What Underlies the Long-Running Dispute in the South China Sea?

China claims all South China Sea waters within its self-imposed ‘nine-dash line’, demarcated in a 1947 map, including the Paracel archipelago and the Spratly Islands (Image Source: US Navy)

The South China Sea is a site of intense geostrategic importance located at the heart of the Asia-Pacific. It is the site of decades-old contestation between rival regional powers over territory, lucrative energy resources and economically-vital sea lanes. Given the sea’s location at the centre of the world’s most densely-populated and fastest-growing region, and considering the above-mentioned convergence of interests, the disputes represent a pressing and complex issue which is highly resistant to resolution.

The disputes first emerged in the aftermath of World War Two, when the six claimant states bordering the sea – China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – scrambled to occupy islands following the withdrawal of colonial powers. In their early stages, the disputes centred primarily over the question of territorial sovereignty. China claimed almost the entire body of water according to its ‘nine-dash line’ map, originally released publicly in 1947. The map was based on historical claims of naval expeditions in the area dating back as far as the Han Dynasty. China views its claim to sovereignty as a major national interest comparable with its desire to incorporate Taiwan into the Chinese state.

Taiwan and Vietnam also stake a claim to large portions of the sea encompassing two island groups: the Paracels and the Spratly islands. Similarly, these claims are based on historical records stretching back centuries. Another three Southeast Asian nations – Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – claim more limited portions of the sea and look to assert their right to a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching from their coastlines. These claims are made in line with the terms of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS, while serving as an important modern-day legal referent and a possible future tool of resolution, has been a primary driver of the disputes in recent decades. This was most evident in 2009, when a UNCLOS deadline for new submissions on the delimitation of continental shelves led to a series of claims from nations bordering the sea, adding to an already-complex picture of overlapping claims and leading to a further raising of regional tensions.

While a full-scale military conflict has so-far been avoided, the South China Sea has witnessed a series of past incidents involving the militaries of the six claimant states. Most of these have taken the form of small-scale encounters or non-violent stand-offs involving coastguard ships and fishing vessels from China, Vietnam and the Philippines. In May 2014, a more high-profile incident occurred when China stationed an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its EEZ, resulting in a stand-off involving more than 30 vessels. The incident damaged bilateral relations and sparked street protests in Hanoi.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has assertively pressed its claims in the disputed region through land reclamation and conducting maritime patrols (Image Source: Russian Govt.)

The two countries had previously clashed in the sea in a notorious incident at Johnson South Reef in 1988, in which two Vietnamese ships were sunk and 64 sailors perished. In more recent years, the US has risked China’s ire by carrying-out ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations in the contested area, sailing military vessels close to islands occupied by China. This policy was a major aspect of former President Obama’s ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific, which many considered a thinly-veiled attempt to counter China’s rising power and support Southeast Asian states in ensuring China met opposition to its activities in the South China Sea. President Trump has taken a softer stance since his shock election win in 2016.

While competing territorial claims over islets, rocks and other land-features have defined the disputes for decades, undersea energy resources have become an increasingly important driver of the disputes in more recent times. The South China Sea is thought to contain up to 213 billion barrels of sub-sea oil in addition to vast quantities of natural gas in rocks deep beneath the waves, leading states to intensify their claims to the region. This is particularly important given the rising populations of the Asia-Pacific in combination with dwindling domestic energy reserves and a need to decrease over-reliance on the volatile Middle East for oil. China’s population is set to reach 1.4 billion by 2020, whilst the population of Southeast Asia is nudging 650 million. Shipping is another important factor, with the South China Sea being a vital transit route for the import of oil and gas, and the export of consumer goods. Up to 90% of energy imports to East Asia pass through the narrow Malacca Strait chokepoint and through the South China Sea, after being shipped first through the Indian Ocean. This provides another major imperative for states to seek a degree of control over the waters, to ensure the free-flow of shipping which is necessary to sustain high rates of economic growth. Analysts in the US have raised concerns that China could block this vital maritime trading route, while China holds the opposite fear that the US and its regional allies could close the Malacca Strait in a future worst-case scenario. Such an event – instigated by any party – would negatively impact all regional nations and dent the global economy.

All attempts to resolve the dispute so-far have failed. In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed-up to a joint Declaration of Conduct on the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), agreeing to pursue peaceful co-operation and exercise self-restraint. However, the DOC has long been criticized as being ineffective due to its non-binding nature, while talks between the two sides on a binding code-of-conduct have made little progress over the years. This has been made more difficult due to division within ASEAN over the dispute in recent times. The claimant states – in particular Vietnam and the Philippines – have maintained a tougher stance, while several of the non-claimant states – including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – have been reluctant to criticize China’s activities too forcefully for fear of losing-out on much-needed Chinese investment. During the current impasse, China has expanded its de-facto control over the South China Sea, asserting its claims through land reclamation, building military installations on islets and conducting regular naval patrols.

The United States conducted regular Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea under President Obama, sailing warships close to disputed islands (Image Source: US Navy)

At present, the disputes have drifted out of international headlines as more immediate concerns have dominated global politics; namely the escalating US-China ‘trade war’, and the North Korea situation. The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and rising Islamist conflict in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao have also held regional attention, forcing the South China Sea issue into the background. The US has largely retreated from Southeast Asia under nationalist President Trump, looking to lessen rather than increase America’s commitments in far-flung parts of the world. Since the final days of the Obama administration, US rhetoric on China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea has softened.

The Philippines’ President Duterte – elected several months before Trump’s unlikely rise in the US – has also adopted a softer stance. ASEAN remains divided on the issue and unable to reach consensus. This has left China to press on with its land reclamation programme and solidify its territorial gains in the South China Sea, with Beijing having previously rejected a 2016 tribunal arbitration ruling which questioned the legitimacy of its claim to sovereignty. Whether China and ASEAN will be able to adapt to the new status-quo and agree upon a binding code-of-conduct in the coming years remains to be seen. Another unknown concerns a potential change of government in the US once Trump’s first term ends in 2021. The election of an Obama-style leader may see the US strive to re-engage on the issue.

For now, at least, China has solidified its position as the dominant player in the South China Sea. Yet despite apocalyptic predictions from some analysts in the West, the disputes look unlikely to result in conflict. China, the US and ASEAN states all have too much to lose. Irrespective of whether the complex territorial claims can be resolved in the coming decades, economic realities and shared interests mean a co-operative environment regarding the sea’s resources and shipping routes may yet develop. This will be the key test as to whether peace can be sustained in the world’s most hotly-contested waters.

A version of this article is also published on Eurasia Review.

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Is Abu Sayyaf Making a Comeback in the Philippines?

