Is ISIS Poised to Launch Attacks in Southeast Asia?

A rocket believed to have been launched by Islamic State forces flies from the east to the west side of the Syrian town Kobani during fighting on November 6, 2014. Islamic State forces could be launching rockets into Southeast Asia soon. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Over the past three weeks, several events have dramatically highlighted the growing appeal of ISIS based in Southeast Asia.

First, on January 14, a group of militants reportedly run by an Indonesian man who had traveled to Syria carried out an attack in a busy neighborhood in Jakarta, leading to at least seven deaths. Several weeks before the attack, the Indonesian police had made a string of arrests of other Indonesian cells linked to ISIS.

Then, last week, Singaporean authorities made a major announcement. The city-state announced that it was using its Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without charge, to hold 27 Bangladeshis who it claimed had become radicalized, and were considering launching terrorist attacks.

It was the Singaporean authorities' broadest use of the Internal Security Act in three decades. According to several news reports, the Singapore police claimed that some of the Bangladeshis were planning to return to Bangladesh to carry out terrorist attacks. Most of the Bangladeshi laborers were quickly deported from Singapore.

Do these events add up to a serious threat from ISIS to Southeast Asia, either by ISIS recruiting and funding of Southeast Asian militant cells or simply by ISIS inspiration for Southeast Asians?

ISIS created a brigade in Syria for visiting Southeast Asians, including Indonesian fighters. ISIS also may be providing a small amount of seed money to some militant groups in Southeast Asia, and ISIS clearly hopes to spread its ideology more widely. Its propaganda arm has produced videos, shared online, in Indonesian/Malay and targeted at Indonesian and Malay youths.

Indonesian, Malaysian, Philippine and Thai authorities believe between 600 and 1,200 Southeast Asians have traveled to Syria and Iraq in recent years to fight with ISIS and then have returned to Southeast Asia. In addition, several existing militant groups in Southeast Asia have taken public oaths of loyalty to ISIS in the past two years, probably because they share beliefs with ISIS and because the loyalty oaths bring them greater media attention.

What's more, as Zachary Abuza of the National War College has noted, the growing influence of ISIS in Southeast Asia may be leading to a kind of competition among Southeast Asian militant groups to see who can carry out the most brutal attacks, following in ISIS's use of extremely brutal, well-publicized tactics. Such brutal tactics, Abuza notes, are easily spread through social media.

But overall, the level of threat to Southeast Asian nations varies widely. It is true that Indonesians have traveled to Syria to fight, and even taken part in their own brigade, but Indonesia also is one of the most open societies in the region, with a government and a religious establishment that has a record of effectiveness at combating militancy.

Indonesia's biggest religious organizations have launched campaigns to combat the influence of ISIS and other groups. Indonesia's decentralized, free politics filter Islamists through the political process.

In the Philippines, the Aquino government is close to completing a landmark peace agreement that could end much of the fighting that has plagued Mindanao for decades. Although there are holdouts unwilling to accept the deal, the completion of the peace process, combined with a flow of investment and aid to Mindanao, could dramatically undercut any public support for militants in the southern Philippines.

In contrast, Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar have political environments that could be conducive to growing militancy. All three are either outright authoritarian regimes or are currently somewhere between democracy and autocracy; the lack of political freedom means there are few legitimate avenues for Islamists to engage in politics.

In Thailand, harsh army rule in the three southern provinces has added to southerners' anger, made it harder to gain cooperation with army units hunting for militant cells and potentially has fostered radicalization of young men and women.

In Myanmar, there has been little violent reaction so far from Muslim populations that have been terrorized for four years now, particularly in Arakan State; many Muslims are so battered that they are focusing all their energy on survival.

Still, it is not hard to imagine that years of attacks on Myanmar Muslims might eventually lead to the emergence of militant Myanmar Muslim groups, perhaps with inspiration or even training from ISIS.

And in Malaysia, the environment is perhaps even more favorable for militants inspired by ISIS. Since the 2013 Malaysian general election, the Malaysian government has "been show the Malay heartland" its Islamic credentials, according to Murray Hunter, a business consultant with 30 years of experience in Southeast Asia.

Hunter notes that the ruling coalition also has been publicly burnishing its Islamic credentials in an attempt to tar the opposition as dominated by ethnic Chinese. Such strategies are fostering religious and ethnic divisions in Malaysia. "This is a perfect environment for Islamic State breed," Hunter notes.

Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.