from Asia Unbound

Southeast Asia’s Democratic Regression and the Rise of Islamic State-Linked Militants

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February 2, 2016

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Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here

Part 1

On January 14, militants struck in one of Jakarta’s busiest shopping and office districts. At around 11 am, one attacker blew up a suicide bomb at a Starbucks. Then, a group of attackers grabbed foreigners from the area, started firing wildly into the street, and drove a motorcycle toward a nearby police station and attacked that. The surviving militants then engaged in a running gun and bomb battle with Indonesian police, leaving a total of eight people dead, including five of the attackers. After the attacks, it quickly emerged that the purported ringleader, an Indonesian man named Bahrun Naim, had been living in the Islamic State’s “capital,” Raqqa, where he had reportedly organized the Jakarta violence.

Although the brazenness of the attack shocked some Indonesians, the fact that militants inspired by ISIS committed violence in Jakarta was not particularly surprising. Since the previous autumn, Indonesian police and intelligence had been receiving reports of ISIS-linked militant cells organizing on Java and other islands; a month before the attack, Indonesian police had made a string of arrests, across the archipelago, of militants allegedly linked to the Islamic State. One of Indonesia’s leading specialists on militant groups, Sidney Jones of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, had warned that ISIS has “transformed the terrorism threat [in Indonesia] after years of mostly foiled [terrorism] plots” in the archipelago. And the Indonesian government had estimated that hundreds Indonesians had traveled to Islamic State-held territory in Syria and Iraq and then returned home. So many Indonesians and Malaysians had traveled to Islamic State territory that IS had started a brigade of fighters just for visiting Indonesians and Malaysians.

Indonesia was not alone in facing the threat of militants linked to or inspired by the Islamic State. Some Southeast Asian intelligence organizations place the total number of Southeast Asians who have made the trip to ISIS territory as between 1,200 and 1,800. Even in Singapore, a city-state with an extremely effective intelligence service, radicals inspired in part by the Islamic State have returned to the island, according to public speeches by Singapore’s prime minister.

In addition, several veteran militant groups in Southeast Asia whose existence predated the rise of the Islamic State, such as those fighting in the southern Philippines, have publicly pledged their allegiance to IS in 2014 and 2015. Whether these pledges are designed to bring more notoriety to the veteran groups, or actually constitute real linkages with IS, remains unclear, but their impact is to strengthen Islamic State’s image as a group with real global appeal.

Yet of all the Southeast Asian nations facing rising militancy---the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Brunei, and Indonesia---Indonesia is actually the best equipped to combat the challenge of radicalism. The Indonesian government confronted an earlier rise of militancy, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when many Indonesian militants were inspired by al-Qaeda; Indonesian security forces effectively penetrated the earlier militants’ cells and broke up many terrorism plots, without comprising Indonesia’s democratic transition. To be sure, as Jones notes, that earlier decade of militant activities left some radical networks in place, networks that IS sympathizers now may try to activate in the archipelago. The Islamic State’s powerful social media messaging may help militants regroup in Indonesia. But these militants will have a difficult time seriously threatening Indonesia’s social fabric, or upsetting the political gains Indonesia has made since the end of the Suharto dictatorship.

Indeed, while much of Southeast Asia backslides into authoritarian or semi-authoritarian politics, highlighted most notably by Thailand’s harsh military rule, Indonesia’s political system has continued to mature, becoming a consolidated and essentially federal democracy. This maturation, and the maturation of Indonesia’s religious establishment, has created many ways to co-opt radicals through the political process, undermining the appeal of militant groups to the broader public---and making it easier for police to identify and arrest the small number of extremists planning violent attacks.

I will examine why democratic regression facilitates militancy in other Southeast Asian nations in my next post.

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