The Philippine security forces have increased patrols in waters around Abu Sayyaf’s remote island strongholds, following a recent spike in militant activity (Image Source: US Navy)

On 27 July, firebrand Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte mooted the idea of holding peace talks with the notoriously brutal militants of Abu Sayyaf for the first time since he came to office. During a speech in Jolo – the bustling main town at the heart of the militants’ remote maritime stronghold in the Sulu archipelago – Duterte, referencing his own southern roots, declared: ‘now, you have a president with Moro blood…let’s just talk’. Duterte repeated: ‘let’s talk – or what are we going to do; kill each other?’

Four days later, a powerful bomb hidden in a van exploded at an army road checkpoint on the nearby island of Basilan, killing eleven people instantly and leaving at least seven others wounded. Military spokesperson Col. Edgard Arevalo quickly assigned blame to a local faction of Abu Sayyaf affiliated to the Islamic State. The blast – later revealed to be a suicide attack – was followed by a surge in activity by the group during August, including an attempted piracy attack and renewed clashes with the army.

The recent spike in violence indicates a shift away from signs that Abu Sayyaf had entered a steep decline since last year’s Marawi siege, when its most powerful faction – led by now-deceased militant leader Isnilon Hapilon – was wiped-out in a five-month offensive by government forces which ended last October. In the time since, the group has rarely made headlines beyond its remote island hideouts.

Abu Sayyaf is in the headlines once again. And it may be no coincidence that its re-emergence into the public consciousness comes at a time when Duterte has been focused on finalizing a years-old peace deal with the more moderate Islamist rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, based just across the water on the larger southern island of Mindanao. Do the signs of life in Abu Sayyaf indicate a co-ordinated and resurgent campaign aimed at disrupting the peace process? Or are recent attacks a desperate cry for attention as the once-powerful militant group fades into obscurity and irrelevance?

The decades-old roots of Abu Sayyaf’s violence

The modern-day motivations of Abu Sayyaf can be better interpreted through tracing the group’s long history, dating back to its founding by radical Islamist preacher Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in the early 1990s. Janjalani – unhappy with the stalling separatist struggle for a new Muslim homeland in Mindanao, which at the time was fronted by the moderately-minded Moro National Liberation Front – set-up Abu Sayyaf as a radical splinter group with the aim of fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines. The group was initially hierarchical and well-organized, while it fostered close links with Indonesia-based militant group Jemaah Islamiyah and the global Al-Qaeda network.

After Janjalani was killed during a 1998 military raid, the group splintered and during the 2000s ditched its ideological mantra to a large degree, becoming something more akin to a criminal enterprise. The group became motivated more by profit than ideology, and went on to launch a wave of kidnappings and piracy attacks through which it accrued huge wealth. Ransom payments often ran into millions of dollars. The consequences of not paying-up were stark, as Abu Sayyaf gained a gruesome reputation for beheading both western and Filipino hostages within hours of its ransom deadlines not being met. Attacks on vessels in the Sulu Sea led experts to dub Abu Sayyaf-infested waters as the ‘new Somalia’.

President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to crack down hard on Abu Sayyaf while Martial Law remains in place across all of Mindanao until 31 December 2018 (Image Source: PCOO)

By late-2014 the group had a new leader – Isnilon Hapilon – and had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. This signalled a reversion to its early ideological aim of seeking an independent Islamic state in the Philippines’ conflict-plagued south. In its isolated island bases away from the prying eyes of the military the group increased its number of recruits and used funds from piracy operations to purchase weapons and ammunition. In late-May 2017, Hapilon’s powerful Abu Sayyaf faction joined forces with Maute group jihadists on Mindanao and laid siege to the city of Marawi for five months in an attempt to forge an Islamic State-style caliphate in Southeast Asia. The militants were finally flushed-out by the army in October of last year having sustained heavy losses. More than 1,000 jihadists were killed.

The declining strength of Abu Sayyaf post-Marawi

Since being routed in the tight urban battlefields of Marawi late last year, the strength and capabilities of Abu Sayyaf have noticeably declined. Hapilon was killed during the final throes of battle, dealing a significant blow to the revived aim of the group to fight for an Islamic caliphate. Two main factions were left behind in the group’s traditional strongholds, loosely led by Furuji Indama in Basilan and Radullan Sahiron in Sulu. Further factionalization has also occurred, with sub-leaders commanding small pockets of fighters which are often structured along clan or family lines. Since the start of this year the group’s remnants have come under sustained attack from the army under Martial Law, which Duterte has extended across the entirety of Mindanao and its outlying islands until the end of 2018.

In the first six months of the year at least 63 Abu Sayyaf members have been killed by the army, while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recently estimated that only around 100 militants remain in Sulu and just 35 in Basilan. These numbers are hard to verify due to the group’s notoriously shadowy nature and remote areas of operation, however its lack of notable activity until recently backed-up claims that its strength was declining. The year up to July saw few attempted piracy attacks, no mass-casualty bombings and no major attacks on villages – all hallmark tactics of the group in the past. Many small groups of Abu Sayyaf fighters have recently surrendered to the military while the group’s low-profile activities have barely made headlines beyond the remote island provinces where Abu Sayyaf operates.

Abu Sayyaf displays signs of renewed life

The suicide bombing at an army checkpoint on the outskirts Lamitan city, Basilan province, on 31 July thrust the group firmly back into the spotlight. The attack – which left 11 people dead including four civilians, six soldiers and the suspected bomber – took the authorities by surprise. Abu Sayyaf was thought to no-longer possess the capability to pull-off such an attack. Unconfirmed media reports suggested a Moroccan national with links to the Islamic state was the perpetrator, raising worrying questions as to the extent of the link between Abu Sayyaf and the wider global jihadi movement, which was thought to have been severed after the defeat of Hapilon’s faction in Marawi. The suicide attack was just the first in a number of high-profile incidents linked to the group over the next month.

Abu Sayyaf joined forces with the Maute group to lay siege to Marawi in 2017. The militants were defeated by government troops after a gruelling five-month battle (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

On 10 August, a group of around ten heavily-armed Abu Sayyaf militants boarded a Malaysian-owned tugboat off the island of Tawi-Tawi, close to the Malaysian state of Sabah. Authorities suspected the incident to be an attempted hostage-taking or kidnapping-for-ransom, however the crew managed to escape abduction by locking themselves in a secure room onboard the ship before Malaysian troops intervened, causing the militants to flee. Despite the ultimate failure of the operation, the attempted piracy attack demonstrates the willingness of Abu Sayyaf to once again launch ambitious assaults on the high seas. Towards the end of August, clashes with the military also intensified in the group’s island lairs. Several militants were killed, yet fierce battles on 23 August between more than 40 militants and an army battalion left 22 government soldiers wounded, many having sustained gunshot wounds and shrapnel-blast injuries. On 31 August, unidentified gunmen onboard a boat – identified by police as likely Abu Sayyaf members – raided a small coastal town in Zamboanga del Norte, killing four civilians and a government militiaman before taking two people hostage and fleeing back out to sea. The attack serves as just the latest indication that Abu Sayyaf may be trying to reboot their past violent campaign.

