Islamic State and Southeast Asia

On June 28, Malaysia joined the ranks of countries under attack by the Islamic State when male suspects tossed mini-hand grenades onto the patio of the upscale Movida Bar and Lounge in a mall in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Puchong, wounding eight patrons.

Police later rounded up Mohd Saifuddin Muji and Jasanizam Rosni, two of those suspected of throwing the grenades, and said they were hunting for two more. Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters later that the suspects had received orders from Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi, who had joined ISIS in Syria, to launch attacks on senior leaders of the government, police and judges.

Later, as the Malaysian police dragnet expanded, as many as 15 persons were taken into custody including two low-ranking police officers. So far, police say, they have rolled up as many as nine separate plots related to ISIS since 2014. This is the first that was actually carried out.

“It’s the first,” said a Malay lawyer. “The next one will be worse.” But so far, police intelligence officials in Southeast Asia have been remarkably successful at foiling jihadi plots. And the jihadis in some instances seem to have been largely incompetent, although that could change. However, the Malaysia incident, and another on July 5 in which a jihadi reportedly allied with IS attempted to blow up a police station but killed himself, has raised regional concerns about IS’s ability to exploit weaknesses. Across the Middle East in recent days, hundreds of Muslims have died in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other countries as IS operatives, threatened by the steadily collapsing borders of their caliphate, have resorted to murderous attacks.

While the Malays involved in the incident were hardly successful, killing nobody, it puts the prosperous, moderate Southeast Asian country onto the scoreboard. Police in the Southeast region have been on heightened alert for the past two years, since it became evident that Muslims seduced by the idea of the caliphate, have left the region for Syria and Iraq to fight with the radicals. In December, police estimated as many as 100 Malaysians were in the Levant. Transport Minister Liow Tiong told reporters that at least 50,000 people in Malaysia supported the Islamic State’s aims. But authorities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have detained locals seeking passage to the Middle East, and have detained Southeast Asians trying to return to start trouble.

However, either because of logistical problems or a lack of appetite for violence, Southeast Asia so far is remarkably far down the list in providing fighters for IS. A Feb. 8 study by the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution quoted a study by the Australian scholar Greg Fealy estimating that for every million people in Indonesia, 1.4 have set out to join ISIS. In Malaysia, the number is 8.5. But 14 per million Australians, 18 per million French, and 40 per million Belgians have joined ISIS. As many as 31,000 potential combatants are estimated to have found their way to the proposed caliphate. Southeast Asia statistically doesn’t show up on the chart.

" The fact that Southeast Asia is not yet on the radar of the core ISIS leadership, however, or that the number of Southeast Asians fighting under the ISIS standard pales in comparison with the number of Europeans or Australians, should not be grounds for complacency,” according to the Brookings paper. “ISIS will always struggle to gain considerable popularity in Southeast Asia. The social, political, economic, and cultural conditions in Indonesia and Malaysia are such that the appeal of the ISIS brand of extremism will always remain limited. Even in Thailand and the Philippines, where Muslim minorities suffer more persecution, the conditions they face are nowhere near those confronted by alienated Muslims in Europe.”

The only earlier attack definitely traced to IS occurred Jan. 14 in Indonesia, when four perpetrators launched a mid-morning attack in the busy Sarinah area of Jakarta. Two bombs were detonated at a Starbucks Café and a traffic police post, with a third bomb exploding in the face of one of the jihadists. Three improvised grenades were also thrown at police and two of the attackers drew guns and fired on the police and bystanders.

The main effect was that all four attackers died, as well as four civilians, including one foreigner, a Canadian. In the following days, the perpetrators were identified as Dian Juni Kurniadi, Ahmad Muhazan, Muhammad Ali and Sunakim alias Afif.

It was the first attack in Southeast Asia with a confirmed endorsement from the s- called Islamic State (IS). Shortly after the operation IS claimed responsibility and subsequent investigations have confirmed the perpetrators’ pro-IS orientation.

The attack itself was amateurish and the perpetrators must surely have planned for a far higher death toll than four civilians, especially given that hundreds of people were in the vicinity. They would particularly have hoped to kill multiple policemen and foreigners, their main targets.

Even if extremists were eventually able to attempt to create their own caliphate in southeast Asia, as some members of the criminal gang Abu Sayyaf have threatened in the Philippines, according to the Brookings paper its origins are more likely to stem from the fringes of society in southern Thailand, where a nativist insurrection has been cooking for decades, in rural Indonesia, where jihadist organizations such as Jemaah Islamiyah have functioned as well, or in Mindanao.

The real danger “is not that the black banner of ISIS will be raised the world over but that the appearance of ISIS would trigger dynamics among existing jihadist groups and personal networks within Indonesia, possibly joined by groups from the Philippines and Malaysia, that may well escalate into further violence.”

IS has called for jihadis across the region to regroup in Mindanao, where a low-grade Muslim insurgency has bubbled for decades, rising and falling in intensity. The Abu Sayyaf, the most violent group, are largely regarded as criminals masquerading as Islamists, although their leader recently vowed fealty to the Middle Eastern organization.

Although the Philippine congress has refused to ratify the far-reaching Bangsamoro agreement put together by outgoing President Benigno S. Aquino III, and it appears unlikely they will deliver it to the new president, Rodrigo Duterte, Duterte as mayor of Davao City was arguably more effective at engaging Muslims. This week, for the first time, he ordered Eid’l Fitr, the celebration at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, to be a national holiday. That is an important signal that this predominantly Catholic country recognizes the validity of Islam. At the same time, he has declared the eradication of Abu Sayyaf a major priority. Most Muslims are not likely to care.