A Closer Look at Terrorism in Southeast Asia

DET 88

In a recent set of infographics, War on the Rocks and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) provided a useful visual depiction of Southeast Asian terrorism. WOTR and START should be commended for bringing attention to the issue of terrorism in this region— one that is often overlooked in security circles. This is in part because the jihadist threat has seemingly dissipated over the past few years as a result of successful U.S. cooperation with allies, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia. Nonetheless, groups like Abu Sayyaf and Mujahidin Indonesia Timor (Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia, or MIT), which is an offshoot of Jemaah Islamiya (JI), are undergoing a revival as we speak.

The Islamic State and Developments in Indonesia and the Philippines

In a briefing I wrote for The Soufan Group on August 12, 2014 called “Islamic State Gains Traction in Southeast Asia,” I detailed how events in Syria and Iraq are influencing Southeast Asian jihadist groups. Indonesia offers a case in point. There are currently believed to be as many as 200 Indonesians fighting in Syria and Iraq. These fighters are actively recruiting Indonesians back home via jihadist videos disseminated over the Internet, such as “Join the Ranks,” a recorded appeal delivered by a member of MIT who is now in the Islamic State. Other Islamic online forums in Indonesia also explicitly offer “support and solidarity” for the Islamic State.

Leaders of jihadist groups from the region have also lent their support to the Islamic State. From the MIT base in Sulawesi, Indonesia, the group’s leader, Santoso (aka Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi al-Indonesi), has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. JI founder Abu Bakar Bashir has encouraged Indonesians to fight with the Islamic State in statements issued from his prison cell in Indonesia, where he is serving a 15-year sentence for sponsoring an “al-Qaeda in the Veranda of Mecca” militant training camp in Aceh in 2010. Interestingly, however, some members of Bashir’s network disagreed with his support for the Islamic State over Jabhat al-Nusra, and have founded their own new group with about 2,000 members across Indonesia.

The situation with respect to jihadists in the Philippines is similar. The militant group Abu Sayyaf formally pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a video featuring commander Isnon Hapilon and 15 other militants, recorded in a jungle that appears to be in a base in Sulu or Jolo. In it, Hapilon states, “We pledge baya’ (allegiance) to Caliph Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Ibrahim Awwad Al-Qurashi Al-Husseini for loyalty and obedience in adversity and comfort.” In another video, dozens of prisoners in the Philippines, likely including some Abu Sayyaf members, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The video was recorded in their prayer hall. Still others have emerged showing a mix of Philippine and Indonesian militants pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. A number of Filipinos have also joined the up to 200 Indonesians and several dozen Malaysians already fighting in Iraq and Syria.

At the same time, Abu Sayyaf and MIT operations are continuing in the Philippines and Indonesia. Abu Sayyaf has been kidnapping Chinese tourists and businessmen in the Philippines and Malaysia in order to extort large ransoms. The group also killed more than 20 civilians and security officers in July 2014 in an ambush in Mindanao. MIT has focused on expanding its networks from Sulawesi to other islands in Indonesia, including West Nusa Tenggara and Java. Most MIT attacks, however, have targeted policemen, security officials and Christians in the mountainous areas of Poso and Palu in Sulawesi.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Muslim militants in Southern Thailand known as the “Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (“Patani Freedom Fighters” in Malay language) continue to wage an insurgency against the Thai government and Thai Buddhists. Recent attacks include car bombings, beheadings and arson attacks against schools. The most active militant group in the entire region, however, is the New People’s Army (NPA) in the Philippines, which is a Communist insurgency and whose activities are reflected in the infographics provided by START. In Myanmar, the government’s treatment of the minority Muslim Rohingyas has also become a cause célèbre of jihadists since 2012, ranging from JI’s Bashir to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s Abu Zar al-Burmi to the Uighur-led Turkistan Islamic Party in Pakistan.

Beyond the Infographics

What the START infographics do not fully capture is the growing extremism in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. For example, the infographics account for terrorist attacks but not church burnings and demolitions. Java, Indonesia’s most populated island, for instance, appears remarkably “clean” on the infographics despite an increase in attacks on churches and Ahmadiya mosques since 2011 (and on Shi’a mosques since the start of the Syrian civil war, because of their association with al-Assad). These incidents are becoming increasingly common in Indonesia and are an important trend to watch. While they qualify as “terrorism” by START’s definition, “small” church burnings and even forced church closures are likely difficult to recognize as such. But they are strong indicators of growing extremism. And whether particular actions are understood as terrorism or not, the activities of extremists – as well as those of the local government officials that turn a blind eye or actively support them – open up the operational space for militant groups like MIT to expand recruiting and operations, including sending fighters to Syria.

The infographics also classify the NPA’s attacks in the Philippines as “terrorism.” However, the NPA is more of a classic Castro- or Mao-style “insurgent group” than “terrorist group” like JI, which specialized in bombings of discos, hotels and embassies in Indonesia but did not hold terrain. START compares the NPA to “global terrorism” trends and rightly shows that the NPA engages in “armed assaults” more than the global average, and in the types of “bombings/explosions” typical of terrorist groups like JI much less than the global average. This is simply a matter of definitions, but the issue highlights how in the post-2001 world, the concepts of “terrorism” and “insurgency” have become conflated.

The START infographics bring attention to security threats in Southeast Asia, which are brewing in the region but overlooked in the Beltway. They also depict certain trends in Southeast Asian militancy. But they do not capture a broader and perhaps more important trend: extremism. It is important to track and anticipate new developments in Southeast Asia based on both START’s infographics and a more comprehensive analysis. While the region presents great economic and strategic opportunities, it also has in the past – and could in the future – become embroiled in various forms of political, religious and ethnic turmoil that affect American citizens, businesses and allies in Southeast Asia.

Moreover, it is important to remember that only a few million dollars in seed money was necessary for Usama bin Laden to give rise to Abu Sayyaf and JI back in the 1990s. The crisis in Syria has thus far been contained to Mesopotamia, but it has the potential to impact Southeast Asia if the Islamic State is able to not only inspire but financially support a global network of loyal groups, now including Abu Sayyaf and MIT. We are seeing the Islamic State’s influence on the ideologies of Southeast Asian jihadist groups and on the nature of radicalization in the region. But it will depend on local security forces working in concert with the U.S. to counter terrorism funding to Southeast Asia and the Islamic State’s outreach before regional groups launch a new campaign of attacks to coincide with their pledges of loyalty to al-Baghdadi.


Jacob Zenn, currently based in Southeast Asia, is an analyst for The Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank in Washington D.C. He is a former U.S. State Department critical language scholar in Indonesia.


Photo credit: AK Rockefeller