Is the threat from Abu Sayyaf really rising?

Do these incidents represent a growing threat from a resurgent Abu Sayyaf? Or are they simply last acts of resistance from a group which is becoming increasingly desperate to gain attention and remind itself of past glories when it was considered the most radical and brutal jihadi group in Southeast Asia?

Despite the spate of attacks, it is clear that Abu Sayyaf remains severely restricted in its reach. It is no longer able to dominate the waters surrounding its maritime strongholds as it once could. Joint naval patrols carried-out on a regular basis by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea have put paid to that. Launching piracy operations on the scale it once did, would now be far more difficult. An atmosphere of increased vigilance by countries in the region has also hampered the movement of jihadi fighters in the remote maritime borderlands between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, which served as a vital transit point for terrorists in the build-up to last year’s assault on Marawi city.

Meanwhile, the Philippine military has permanently deployed 10 battalions to Basilan and Sulu, and continues to launch co-ordinated ground and air assaults on Abu Sayyaf hideouts, aided by President Duterte’s decision to keep Martial Law in place until the end of 2018. In August, the army also set up a new outpost on the remote island of Panguan, located between Tawi-Tawi and the Malaysian state of Sabah, in what senior military spokesman Gen. Custodio Parcon described as an attempt to prevent the area from once again becoming a ‘safe haven’ from which militants could launch attacks. The lawless security environment which allowed Abu Sayyaf to flourish before Marawi now ceases to exist.

Forecast: Abu Sayyaf looking to disrupt Duterte’s peace process

It is no coincidence that the rise in Abu Sayyaf activity in recent months came just as President Duterte finalized a long-in-the-making peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao, aimed at establishing a new autonomous region in Muslim-majority areas of the region – including the island provinces which have long been home to Abu Sayyaf. The deal is expected to deal a huge blow to the recruitment efforts of jihadi groups such as Abu Sayyaf, that have long sought to lure Muslim recruits who felt marginalized and disenfranchised in the Philippines’ impoverished and war-afflicted south. The extremists are now attempting to push back and disrupt the peace process for their own survival.

The Philippine military has deployed 10 battalions to Sulu province in an effort to prevent Abu Sayyaf from relaunching its campaign of terror (Image Source: PIA)

Bombings such as the one perpetrated by Abu Sayyaf in Basilan, and two similar attacks carried-out in August by another radical group – the ISIS-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters – in Sultan Kudarat, now represent the biggest threat going forward. These radical groups may not have the manpower and resources to take the fight to the army in a conventional sense, so will now likely revert to guerrilla tactics such as suicide bombings, kidnappings and ambushes targeting government troops.

In this sense, Abu Sayyaf are attempting a comeback of sorts. Yet under the strain of Martial Law and with Duterte in the mood to crack-down after the Basilan bombing – which prompted him to order his troops to ‘destroy and kill’ the jihadists – Abu Sayyaf will struggle to resurrect its past reign of terror.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Liguasan Marsh Clashes Expose the Latent Threat from ISIS in the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 amid the continued threat posed by IS-linked groups (Image Source: PCOO)

Shortly before dawn on 10 June, government airstrikes pounded militant hideouts in towns dotted around the edge of Liguasan Marsh. This sprawling wetland – straddling two provinces in the remote interior of the Philippines’ conflict-wracked southern island of Mindanao – has become just the latest front in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia, after militants allied to the notorious jihadi group laid siege to the city of Marawi – located 120km further north – for five months last year.

The initial aerial attack by government forces in Liguasan Marsh was followed by a ground offensive lasting several days, which resulted in the death of at least 26 militants but prompted 15,000 residents to flee their homes. The deceased militants belonged to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) – an IS-aligned group which has clashed repeatedly with the military since the turn of the year.

Meanwhile the radical Maute group – chief architects of the Marawi siege – have also risen their head in Mindanao in recent weeks after several months of inactivity. On 17 June, the Mautes – commanded by IS’ new leader in the Philippines, Abu Dar – clashed with government troops in the Lanao del Sur town of Tubaran, leaving five militants dead and 11,700 people from 2,200 families displaced. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner said around 30 Maute fighters were able to flee the area unharmed.

More than a year since the uprising in Marawi, does the intensified violence witnessed in June indicate that IS-linked groups – considerably depleted after the siege – are rebounding in western Mindanao?

While the Mautes were dealt a near-knockout blow after sustaining vast losses in Marawi, only a small cohort of BIFF members participated in the siege. The BIFF fighters who did not travel to Marawi have now picked up the IS mantle. Thought to number several-hundred jihadis, the BIFF remain embedded in small pockets of rural territory across three provinces in western Mindanao: Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The group is split into at least three sub-factions, with Esmael Abdulmalik serving as its main figurehead and de-facto leader. Since Marawi, the BIFF have regularly clashed with the security forces, launched a wave of IED attacks and rampaged through civilian towns.

Encounters between the BIFF and the military have increased in both scale and intensity. On 11 March, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported it had killed 44 militants and wounded 26 during three days of intense clashes in Datu Saudi town. Fighting again erupted in mid-April, before June’s latest military onslaught targeted the group in Liguasan Marsh. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the BIFF have proven unexpectedly resilient, well-resourced and difficult to dislodge. The group have hit back by ambushing soldiers using IEDs. Bomb blasts have also targeted civilians, with an explosion outside a bar in Tacurong causing 14 casualties on New Year’s Eve. More recently, the BIFF bombed a cathedral in Koronadal city in late-April and detonated a device outside a school in Midsayap in May.

IS-linked militants laid siege to Marawi city for five months from May-October 2017. The conflict left more than 1,000 people dead, most of whom were militants (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

The AFP have reported seeing foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia fighting alongside the BIFF, providing a possible explanation for their confounding level of strength. It is thought that a number of these non-Filipino combatants managed to escape from Marawi during the siege and linked-up with the BIFF, while others are rumoured to have entered Mindanao later by crossing porous sea borders. Senior army commander Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana says the AFP is verifying reports that Indonesians and Singaporeans were among those killed recently at Liguasan Marsh, while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has previously warned of the illicit entry of terrorists from neighbouring countries. The AFP has vowed to keep a ‘tight watch’ along Mindanao’s heavily-indented coast but policing it round-the-clock is a monumental challenge, and inevitably some are able to slip through the net undetected. Some of these new recruits are battle-hardened and trained in bomb-making skills acquired abroad.

