The threat posed by ISIS in Southeast Asia becomes present, as the terrorist organisation has revitalized terror networks in region.
On 14 January, nine ISIS militants staged a barricade style attack at a Starbucks in central Jakarta. Small IEDs were detonated, and the militants engaged security forces for almost two hours. Two civilians, a Canadian and an Indonesian were killed. Five of the attackers were killed and four were arrested.
There are an estimated 800-1,000 Southeast Asians supporters of ISIS, including those who have traveled to Iraq and Syria, their family members, those killed in battle and arrested, as well as those returned by Turkish security forces. It also includes the first wave that has already returned home to Malaysia and Indonesia.
Since 2014, the success of ISIS has revived the threat of terrorism in Malaysia and Indonesia. It has led to an estimated 600-1,000 Southeast Asians to travel to Syria and Iraq to gain jihadist experience. Some 169 Indonesians alone have been turned back by Turkish authorities, and many more cannot get to Syria and Iraq because of the proactive measures taken by regional security forces.
But ISIS has increased the rate of indoctrination and induction. Importantly they have broadened the traditional base of Jemaah Islamiyah’s recruitment and have members representing the entire spectrum of society, including women.
ISIL’s visual style propaganda, increasingly in Bahasa, has had great appeal and influence over Southeast Asian militants. To date, Southeast Asian jihadists have never engaged in hostage taking and no group has videotaped the act of decapitation or glorified it. As ISIS videos are viewed and shared, the threshold lowers and their base of support no longer finds it to be anathema to Southeast Asian culture.
And as experts have argued, what we see as grotesque barbarism in ISIS videos, its supporters see “triumphalism and vengeance” against those who have harmed their interpretation of Islam. Islamic State’s brutal propaganda serves as a vehicle by which to convey vengeance and supremacy. So, such acts are well suited to be disseminated through social media, which in Southeast Asia have some of the highest rates of use in the world.
There is a concern that the returnees from Iraq and Syria will have acquired the skills to carry out a new wave of bombings. One cell was in the final stages of preparing to bomb the Carlsberg brewery in Kuala Lumpur. Of greater concern, suspected returnees were responsible for an attempted chlorine bomb at a Jakarta mall in February 2015. In September 2015, both the U.S. and Australian embassies in Kuala Lumpur issued very specific warnings of terrorist attacks, and a three man cell was arrested soon after.
Thus, there is a well-founded fear that the spectacle of violence demonstrated by ISIS will take root, because of the low technical capacity of the returnees and the need to perpetrate bold attacks both to win over popular support and to assume the leadership of a dispersed, leaderless movement.
Hostage taking and barricade style attacks, are perfect for both the skill set and the short-term goals of ISIS. And unlike bombings, which are indiscriminate, kidnappings, executions and assassinations are very targeted. Malaysian security officials have stated, though without providing evidence, that ISIS members are actively targeting senior politicians and security officials.
The case of Malaysians Murad Halimmuddin (49) and his son Abu Daud (25), who were plotting to kidnap politicians after returning home from fighting with ISIS, is a case in point.
Another small cell that included one returnee from Syria, which Malaysian authorities broke up in July 2015, was also planning a wave of non-bombing terrorist attacks. The cell intended to target VIPs and engage in barricade-style attacks that have been recently used in Sydney, Paris and Tunisia.
More importantly, two Malaysians, Mohd Faris Anwar (20) and Muhamad Wandy Muhamad Jedi (26), were featured in in a ISIS video of mass beheadings released on 20 February 2015. Though Mohd Faris Anwar was killed in Syria in late 2015, his brutality remains widely disseminated on line.
In mid-December 2015, Indonesian authorities arrested six suspected members of ISIS who were planning a wave of bombs and small arm attacks on Christian and Shia communities. The plot had direct funding from ISIS, according to Indonesian security officials.
Also, Russian authorities have reportedly passed intelligence to Thai authorities regarding an ISIS cell dispatched to Thailand, to perpetrate attacks against Russian tourists.