WASHINGTON, D.C. — Panelists at a discussion hosted by the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) and Center for New American Security last Thursday came to a sobering conclusion: Southeast Asian countries will face a growing number of terrorist attacks in the near future.
ASPI President Kevin Rudd warned that the rise of the Islamic State was not only an alarming development for the Middle East and Europe, but also an emerging threat to Southeast Asian countries. "We should not overstate the significance of the Asia-Pacific region, but nor should we understate it,” he cautioned. “The question for policymakers in this region is: What is the probability of a regional repeat of the Paris bombings? And if there is a probability or high possibility of that occurring, what can be done to prevent such an attack or credibly reduce the risk?”
Rudd emphasized that though the number of Southeast Asian foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria pales in comparison to the number of Middle Easterners and Europeans who have joined ISIS, the terror organization's incitement and funding of homegrown attacks like the January 14 attack in Jakarta, as well as the return of foreign fighters, makes Southeast Asian countries vulnerable. There are enough Indonesians and Malaysians fighting with ISIS that they now have their own unit, Katibah Nusantara (the Malay Archipelago Combat Unit).
Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand are the four main countries which are seen to be potential beachheads for the group’s extremism in South East Asia, stated Dr. Peter Chalk, adjunct senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation. Chalk cautioned that a concerted effort was needed to fight terrorism and radicalization, but that governments must “ensure that any measures that they institute are proportional, transparent, and accountable,” in order to maximize effectiveness and prevent further alienation among their own populations.
Sidharto Suryodipuro, the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Indonesia in Washington D.C., made the case for greater international cooperation and argued that countries like Indonesia will need assistance in capacity building to fight terrorism and counter violent extremism. He also emphasized the leadership role Indonesia can play in promoting a more moderate Islamic voice in both the Asia-Pacific region and on the global stage, noting that “violent extremist groups in Indonesia … have not grown in size relative to the Indonesian population, and they have not grown in appeal or attractiveness among the Indonesian population.” Despite Indonesia being the world’s largest Muslim country, he argued, ISIS’s penetration into the country remains limited. A challenge for Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries, as noted by both Suryodipuro and Chalk, will be to continue to balance the need for increased counter-terrorism capabilities with the necessity of maintaining tolerance and civil rights protections within Southeast Asian democracies.
Dr. Patrick Cronin, Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, warned that regional efforts to fight terrorism must be nuanced and should not be framed solely around the ISIS threat. “We are fixated in Washington on ISIS as a number one threat and everything looks like ISIS,” he argued. Cronin reminded the audience that the drivers of extremism are often local, not global, and that in many cases the motivations of various Southeast Asian terrorist groups are quite different than what drives ISIS.
Nevertheless, Cronin warned that the global trend of networked terrorism would over time take greater hold in Southeast Asia. “Unfortunately, eventually there will be more Paris like attacks in Southeast Asia.”