As the BIFF has proceeded with its campaign of terror, the Maute group – destroyed as a hierarchical and organized fighting force in Marawi – has been slowly rebuilding beneath the surface. The clashes that erupted in Tubaran in June were the first involving the group since the early months of the year, when sporadic gun battles with government soldiers erupted in the towns of Masui, Pagayawan and Pantar. The latest violence indicates the Mautes are still very much alive under new leader Abu Dar.

Reports of Maute recruitment in Lanao del Sur province have emerged, with the army claiming the terrorists are using cash, gold and jewellery looted from Marawi to lure impoverished young men into their ranks in villages surrounding the ruins of the now-destroyed Islamic city on the shores of Lake Lanao. In February, the AFP’s Col. Romeo Brawner estimated the Mautes had replenished their ranks with around 200 fighters from Lanao del Sur and said the group ‘had not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate’. The military’s commanding general Rolando Bautista recently warned another Marawi-style urban siege was becoming a ‘big possibility’. Police have also arrested Maute members and sympathizers further afield in central and northern areas of the country, while Manila’s police director Oscar Albayalde has placed officers on ‘full alert’ for potential Maute attacks in the capital.

Alarmist rhetoric aside, on the surface the threat from radical Islamists appears to have reduced since the Marawi siege ended. A military crackdown facilitated by Martial Law has kept up the pressure on the jihadists, while a long-delayed peace process with the region’s larger and more moderate Muslim rebel groups is inching towards a conclusion. The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is set to be passed next month, paving the way for the creation of a new autonomously-governed region for Muslim majority areas in Mindanao. It is hoped the landmark deal will forge a lasting peace between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – which has already laid down its arms – while at the same time reducing grievances among the Muslim population and tackling the core long-term drivers of terrorist recruitment in western Mindanao, which have sustained more radical groups for decades.

Since the Marawi siege ended, Philippine troops have been battling the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and remnants of the Maute group in Mindanao (Image Source: PIA)

Yet the current generation of extremist groups present in the region – spearheaded by the IS-aligned BIFF and the rapidly-regrouping Maute remnants – appear unlikely to give up their fight. If the peace process fails to live up to its promise of bringing greater autonomy and development, there is a danger these elements may be able to garner enough support to once again revive Mindanao’s six-decade Islamist separatist struggle – but this time entwined with the warped ideology of transnational jihad and the brutal tactics which have become the trademark of IS’ global brand. Just last month, senior BIFF spokesperson Abu Misri Mama warned the group does not recognize the BBL-led peace process and chillingly said ‘‘we are not in favour of autonomy…the BIFF will continue to fight for independence; the island will not see peace even after this BBL is passed’’. President Rodrigo Duterte has also voiced fears of such a scenario, warning earlier this year of ‘‘war in Mindanao’’ if the peace process collapses.

For as long as their flame still burns, the IS-linked jihadists of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Mautes will represent the greatest barrier to a lasting peace in the Philippines’ troubled south.

Indonesia Launches Anti-Terror Crackdown After Surabaya Church Bombings

Since the ISIS-inspired triple suicide bombings in Surabaya on 13 May, elite counter-terrorism police have detained more than 70 alleged militants across Indonesia (Image Source: AWG97)

A spate of suicide bomb attacks on three churches and the police headquarters in the Indonesian city of Surabaya last month shocked the country and made headlines around the world. The attacks came less than a week after more than 150 Islamist militant convicts laid siege to a prison on the outskirts of Jakarta, killing five police officers and exposing the growing threat posed to Indonesia by ISIS and its affiliates. This report provides an overview of the major terrorist incidents that shook the country last month and discusses the response of both Indonesia’s lawmakers and law enforcement agencies.

After avoiding a major Islamist attack for more than two years – since the ISIS-claimed gun and bomb attack on Jakarta’s Thamrin business district killed four civilians in January 2016 – signs of increased militant activity first rose to the surface on 8 May, when armed clashes broke-out between convicted terrorists and police officers at a high-security prison in Depok, near the Indonesian capital Jakarta. The situation quickly escalated into a tense two-day siege, resulting in the death of five police officers and one militant. The siege eventually came to an end after officers from the elite police counter-terrorism unit – Detachment 88 – stormed the prison in an attempt to free hostages, triggering the militants’ surrender. Soon after the incident, President Joko Widodo said the state would ‘never give space to terrorism or any effort to undermine national security’. However, worse was still to come.

On 13 May, suicide bombers linked to the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) militant group detonated their devices at three Christian churches in the East Java city of Surabaya, killing at least 13 people and leaving in excess of 30 wounded. ISIS soon claimed responsibility for the attack, and authorities later revealed that all six of the attackers came from the same family, several of whom were young children. The following morning, another five suicide bombers blew themselves up nearby at the city’s police headquarters, leaving ten people wounded. As with the first incident, the attack was again carried-out by a single family. On 16 May, a third attack occurred in the space of just three days when four men wielding samurai swords attacked a police station in the city of Pekanbaru, in Riau province. A police officer was killed and three others injured, while all four of the attackers were shot dead at the scene.

The wave of attacks shocked Indonesia and its neighbours, despite Southeast Asian countries having already been on a raised state of alert since last year’s siege of Marawi in the Philippines and amid fears of ISIS fighters returning from war zones in the Middle East. However, the unexpectedly large scale and nature of the attacks – in the sense that children were used – heightened the shock factor.

In the wake of the turbulent few days endured in mid-May, Indonesia’s authorities have been swift to respond. In a direct response to the siege at the prison in Depok, police announced that all of the 155 militants involved would be transferred to a maximum-security detention facility on Nusakambangan island in Central Java. In the weeks immediately following the attacks in Surabaya and Pekanbaru, officers from the Detachment 88 counter-terrorism squad launched a series of raids across the nation. On 22 May, national police chief Tito Karnavian announced that 74 suspects had been arrested in the previous ten days, adding that officers had seized ‘ready-made bombs and other explosive materials’.

After a recent surge in Islamist attacks, Indonesia’s armed forces are set to play a greater role in counter-terrorism operations alongside the national police (Image Source: Kurniawan3115)

In some instances, militants tried to resist arrest, resulting in several armed skirmishes and fatalities. On 10 May two jihadists attempting to join the prison siege in Depok were shot by police officers after attempting to seize their weapons in Bekasi, leaving one dead while the other sustained injuries and was later taken into custody. On 14 May two suspects were killed by police in Sidoarjo after opening fire on officers. Two days later a militant was shot dead in Tanjung Balai in similar circumstances. Of the 74 people arrested, Karnavian said most had ties to JAD while at least 37 of the suspects were linked to the Surabaya bombings. Describing the police response, Karnavian said on 31 May that his force had ‘moved fast’ to ‘identify the perpetrators’ and restore a semblance of stability in the country.

