There’s a ‘new threat landscape’ coming up in this part of the world, as terrorism changes from all out war in he Middle East to individual attacks in South-East Asia.
LAST year was a challenging one for the international community. Despite intensified efforts to curb violent acts of terrorism, the world witnessed far too many deadly incidents that claimed thousands of innocent lives.
The attacks – in Nice, Brussels, Istanbul, Kabul, Dhaka, and Jakarta among others – are a stark reminder that the burden of dealing with terrorism is not exclusive to a mere handful of countries.
Many of the attacks that made headlines last year were random, perpetrated by “lone wolf” extremists that the authorities have frequently raised alarms about.
These individuals, who typically self-radicalise online, remain a complex threat, as their motivations and actions are harder to predict.
On the local front, 2016 saw the the first successful Islamic State (IS)-linked attack on Malaysian soil.
Police confirmed that the Movida nightclub bombing in Puchong, Selangor, on June 28, which injured eight people, was carried out by locals who received instructions directly from a Malaysian IS fighter in Syria.
Weeks earlier, the Malay-speaking arm of IS known as Katibah Nusantara (Malay Archipelago) released a propaganda video declaring South-East Asia as its next target and encouraging followers in the region to carry out attacks here if they were unable to travel to Syria.
Several militant groups have already pledged their allegiance to IS commander-in-chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and have made it their mission to establish a “caliphate” in the region.
Security experts predict that this agenda could flourish in the year ahead, as IS seeks a new territorial stronghold to cushion its diminishing influence in the Middle East following the impending end to the Syrian conflict.
SEA the ‘new threat landscape’
The after-effects of the Syrian conflict, coupled with IS’ decentralisation policy, is likely to present the world with a fresh set of challenges this year. Experts have coined the phrase “new threat landscape” (NTL) to describe them.
Counterterrorism specialist Andrin Raj believes South-East Asia is an obvious place for the rise of the NTL because of certain “weaknesses” in the region’s political and social constructs.
“The region provides the environment and platform for terrorists to feed onto weaknesses such as prejudice, racial divide, and religious intolerance,” says Andrin, who is South-East Asia director of the International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professionals.
He says that jihadist groups also consider the Asean region to be a “safe haven” to operate from compared with the Middle East and other parts of the world, where they would be met with stiffer military resistance.
“There is a lesser threat of a large-scale military attack against jihadists in this region. This provides them with a safer space to plan, operate, and mount attacks on Western targets and regional governments,” he adds.
According to Ahmad El-Muhammady, a political science lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), the NTL is manifesting through a combination of factors, such as rising Islamophobia, the return of locals trained as militants in the Middle East, and mass recruitment via social media platforms.
He says that the nature of the threat has evolved into more sophisticated forms as would-be terrorists take a more dynamic approach to their struggle.
“From Facebook they have now migrated to smartphone applications such as Telegram because they are harder to monitor.
“From group missions, they have switched to lone-wolf attacks, which is a more sophisticated modus operandi (MO). These individuals learn very fast, they are adaptive,” says the terrorism expert, who regularly assists local authorities in the rehabilitation of detained militants.
Indeed, a major driving force for the NTL is the emergence of lone-wolf extremists in various parts of the globe, who are causing a big headache for law enforcement agencies.
Malaysia’s Home Ministry recently conceded that while they have got better at sniffing out and preventing attacks organised by large groups, smaller alliances and one-man shows are harder to anticipate. It is a trend that is expected to fester in 2017, says its deputy minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed.
“The security threat will come from lone wolves and small groups because they are unpredictable. And the problem with lone wolves is that our resources are stretched too thin to monitor everyone,” he says.
Prime targets in 2017
The primary threat in South-East Asia lies within the “triangle of conflict” covering mainly Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, southern Philippines and southern Myanmar.
IIUM’s Ahmad says there are several “hotspots” within this triangle that are becoming breeding grounds for militant groups because of ongoing strife in those areas.
Hence, there is a greater likelihood of attacks occurring near these hotspots.
“The authorities have to be very strong in monitoring these areas, and cooperation needs to be increased if we are to protect our borders,” he adds.
