By Laura Southgate for Global Risk Insights
Concerns over the Islamic State’s growing influence in Southeast Asia were again raised last week following British Prime Minister David Cameron’s trade mission to the region. Although the primary purpose of the trip was to increase exports and forge future trade links, the Prime Minister also sought to enhance cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State. Of primary concern are the countries of Indonesia and Malaysia. Approximately 500 people from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, and 200 people from Malaysia, are thought to have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State’s influence in Southeast Asia
With support for the Islamic State growing, other regional countries fear the potentially destabilizing effect this will have on the region. In May 2015, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, confirmed that “Southeast Asia is a key recruitment centre” for the Islamic State.
Indeed, the Islamic State has so many Indonesian and Malaysian fighters that they formed into a unit by themselves, called the Katibah Nusantara or “Malay Archipelago Combat Unit.”
Furthermore, several radical groups in the region have pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State. It is believed that some have links with the Jemaah Islamiyah group, an Indonesian based terrorist network. According to Prime Minister Lee, Jemaah Islamiyah’s spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014.
It is feared that the Islamic State is intent on turning Southeast Asia into a wilayat, a province of a worldwide Islamic caliphate under Islamic State control. Whilst Prime Minister Lee dismisses this intention as a “grandiose, pie-in-the-sky dream,” he does acknowledge that the Islamic State could establish a base somewhere in the region, in a geographic area under its control.
If Islamic State were successful in this endeavor, “it would pose quite a serious threat to the whole of Southeast Asia.” Prime Minister Lee’s concerns are shared by all of the region’s leaders. Indonesia’s President, Joko Widodo, recently informed The Wall Street Journal that the Islamic State is Indonesia’s biggest international concern, and that it comes up in every discussion he has with other leaders.
In March 2015, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, unveiled a new anti-terrorism bill amid fears of the Islamic State’s growing influence. The bill allows terror suspects to be detained for up to two years without trial.
Efforts to tackle the problem
Individual states have taken some steps to tackle the growing problem. In a move similar to Malaysia’s new anti-terrorism bill, Indonesia’s anti-terror agency is seeking enhanced legal powers for authorities to prosecute those who support the Islamic State.
In Singapore, ministers and MP’s have called on the public to be vigilant to the threat posed by extremism. In addition to this, Singapore’s top Islamic leader has stated that Muslims have a religious obligation to report those who might pose a threat to the authorities.
However, it will require more than enhanced legal powers and public vigilance to tackle the problem. Increased cooperation across the states of Southeast Asia, as well as regional cooperation with external powers such as the United States and United Kingdom is required.
While regional states are aware that enhanced cooperation is the key to tackling the Islamic State, to date little progress has been made in this area. In March 2015, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister, Anifah Aman, stated that ASEAN and the international community “must step up our efforts” to resolve the growing problem, “by strengthening our intelligence and security cooperation.”
Similarly, in April 2015, Singapore’s Law and Foreign Affairs Minister, K. Shanmugam, emphasized that international cooperation is crucial for counter-terrorism efforts.
Despite slow efforts to promote regional anti-terrorism cooperation, some steps are being made to enhance regional cooperation with external powers. Following the British Prime Minister’s visit to Indonesia, David Cameron confirmed that fifty Indonesian police officers would be given counter-terrorism training in the UK. Cameron has also promised to help increase airport security in Bali and Jakarta. These efforts are a step in the right direction. Without enhanced cooperation, the Islamic State is likely to increase its presence in the region and will pose a significant security threat for all states concerned.