President Widodo condemned the attacks as ‘barbaric’, labelling the actions of the perpetrators as ‘cowardly’. Widodo also urged lawmakers to push through a raft of new counter-terrorism legislation which was first proposed after the Thamrin attack in early-2016 but has since faced repeated hurdles in Parliament. The national police chief also echoed the need for tougher anti-terror measures, with Karnavian requesting assistance from the army to conduct joint operations targeting JAD and several other domestic ISIS-inspired militant groups, such as Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) and Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT). Less than a week after the attacks, President Widodo confirmed that he would reactivate the military’s Joint Special Operations Command – known as Koopsusgab – to aid the police in counter-terrorism operations. A greater role for Indonesia’s armed forces in tackling terrorism now appears certain as public opinion has shifted in the wake of the sudden resurgence in jihadist violence.

In the final days of May, lawmakers in Jakarta passed the new counter-terrorism laws first proposed more than two years ago. The new legislation is set to give the authorities enhanced and wide-ranging powers to arrest and question suspected terrorists at an earlier stage in investigations. Police will now be permitted to detain terror suspects for up to 21 days, increased from the previous limit of seven. Officers will also be able to apply for an extension if more time is required. Prosecuting authorities will now also be able to charge individuals suspected of either supporting or recruiting for both foreign and domestic militant groups. Sentences are also set to be increased for those convicted, including lengthy jail terms and the death penalty for those found guilty of the most serious terrorism offences.

The attacks by Islamist militants in Surabaya and Pekanbaru expose the growing threat posed to the country by ISIS and its regional affiliates: JAD, JAT, MIT and the remnants of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). A secondary threat also emanates from so-called ‘lone wolves’, who may strike at any moment using unsophisticated weapons such as knives or vehicles. These low-tech attacks require little planning and are notoriously difficult for the intelligence services to prevent. At present, Indonesia is facing a dual threat from both homegrown jihadists and foreign fighters returning from conflict zones in ISIS’ former heartlands in Syria and Iraq. Just a few weeks ago, President Widodo’s Chief-of-Staff revealed that almost 1,500 Indonesian citizens have attempted to travel to the Middle East to fight alongside ISIS and other extremist groups in recent years – and many of them succeeded in their aim. Of these, 590 are thought to remain in Syria while 103 have been killed and 86 have already returned of their own accord. In addition, more than 500 were forcibly deported back to Indonesia while 171 others have been prevented from leaving the country after suspicions that they intended to take up arms overseas.

These figures may represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the threat posed by Islamist militants in Indonesia, a country which has until recently done a remarkable job in keeping the jihadists at bay. In the current climate however, the task for intelligence and law enforcement agencies has become far more difficult. Despite the wave of arrests and introduction of new counter-terrorism laws since the attacks last month, it may be many years before Indonesia can turn the tide on its rising militancy.

The Political Undertones to Cambodia’s Unresolved Border Dispute with Laos

Tensions flared during 2017 after Laotian troops reportedly crossed the border to halt the construction of a road in Stung Treng province (Image Source: Pierre Andre)

Cambodia’s usually low-key dispute over an unmarked stretch of its remote 540-km long border with northern neighbour Laos made international headlines last August, when long-time Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a stern six-day ultimatum for Laotian troops to withdraw from the disputed region or face a forceful military response. Cambodian troops equipped with rocket launchers headed from Phnom Penh toward the contested area but were ordered to turn back the following day after a hastily-arranged meeting between Hun Sen and Laotian leader Thongloun Sisoulith defused tensions.

Despite a renewed commitment from both sides to work on delineating the precise boundary, the dispute remains unresolved and in late-February – a year after tensions first reignited – the Cambodian military held a live-fire weapons training exercise just south of the contested border. Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said the drills were designed to improve the army’s capabilities and allow soldiers to ‘‘get to know the location in order to defend our country and our territorial integrity’’, yet emphasized the drills were ‘‘not a threat to any country’’ and unrelated to the border row with Laos.

Are the recent military exercises a sign that lingering tensions over the border are once again rising to the surface? The answer may have less to do with the dynamics of the dispute, and more to do with the upcoming election season in Cambodia. Despite the border issue remaining unresolved, since the flare-up last August relations between Cambodia and Laos have progressed seemingly unaffected by the near confrontation. Yet the dispute remains conveniently alive in the background to be used as a political tool by Hun Sen, who often looks to fan the flames of nationalism to advance his ‘strongman’ and ‘protector of the nation’ image as crucial elections draw closer. The next is scheduled for 29 July.

Background to the dispute

The dispute over the boundary separating the Laotian provinces of Attapeu and Champassak to the north from the Cambodian provinces of Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri and Stung Treng to the south dates back centuries. A large Khmer population was present in modern-day southern Laos during the Angkor empire until its collapse in the mid-14th century, while the northern Lao population migrated further south from the 15th century onward; forming the basis of historical claims to ownership of the border region. The root of the problem today however can be traced to the French colonial era. As a remote inland border far from the coastline and any potential invading force, its precise mapping was not exactly a high priority for the French rulers of Indochina from the late-19th until the mid-20th century.

After the French withdrew in the mid-1950s the boundary remained undefined throughout the next few decades of upheaval, encapsulated by the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Genocide. After the remnants of the Khmer Rouge collapsed in 1998 and a semblance of peace returned, closer attention was paid to the border region. In 2000, a joint bilateral committee was set-up to define the border, and by 2005, the two neighbours announced that around 87% of the boundary had been officially demarcated through the placing of 121 border markers, with only another 24 left to position. Yet due to disagreement over the final unmarked areas the job was never completed and up to 14% of the border remains undefined. Despite tensions occasionally flaring, a peaceful status-quo has prevailed.

Threat of military confrontation in 2017

The relative peace was threatened last year. In early-February 2017 Laotian soldiers crossed into Siem Peng district to prevent Cambodian military engineers from building a road over contested territory, and after a succession of similar incidents over the next few months, Cambodian PM Hun Sen issued an ultimatum on 11 August warning an estimated 30 Laotian soldiers to retreat within six days or face a military response. Hun Sen ordered troops to the border province of Stung Treng, stating he had run out of patience with the ‘‘invasion’’, warning ‘‘if a situation happens, please don’t blame Cambodia’’.

A military confrontation appeared imminent in August 2017 after Cambodian PM Hun Sen ordered troops to the disputed border region (Image Source: RC Army)

Yet soon after rocket launchers were seen heading to the area amid the imminent threat of armed clashes breaking-out, the crisis was de-escalated following a rapidly-convened meeting between the Cambodian PM and his Laotian counterpart in Vientiane. After the meeting, which Hun Sen labelled as a ‘‘huge victory’’ for both sides, troops were withdrawn and both leaders promised to re-establish dialogue channels to reduce tensions and work towards delimiting the rest of the border. Hun Sen later lauded his ‘‘personal relations’’ with Laotian PM Thongloun Sisoulith as crucial to resolving the issue, and in September the two nations’ foreign ministries said they would request detailed colonial-era maps from the French government before agreeing on the final geographical limits of the border.