Analysts are already predicting possible locations as well as structures that could be targeted by IS followers this year, based on existing political and economic factors.
Andrin, who specialises in counterterrorism risk assessment, believes the business and banking sectors will be most vulnerable to attacks this year due to increased dissatisfaction with the state of the economy.
“The business sector will be a prime target within the region, and this also involves economic institutions such as banks and foreign companies.
“Our region is not prepared for business continuity and, hence, this will be an opportunity for terrorist groups,” he says, adding that the tourism sector could also be hit by attacks aimed at hotels and other facilities as the current MO of attackers is to target such locations.
Meanwhile, Prof Dr Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, believes that IS followers in the region could revive previously failed missions.
He expresses fears of a more severe regional threat this year compared with 2016.
“Based on foiled plots, targets will include political leaders, law enforcement leaders, police stations, places of worship, and the media, especially television stations,” he says.
Dr Rohan adds that diplomatic missions in the region, especially the Myanmar embassies, would also have to be on higher alert as groups or individuals angered by the recent atrocities in the country’s Rakhine state could retaliate violently.
The Asean community is aware that the escalating violence in Myanmar could have a spillover effect this year as thousands of Rohingya refugees continue to flee to neighbouring countries.
This raises the possibility that the conflict could reach boiling point and provide room for Al-Qaeda and IS to attract more of the persecuted Muslim minority to their cause.
Asked if this is likely, Nur Jazlan is sceptical. He believes the community may take the fight to the Myanmar Government but would think twice about mounting any attacks beyond its national borders.
“It is possible, but they also wouldn’t want to lose the goodwill of the international community.
“Once they cross the line and go into terrorist activities, they lose the sympathy and the political capital they have in the region,” he says.
However, Ahmad believes some segments of the Rohingya population may not be as pragmatic.
“There are multiple groups within the community itself, with different orientations. Some may pursue constitutional means like forming NGOs and pressure groups.
“But on the ground, other groups might resort to violence in response to the violence they face every day,” he adds.
The Rohingya example highlights just how complicated the task of addressing security threats are, and it is just one of many reasons why 2017 needs to see greater cooperation between Asean member-states.
Strength in numbers
From the Malaysian Government’s point of view, there are already existing partnerships with neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines in tackling terrorism.
Nur Jazlan says these countries are assisting Malaysia with joint patrols, as well as sharing intelligence and resources.
The multinational efforts are in fact increasing, he says, adding that regional security will be better in 2017 because of it.
“This year, compared with the last, we have a brighter outlook because we can secure our borders better with close cooperation among neighbours,” says the Barisan Nasional lawmaker.
What is perhaps missing, though, is an official document to formalise this cooperation, especially one that involves the participation of all Asean states.
Ahmad proposes a strategy that Malaysia could take the lead in implementing.
“A National Counterterrorism Strategy – we don’t have this. At least we can introduce it in Malaysia first and then expand it to Asean,” he says, adding that the formal strategy would be mutually agreed upon by all states and contain basic guidelines that can be referred to when the need arises.
He also suggests a “cyberforce” – complementing the Malaysian military’s existing air, land, and naval forces – as the ideological war takes place entirely online.
“Maybe it is too idealistic, but other countries are trying to do it too,” he stresses.
Meanwhile, Andrin argues that Asean cannot fight alone, and will still require the help of traditional superpowers like the United States and Britain to address growing threats.
He believes the region needs strong security architecture to address common challenges but that this has thus far been hampered by several internal disputes.
“A cause for concern is the underlying disputes and root causes of mistrust between states in the region. This results in non-cooperation on intelligence sharing as well,” he adds.
The threat posed by IS and its ilk is not expected to subside this year, and the security of our borders therefore hinges on improved communications between regional players.
This will reduce opportunities for militant groups to organise large-scale attacks. And, at the very least, it will reduce, if not entirely prevent, the far more unpredictable “lone-wolf” danger.
As the network of terrorists becomes more sparse to avoid detection, we would be better off going the other way: Having strength in numbers.
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