The ISIS Peril in the Region
ISIS is more than mere a bogeyman paraded by governments, whatever cynics might think of governments crying wolf. Its documented barbarism and appeal to militants to flock to Iraq and Syria is alarming. Already the UK said they would not allow UK citizens who fight with the militants to return to the UK. The Singapore government recently mentioned that some locals were with the militants in Syria, and this reflects a global trend of the romanticised militant-adventurer with an AK47 in the desert. After all, Indonesians and Malaysians are already there, and our neighbours are worried that these battle-hardened militants would return home, if they survived Syria, and revive terrorism in the region. Indonesia, with its new president, would not want another Bali or Jarkata bombing and already made statements that ISIS should not be tolerated. Rightly so.
ISIS in Southeast Asia
Canberra and Jakarta settle their intel rift, as jihadi recruiting grows.
ISIS is attracting followers from Muslim communities across the Asia-Pacific. In Indonesia, radical groups have declared support for the Islamic State in Jakarta, Surakarta and other cities. In Malaysia, police say they have arrested 19 ISIS-inspired militants planning attacks against pubs, discos and a Carlsberg brewery in and around Kuala Lumpur. Australia estimates that 150 of its citizens are now fighting with ISIS in the Middle East, with 15 Australians among the dead, including two suicide bombers.
In the face of this threat, governments need to broaden avenues of cooperation. So it’s good news that Indonesia and Australia have finally ended a feud that started last November with Edward Snowden’s revelations that the Australian Signals Directorate tried to tap the phones of Indonesia’s President and his top advisers, including the first lady, for 15 days in August 2009.
The disclosures caused a serious rift as Jakarta limited imports of Australian beef, froze trade talks, recalled its ambassador, suspended cooperation on border security and curbed military and intelligence cooperation. Protesters burned flags and effigies in front of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.
Last week’s deal doesn’t forswear future snooping—only the use of spy resources “to harm each other’s interests,” according to Australia’s Foreign Minister. But it allows the countries to restore and expand intelligence sharing.
That’s necessary given the multinational and connected nature of modern-day jihadism. The October 2002 Bali bombing killed 202 people from at least 23 countries, including 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 27 Britons and seven Americans. The alleged spiritual leader of the bombers, radical cleric Abu Bakr Bashir, has pledged allegiance to ISIS from prison.
Jakarta estimates that some 60 of its citizens are fighting for ISIS, but the real number is probably higher. One potential future target is the Borobudur Temple in Java, a major tourist attraction and the world’s largest Buddhist monument. An ISIS-linked Facebook page last week expressed hope that the temple “will be demolished by Islamic caliphate mujahidin,” as the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in March 2001.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently branded ISIS “humiliating” to Muslims, banned support for the group and ordered police to step up efforts against online radicalization. Malaysian leader Najib Razak has condemned ISIS for “crimes committed in the name of Islam,” while his government stepped up monitoring of Malaysians traveling overseas. Australia has tightened customs surveillance and introduced legislation to strengthen intelligence monitoring of social media and to mandate that telecom providers save two years’ worth of phone and Internet metadata.
Critics of Western intelligence agencies obsess about the theoretical risks their activities pose to civil liberties, while downplaying the risks of an all-too real and rising terrorist threat. But intelligence gathering and cooperation are vital to preventing another Bali-style bombing that would kill more innocents and force governments to take stronger measures.