Has the flare-up harmed Cambodia-Laos Relations?

Despite the live-fire drill earlier this year refocusing minds, the dispute has been pushed firmly aside as relations between Cambodia and Laos have flourished apparently undisturbed by the latent border tensions. The two sides have held a series of high-level security meetings, with Cambodian Defence Minster Tea Banh visiting Laotian counterpart Chansmone Chanyalat in mid-January, pledging to forge closer military ties and avoid confrontation along the border. Later that month the interior ministries of both nations took part in a key bilateral security meeting, where they signed a new memorandum of understanding on co-operation and vowed to jointly combat drug trafficking and other cross-border crimes. In March, the two countries also signed an agreement with neighbouring Vietnam to enhance tourism and economic ties in the 13 provinces surrounding the tri-border between the three countries.

More recently, on 4 April Laotian PM Sisoulith visited Hun Sen in Siem Reap where both men vowed to bolster co-operation in the fields of trade, investment and tourism. It is clear that both leaders wish to build upon their nations strong historical relationship which has been fostered by close religious, cultural and geographical ties over the centuries. Ensuring good relations is especially important given the central role both countries hope to play in China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, which will require the careful management of border tensions but should provide a long-term boost to both nations economies. In this context, it is evident why the dispute has had no discernible effect on bilateral ties, leaving many to wonder why Hun Sen seemed so agitated by the dispute last year in the first instance, and why he would risk enflaming tensions again by holding drills so close to the border.

The dispute remains a political tool for Hun Sen

The dispute has arguably been used by Hun Sen as part of a wider strategy to promote his image as the sole capable protector of his country’s national security and territorial sovereignty ahead of upcoming elections. It should not be overlooked that the escalation came in a year when Hun Sen also cracked down on alleged internal ‘threats’ by arresting political opponents on contentious treason charges, dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and forced the closure of critical independent media outlets such as the Cambodia Daily. The minor border incursion by Laos was presented as another – this time external – ‘threat’ which only the prime minister was said to be capable of responding to. This portrayal was visible through Hun Sen’s claim that the dispute would be ‘‘hard to resolve’’ if it were not for his ‘‘personal relations’’ with Lao politicians, in addition to February’s exercise carried-out by a battalion created by the PM just days after last August’s flare-up.

The August 2017 border flare-up was defused almost as quickly as it began, after Hun Sen met his Laotian counterpart in Vientiane (Image Source: Russian Govt)

To secure enough votes from the public to guarantee an extension of his 33-years in power, Hun Sen appears keen to play the nationalist card and remind voters of internal and external ‘threats’ which he says pose a danger to the once-troubled country. The PM has often used alarmist rhetoric before elections by warning voters of a descent back into civil war if his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is not re-elected. Laos represents by far the easiest external target to aim at for Hun Sen to boost his ‘strongman’ credentials, with its army being significantly smaller and weaker than Cambodia’s other two neighbours – Thailand and Vietnam – which also have outstanding border issues with Cambodia.

Yet despite the alarm sparked by Hun Sen’s ultimatum last August and the recent military drills, the dispute itself remains low-key and unlikely to escalate or lead to armed conflict any time soon. The border area is remote and sparsely populated, making it geopolitically neutral in relative terms and therefore unlikely to ignite into violence. While the dispute causes few problems on the ground and poses little impediment to bilateral relations, emerging tensions over the trade in natural resources and the proposed construction of dams further upstream could make it more significant in the future.

To avoid such a scenario and prevent the area becoming a flashpoint in decades to come, both sides must take the present opportunity to resolve the dispute and demarcate the final unmarked stretches of the border. Little progress has been made since last year’s vow from both nations to look again at the issue, and achieving meaningful progress will require enhanced political determination. Yet while the dispute remains in the background as a convenient political tool for Hun Sen to draw attention to as elections draw closer, there is even less of an incentive for politicians to push for a faster resolution.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Almost a Year on from ISIS, Marawi’s Displaced Residents Face a Long Wait to Return Home

Many of Marawi’s former residents remain displaced across Mindanao. The city’s central Banggolo area remains off-limits while the military works to clear unexploded bombs and war materials left behind from the conflict. (Image Source: Philippine Information Agency)

Five months since President Duterte declared Marawi city ‘liberated from terrorist influence’ after the slaying of militant leaders Isnilon Haplion and Omar Maute during the final throes of battle, the vast majority of the city’s war-weary former residents have not yet been able to return to their homes.

More than 200,000 of Marawi’s inhabitants remain displaced and are at the epicentre of what has become a prolonged humanitarian crisis, which is beginning to foster an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair among the resilient but increasingly forlorn community of Marawian evacuees.

The exiled are desperate to resume their lives and begin the slow process of rebuilding everything they have lost, yet the path ahead appears uncertain, dangerous and littered with obstacles.

The government says the full reconstruction and rehabilitation of Marawi could take up to four years to complete, whilst the flattened streets of the city centre remain littered with unexploded ordnance. The scale of devastation across the war-ravaged city makes a return to normality a distant prospect.

In the interim, the prolonged marginalization and disenfranchisement of Marawi’s exiled community could create fertile ground for recruitment by ISIS in the areas of western Mindanao worst-affected by the displacement crisis. Should the government be doing more?

The scale of the humanitarian crisis is huge. More than 353,000 people from around 77,000 families were displaced by the five-month war which pitted government forces against jihadists from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups. The vast majority fled during the early days of the conflict after militants took the authorities by surprise and over-ran the city on 23 May last year, leaving only around 2,000 civilians stranded in areas of heavy fighting. Several-hundred were taken hostage by the Mautes.

Most internally-displaced persons (IDPs) sought refuge in the nearby provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, with smaller numbers residing in Misamis Oriental and South Cotabato. The majority of those who fled have stayed with friends or relatives, yet tens-of-thousands more have been forced to seek shelter in cramped conditions in hastily-established state-run temporary evacuation centres.

The military initially hoped to defeat the jihadists within a few weeks, but as residents anxiously waited for news the conflict ran-on for five long months as the city was reduced to rubble through intense ground battles and sustained aerial bombardment. The scale of devastation was immense, as security forces engaged in some of the heaviest fighting witnessed in the Philippines since World War Two.

Whilst the small number of civilians trapped in the conflict zone endured a desperate daily battle for survival, dodging bullets and launching daring attempts to escape from their captors, those who had already managed to flee to safety were confronted with a new set of dire challenges.

