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Indo-Pacific Terrorism: What to Expect for the Foreseeable Future
J. “Lumpy” Lumbaca
The past two decades in the Indo-Pacific region have resulted in remarkable change across the terrorist landscape. From transnational terrorist groups to communist rebels to state sponsors of terrorism, all have evolved in ways that no one could have predicted on September 10, 2001. So what can we expect for the remainder of 2019 and beyond?
Attacks and deaths are down, but jihadist ideology and threats persist. The years following 9-11 saw a gradual increase in terrorist attacks, and deaths from those attacks, peaking in 2014 at the height of Islamic State prominence in Iraq and Syria. Since then, numbers have dropped with the collapse of the caliphate and the associated decrease in operational capacity. Law enforcement collaboration, intelligence sharing, and other local, national, regional, and international counter-terrorism and countering-violent-extremism initiatives have contributed to the downslope.
While numbers are down, however, the Indo-Pacific states of India, Pakistan, and the Philippines consistently remain among the “Top 10” countries affected by terrorism according to the Global Terrorism Index report. If there was any doubt whether or not 2019 would see a continuation of the deadly trend, this year’s bombing just days before the Bangsamoro Organic Law plebiscite, the Pulwama terrorist attack in India, the breakup of an international terrorist cell in Malaysia, and the New Zealand mosque shootings all serve to remind us that extremism remains at our front door.
As United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, Owen West, and Vice Director for Operations at the Joint Staff, Air Force Maj. Gen. James Hecker, testified to the House Armed Services Committee in February 2019, “ISIS [The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] has morphed from a fake caliphate to an insurgency. This form of ISIS will continue to pose a threat while being less susceptible to kinetic attack. To defeat this global network and others like it, including al Qa’ida and its affiliates, requires a coalition of allies applying pressure at the local level.”
Continued Islamic State Influence on Indo-Pacific Terrorists
The Islamic State has put its mark on the region. The most obvious case for this was the 2017 siege of Marawi in the southern Philippines. As Sidney Jones from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta noted on the Islamic State, it sent funds, guidance, training, and openly encouraged Southeast Asian fighters who couldn’t make it to the Middle East to instead head to the Philippines to join the jihad.
Another markedly different approach on the part of terrorists was the taking and holding of land during the Marawi siege. The occupation of a terrain-based stronghold was not unlike the Islamic State’s control over territory in Iraq and Syria. Jones stated it was possible that Islamic State “Central” may have even provided the directive for the terrorists’ physical move from Basilan to Mindanao in order to take the city of 200,000 inhabitants.
The Islamic State, however, is not the only organization that employs terrorism, and religion is not always the motivation for violence. Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah are actively planning, recruiting, and preparing in the shadows while much of the region’s security apparatus is focused on the Islamic State; Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba continue their attacks in South Asia; Independence and autonomy movements employ terrorist tactics in Papua and southern Thailand; Ethnic-based violence in Rakhine and elsewhere in Myanmar persists; Political extremists like the Communist Party of the Philippines’ New People’s Army attack government forces and harass local populations throughout the south of the country; White supremacists plot and inflict hate-based terror; Nuclear-capable, state sponsors of terrorism like North Korea remain a threat.
Increased Use of the Internet by Terrorists
As tech giants like Facebook and Twitter become more aggressive at shutting down terrorist-related content, a new concern is small sites and companies that don’t have the resources to effectively police their content. Adam Hadley, director of Tech Against Terrorism, an initiative launched by the United Nations' Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, has warned world leaders that, "Despite what newspaper headlines may say, a lot of propaganda and terrorist content exists on small platforms that no-one has ever heard of.”
The internet provides a virtual training ground for weapons use, bomb-building, sneaking across borders, raising money, moving money, recruiting, and radicalization. Telegram has become the app of choice because of its built-in, end-to-end encryption. In Indonesia, the new Hanifiyah Media magazine, now on its third online edition since November 2018, systematically raises reader awareness of “counter-Islamic State propaganda” and projects credibility of the terrorist organization through skewed religious texts and emotional appeal. The Christchurch video, livestreamed by the attacker, inspired the Islamic State to call for “supporters of the caliphate to avenge their religion,” and has already inspired at least one far-right “lone wolf” in Australia. Not to be overly focused on the Islamic State, North Korea, a state sponsor of terrorism, continues to manipulate cryptocurrency online as one of many tools used to evade sanctions and prop up its cult-like, family regime.
