in office, used his bully pulpit to lead his brutal “war on drugs,” and also did little to push forward the peace process in the southern Philippines that he had inherited from his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.
With the exception of Singapore, Australia, and to a lesser extent Malaysia, other Southeast Asian nations also did not adequately prepare for what appears to be a ramped up Islamic State interest in Southeast Asia. The Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia moved slowly on their plans to launch joint patrols in the Sulu Sea, taking more than a year from announcing the patrols to actually putting them into practice. Some Southeast Asian nations appeared hesitant to join the U.S.-led global anti–Islamic State coalition, or to participate in joint anti–Islamic State propaganda programs based in Malaysia.
Now, Southeast Asian nations have started to take the regional Islamic State threat much more seriously. Besides the Marawi siege, the Islamic State has used its propaganda to encourage fighters to travel to Southeast Asia. What’s more, Islamic State leaders may see Southeast Asia now not only as a location to spread their message of radicalism but also as a place where core Islamic State fighters could eventually flee to—and then possibly coordinate global propaganda efforts out of if the Islamic State is completely pushed out of its territory in the Middle East. As Bilveer Singh notes in The Diplomat, “In place of the ISIS that was centered in Syria and Iraq, new bases of operation are likely to emerge. The export of the ISIS model is already evident in Libya and Yemen, and probably in parts of the Asia-Pacific.”
Worried Southeast Asian and Pacific nations are now taking encouraging steps toward much closer cooperation in fighting the Islamic State. Late last month, officials from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, New Zealand and Australia met in Indonesia and announced plans to dramatically improve information sharing on Islamic State threats in the region and to cooperate on border control issues. Meanwhile, the United States has apparently joined the patrols in the lawless Sulu Sea, an important step forward in Manila-Washington cooperation in battling the Islamic State, and a sign of support for the regional Sulu Sea patrols. Singapore may also join the Sulu Sea patrols, a positive step, given Singapore’s highly advanced forces. Meanwhile, as Prashanth Parameswaran of The Diplomat notes, Australia has stepped up and is funding multiple efforts at regional collaboration in battling the Islamic State. It seems that, since the Marawi siege, the region’s worries about the Islamic State are producing real action.