In overcrowded evacuation centres, health became a major concern as cases of fever, diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses soared. Inadequate sanitation facilities increased the risk of waterborne diseases, whilst safe drinking water was in short supply. Dwindling food supplies led to a rise in malnutrition among the elderly and young children, many of whom remain out of education as twenty of Marawi’s 69 schools were totally destroyed. Most other schools suffered extensive damage and remain closed.

The sheer extent of the unfolding humanitarian emergency overwhelmed local authorities, who were ill-prepared to cope with the burgeoning crisis. The siege of Marawi not only destroyed homes but also jobs, livelihoods and entire communities, prompting a sudden exodus with little prior warning.

Some families from the outer-regions of the city were able to return home in the weeks immediately following the ‘termination of military operations’ in the city by the armed forces in late-October. A few thousand others have been moved to temporary resettlement villages built by the government, the largest of which is in Sagonsongan and will eventually be able to accommodate 4,600 families.

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants from the radical Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups laid siege to Marawi on 23 May 2017. The authorities were initially taken aback at the scale of the assault, and it took almost five months for the Philippine military to retake the city. (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Yet the majority of Marawians remain displaced. According to the latest figures released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) only 87,306 individuals from 16,930 families have returned to Marawi so-far, leaving another 266,615 residents from 53,323 families still without a home.

Contamination of the main battle area with IEDs planted by the militants and unexploded ordnance (UXO) from military air raids presents the most immediate barrier to return. Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBN), the multi-agency group set-up by the government to co-ordinate the rehabilitation effort, is currently working alongside military engineers to clear the hard-hit central Banggolo area.

As of the end of December, TFBN said 30% of the area had been cleared with the army having removed 2,853 items of UXO and 415 IEDs from the ruins. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner says clearing operations in the area, which covers 24 of the city’s 96 villages, are scheduled to be completed by mid-April. Even then it will not be safe for residents to return permanently, only to pay a fleeting visit.

The government estimates that full reconstruction and rehabilitation of the city will take up to four years and cost PHP50bn, yet some have predicted the final bill will surpass PHP150bn. International organizations such as the World Bank and foreign governments including Australia, China, Japan and the US have all pledged financial support, whilst President Duterte has allocated an initial PHP10bn for the rehabilitation of Marawi in this year’s budget. Despite these commitments, little can be done to speed up recovery and get residents home sooner.

More however could be done to support Marawi’s displaced inhabitants while they are living in a state of flux. Nine months after the siege began host families are still struggling with the burden of care, whilst the basic needs of many IDPs staying in evacuation centres are still not being met. It is now clear that most evacuees will not be able to return home for years, prompting calls for greater support.

In the present void, resentment and anger are rising. This could play directly into the hands of the very people who drove Marawi’s residents from their homes. The Philippine military has already voiced concerns over radicalization in the provinces surrounding Marawi, warning that ISIS-linked groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and remnants of the Maute group are actively seeking to recruit new fighters, first targeting young men from the most marginalized communities.

Marawi’s residents are eager to return home, but their city has been reduced to rubble and large parts of it will remain uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. The conflict will leave lasting scars not only on the landscape, but also in the minds of those who witnessed the horrors inflicted by ISIS and those who have lived through its aftermath in desperate conditions.

By extending Martial Law until the end of 2018 and looking to bolster the military’s presence in Mindanao, as well as reaffirming his commitment to pass a law creating a new autonomous Muslim region in the south, President Duterte is at least attempting to ensure that the siege of Marawi is not repeated elsewhere in the region whilst concurrently dealing a blow to ISIS’ recruitment ambitions.

Yet with an eye on securing peace for the future, Duterte’s administration is arguably not doing enough in the present to help Marawi’s displaced residents recover and get their shattered lives back on track. Despite starting the process of rebuilding the city and providing various means of assistance to IDPs, the state’s response has been criticized in some quarters as being too slow and inequitable.

The void is being filled by NGOs and the charitable nature of victims’ friends and families. Yet as time passes and funding dries-up, these additional resources will likely wear thin. Duterte must hope that radical groups are not able to also fill part of the void and take advantage of the situation.

Just like the siege itself, the path home for Marawi’s displaced inhabitants is set to be long, arduous and fraught with setbacks.

A version of this article is also published on Eurasia Review.

What Underlies the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters’ Campaign of Terror in Western Mindanao?

Since the end of the Marawi siege in October, Philippine troops have been redeployed to take on the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Image Source: Philippines Information Agency)

In the three months since the jihadists of the ISIS-linked Maute group were routed by Philippine troops in Marawi, another radical band of Islamists have risen from the shadows to take their place as the vanguard of ISIS in western Mindanao. Since the five-month siege of Marawi ended in late-October, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have launched a wave of IED attacks and regularly clashed with security forces, whilst their de-facto leader Esmael Abdulmalik has been touted as a possible replacement for slain Abu Sayyaf militant Isnilon Hapilon as ISIS’ new emir in Southeast Asia.

In the post-Marawi climate of heightened threat awareness, the BIFF’s recent spike in activity has garnered an increased amount of attention not only in the Philippines, but across the wider region. Yet the group has been around for almost a decade and has been involved in high-profile incidents before, notably the Mamasapano clash of January 2015 which left 44 special forces soldiers dead and sent shockwaves throughout the country. The BIFF has also claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in the past, whilst a small cohort of its fighters are thought to have taken part in last year’s Marawi siege.

What underlies the BIFF’s intensified campaign of terror? And how has this previously little-known militant group emerged from being a mere footnote in Mindanao’s long-running armed Islamist insurgency to positioning itself as the last bastion of ISIS’ ambitions to carve out a regional caliphate?

The BIFF has its roots in the decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency which has been fought on the Philippines’ conflict-plagued southern island of Mindanao since the early 1970s. In its initial stages, the insurgency was fought by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founded by Nur Misuari, and later by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) founded by Hashim Salamat, which broke-off from the MNLF in 1981. Both organizations enjoyed support from large sections of the Muslim population in the Mindanao region, which has long suffered from underdevelopment and high rates of poverty in comparison to other parts of the majority-Catholic country, leaving its residents feeling marginalized.

The MNLF and the MILF both started out fighting for a fully-independent state for the Muslim-majority Moro population in the south, leading to a protracted conflict which has caused more than 100,000 deaths. Yet in recent decades their stance has softened as both groups have turned their attention away from armed struggle and towards peace talks with the government, aimed at securing greater autonomy in the south rather than independence. This shift angered hardline elements within the separatist movement, resulting in the formation of several radical groups to revive the campaign for a fully-independent Muslim state. A breakaway faction of the MNLF – Abu Sayyaf – emerged in 1990 and went on to gain global notoriety after launching a spate of kidnappings in the region and brutally beheading several Western hostages. Twenty years later, in 2010, a second splinter group emerged this time from within the ranks of the MILF, and called itself the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

The BIFF was formed by Ameril Umbra Kato, who was educated in Saudi Arabia and espoused a more radical brand of Islam based on Salafi-Wahhabi ideology, practiced more widely in the Middle East than in Southeast Asia. Frustrated with the MILF’s decision to accept autonomy at the expense of full independence, Kato led around 300 former MILF comrades in a campaign of attacks targeting the military and civilians in rural areas across the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato. The primary aim of the attacks was to disrupt the peace process between the government and the MILF.