Increased Technological Sophistication in Attacks
The advancements here are more about hardware, tactics, techniques, and procedures used by terrorists to make attacks more deadly. The May 2018 Islamic State-linked Jamaah Ansharut Daulah suicide bombings in Surabaya demonstrated the increased sophistication of the perpetrators of violence. As Dr. Zachary Abuza from the National War College noted, in just a short span from 2016 to 2018, Indonesian terrorists became better trained, created more deadly bombs, and drafted better plans in preparing for their terror spree.
As Philippines Secretary of National Defense Major General (Retired) Delfin Lorenzana detailed during the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, the Islamic State-linked terrorists led by the Maute brothers and Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi were better trained, equipped, and supported beyond anything seen before in Southeast Asia. They used cyberspace, messaging platforms, and the dark web for instantaneous communication platforms, digital currencies and online transfers to receive some $1.5 million USD from the Middle East, radio frequency scanners, thermal imaging, night vision devices, drones, and advanced weapon systems. Simply put, terrorists are getting better at what they do.
Increases in Returning Fighters and Families
“Foreign fighters” may well include Indo-Pacific jihadists returning to the region from the Middle East, or natives from another part of the world coming to Asia. Of the estimated 41,000 fighters who traveled from roughly 80 nations around the world to join the fighting in Iraq and Syria, it is estimated that over 8,000 (about 20%) originated from Asian countries. As the fighting diminishes and Middle Eastern governments continue to eliminate terrorist cells, foreign fighters must now find a place to go. Most terrorists will either find another hot-spot to fight in, such as Yemen or Somalia or Nigeria, or they will return to their homelands.
As these fighters bonded in the Middle East and Africa, they are now able to maximize the effectiveness of their networks across physical and virtual space in Asia. The March 2019 breakup of a terrorist cell in Malaysia consisting of six Egyptians and one Tunisian with links to the African terrorist group Ansar Al-Sharia Al-Tunisia is proof. This cross-pollination is most concerning in the Southern Philippines, however, where foreign fighters continue to plan and operate.
Similarly, states are struggling with how to handle the wives and children of Islamic State fighters whose husbands have died or been imprisoned, most of whom now want to return to their homeland. While some nations like Malaysia and the Philippines are accepting of returning fighters and their families, either to prosecute or rehabilitate them, other states such as Australia have so far demonstrated unwillingness to allow their return.
As radicalized individuals enter the region better trained, more experienced in warfare, highly networked, and more indoctrinated in extremist ideology than when they left for the Middle East, it’s understandable that government, intelligence, and security forces are concerned.
Expanded Role of Women in Indo-Pacific Terrorism
Gone are the days when wives of terrorists played only a supporting role, taking care of husbands and children, and helping their communities behind the scenes. In the 2014 issue of the Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine, the terror group proclaimed, “My Muslim sister, indeed you are a mujahidah.” At the time, the Islamic State limited females to supporting roles and declared that they were only to fight in self-defense. Perhaps unintentionally, the Islamic State opened a Pandora’s Box. Women are now very much a frontline threat as financiers, recruiters, and right in the fight as suicide bombers and operatives. In most terror cells broken up or identified across Southeast Asia, there have been women involved, if not in the lead.
Mothers are taking their children to execute suicide bombings; online recruiting and indoctrination specifically targets women; terror groups have their own channels and Telegram chats just for women. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies can no longer look for just male jihadists. Similarly, countering-violent-extremism initiatives are prone to failure if they don’t address the female aspects of radicalization.
Increased Concern for Lone Actors
In February 2018, Indonesian police shot a sword-wielding man who attacked a church congregation during Sunday mass, injuring four people. The government labeled him a lone-wolf attacker. After the siege of Marawi, the government of the Philippines shared its concern for lone-actors who may be inspired by the historic battle to commit acts of terror on their own. Recently in New Zealand, a far-right extremist killed fifty worshipers in two Christchurch mosques.
A new “cousin” of the lone-wolf terrorist (motivated by ideology) is the terrorist who commits a random act of illegal violence simply as a result of some self-perceived wrong-doing, disenfranchisement, or alienation. Monash University lecturer, Mr. Waleed Aly, recently wrote that disordered, unplanned, everyday terrorism is spreading like a contagion, and we perhaps need to find a new word other than “terrorism” to describe it. Stories about seemingly random, “emotional terrorists” inflicting violence on innocent people at a street market or shopping mall or music concert in the United States or Europe are unfortunately more common today, but Indo-Pacific countries are not immune. In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2019, a 21-year old Japanese man rammed his car into pedestrians on the streets of Tokyo, injuring ten people.
While individual actors are typically unable to devise plans and gather resources on a level necessary to do catastrophic damage, their actions nevertheless serve as a strategic messaging platform and source of propaganda for larger, transnational terrorist organizations. In addition, it is worth acknowledging that although individuals may act alone, they are likely not doing so from complete isolation because of previous media- and internet-based interactions.
The Way Ahead
Given the current trajectory of terrorist-related activity in the Indo-Pacific, it is unfortunate but reasonable to expect the following to continue for at least the remainder of 2019: The New People’s Army and the Abu Sayyaf Group will terrorize the southern Philippines; Conflict between Uighurs and Han Chinese will continue in Xinjiang as the government forces assimilation; Ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw will continue to clash in Myanmar; The Free West Papua Movement will carry on its struggle against the Indonesian government; The undeclared war between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir will drag on; Southern Thailand’s insurgency will persist; Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand will continue to discover terrorist cells inside their borders.
Despite deadly trends and the adaptability of the terrorists in the region, there is promise. Inter- and intra-governmental cooperation across the Indo-Pacific continues to evolve in a positive direction. Law enforcement collaboration, intelligence sharing, and countless forums and dialogues aimed and sharing best practices abound. Whole-of-government approaches; rule of law; emphasis on internationally accepted standards; Women, Peace & Security; the role of civil society; countering-violent-extremism - these concepts and ideas are fortunately now common lexicon throughout the region.
Of course, there are areas for improvement. Informal, or “Track 2” initiatives could serve well in helping to identify solutions. Academic studies, non-governmental think tanks, and communities that have dealt with terrorism on a personal level all have insight into the problem set. Another area that is marked by consistent underperformance is the implementation of counter-ideology and alternative messaging. Despite nearly twenty years of attempts at strategic messaging to counter radical extremist propaganda and ideology, friendly partners and nations confronting terrorism have yet to get this right. Thirdly, the fields of law enforcement collaboration, information sharing, and regional cooperation can always be enhanced.
Overall, though, the Indo-Pacific region is making headway and learning lessons that can be expanded upon. A virtual tour across the region highlights the likely explanations for why terrorist attacks and deaths are down: Singapore's multi-ethnic social order has proven to be a tremendous defense against terrorism; the Bangsamoro Organic Law and Surrender and Reintegration Programs demonstrate a genuine effort to find peace in the Southern Philippines; Trilateral air- and sea-patrols in the Sulu Sea have significantly reduced Abu Sayyaf abductions along terrorist transit routes; Indonesia’s grassroots de-radicalization, rehabilitation, and reintegration programs aimed at the underlying causes of terrorism throughout the archipelago are a model for the soft approach; The “Our Eyes” information-sharing initiative shows promise and will hopefully gain traction after initial excitement but recent quiet; The inaugural Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation military exercises aimed at improving multilateral operations highlight the importance of counter-terrorism interoperability (Although there is much work to be done here and in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation); Malacca Straits patrols have all but eliminated piracy in this sea lane, and demonstrate the importance of information sharing and law-enforcement cooperation; Trials and prosecutions based on rule of law rather than internal security acts lend legitimacy to, and trust in, government efforts; The United Nations, Organization of Islamic Cooperation; Association of Southeast Asian Nations, European Union, Japan, United States, New Zealand and Australia serving at the forefront of Indo-Pacific and global counter-terrorism and countering-violent-extremism efforts, help set the standard for cooperation and progress around the world, to include emphasis on Women, Peace & Security and inclusion in combating terrorism.
Good governance and cooperation have helped reduce the underlying causes and operational capacity of the terrorists who wish to do us harm. It is now up to everyone with a stake in the Indo-Pacific, from family members and grassroots community volunteers to heads of government, to take the best of what has proven to be effective and expand upon it in 2019 and beyond.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Government or Department of Defense.