Kato was succeeded as leader by Mohammad Ali Tambako after suffering a stroke in 2011, yet Tambako left to establish another militant group two years later. Kato died of natural causes in 2015 and the BIFF appointed Ismael Abubakar as its new figurehead, signalling a new era in which the group separated into factions and became more of a splintered guerrilla organization than a co-ordinated or hierarchical group. The BIFF remains loosely-structured today, and is not thought to have a defined leadership structure or central chain of command.

The BIFF has its roots in Mindanao’s long running Islamist separatist insurgency, but in recent years has fought under the banner of ISIS (Image Source: Keith Bacongco)

Amidst the uncertainty over its direction and leadership, the group had pledged allegiance to ISIS in late-2014. At the time, this was not viewed as a concern by the authorities and was seen as more of an attention-grabbing ploy aimed at aiding recruitment and boosting the group’s profile. This view changed suddenly when in May last year, militants from the ISIS-aligned Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups launched a brazen assault on the city of Marawi. The threat from ISIS had become visible, having materialized itself on a large scale in Southeast Asia for the first time. The Marawi crisis led the security forces in Mindanao to take pledges of allegiance to ISIS by smaller militant groups far more seriously.

The jihadists from the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf took five months to dislodge. In mid-October, the Philippine military announced the end of the siege after the deaths of militant leaders Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon in the main battle zone. More than 900 militants were killed in total, dealing a serious blow to Abu Sayyaf’s capabilities and virtually destroying the Maute group as a fighting force. Whilst a small number of the BIFF’s members were thought to be present in Marawi, many of the group’s fighters remained in its heartlands elsewhere in western Mindanao. These BIFF fighters now constitute the surviving remnants of ISIS in the southern Philippines, and have taken up the mantle vacated by the Mautes with a renewed sense of purpose and authority.

Since the end of the Marawi siege clashes between government forces and the BIFF have intensified in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato, where the group has its rural strongholds. Government airstrikes, ground offensives and gun battles resulted in the death of 28 BIFF members in the final three months of 2017, whilst two government troops were also killed. In December, the BIFF launched a series of attacks targeting the indigenous Teduray tribe whilst attempting to seize pockets of territory in rural villages in Maguindanao province, setting fire to houses and killing several tribe members whilst driving thousands more from their homes. The BIFF has also launched a spate of bomb attacks targeting police patrols, military bases and civilians. On New Year’s Eve, the militants detonated an IED outside a crowded bar in Tacurong city, killing two civilians and injuring twelve, having earlier in the day killed one and wounded five policemen in a bomb blast in Datu Hoffer town.

The BIFF remains split into at least three main factions, the largest and most active of which is led by Ismael Abdulmalik, also known by the alias Abu Turaife. In a particularly worrying development, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has reported seeing ‘foreign-looking’ gunmen fighting alongside BIFF militants in Maguindanao province, indicating that terrorist fighters from elsewhere in Southeast Asia may have joined-up with the group. It is possible that surviving Maute group members, including a number of Indonesians and Malaysians believed to have fought in Marawi, may have bolstered the BIFF’s ranks. At present, the BIFF appears to be the new group of choice for the region’s militants.

Local authorities have said they are monitoring the recruitment activities of jihadist groups in western Mindanao and are bracing themselves for another Marawi-style attack. Cotabato city has been muted as a possible second target. President Duterte has responded by extending Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 and has promised to destroy the BIFF, whilst recently-installed military chief Lt. Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero has vowed to redeploy resources from Marawi to tackle Islamist groups across the south. Mindanao’s civilian population remains on edge as its security forces maintain a heightened state of alert, having conducted several urban warfare training exercises in recent months to prepare for a repeat scenario. In Marawi last May, the authorities had been caught off guard.

Military operations against the BIFF have intensified in recent months in the group’s rural strongholds in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato (Image Source: AFP)

The rise to prominence of radical groups such as Maute, and now the BIFF, comes at a crucial stage in the southern Philippines’ drawn-out peace process with the MILF, which has laid down its weapons since a provisional peace deal with the government was signed in 2014. Currently, lawmakers are debating the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which would pave the way for a new autonomous region in the south to replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), constituting a final negotiated end to hostilities with the largest groups in the Moro rebel movement.

The bill is expected to be passed later this year. Yet after slow progress in getting even to this stage, concerns have been voiced that if the bill is delayed further, or in a worst-case scenario fails to pass through Congress, frustrations will grow and fertile ground for jihadist recruitment will be created. President Duterte and MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim have both warned of the radicalization risk. Duterte has talked repeatedly of the importance of correcting ‘historical injustices’ committed to the Moro people, whilst Ebrahim has described the BBL as being of ‘great importance for stability and security in Southeast Asia’. In a November interview with Channel News Asia, the MILF leader said ‘the longer this process takes, the more people are going to be radicalized’. Despite expressing his own frustration over the slow progress being made, Ebrahim has said the MILF remains firmly committed to the peace process and is staunchly opposed to radical groups such as the BIFF and Abu Sayyaf.

President Duterte has extended Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 to crack down on the BIFF and other militant groups active in the region (Image Source: Philippine Government)

Whilst the passage of the BBL may be an important step in quelling the long-running insurgency, it must be noted that previous peace agreements have not succeeded in ending the violence altogether. Despite the creation of the ARMM in 1989 and the signing of separate peace accords with the MNLF in 1996 and the MILF in 2014, several new groups have been spawned and the insurgency has evolved.

At present, it is the BIFF which pose the greatest concern going forward. Radical groups such as the BIFF will remain attractive to those who will never accept autonomy and maintain a desire to see a fully-independent Islamic state created in the southern Philippines. This is especially true for those living in the most impoverished areas of Mindanao, who may feel disenfranchised and excluded from the potential benefits that any political settlement may bring.

As long as the underlying conditions of instability remain present in Mindanao, transnational terror groups such as ISIS and aspiring militants from across the region will seek to take advantage of the situation. These links pose the biggest challenge to the ongoing peace process in the Philippines’ troubled south. Despite efforts on both sides to secure a lasting peace, the spread of ISIS’ global ideology to the region continues to aid recruitment, giving new meaning and impetus to the localized battles fought by formerly little-known militant groups such as the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf and now the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

How Marawi Pushed ASEAN Nations to Join Forces to Tackle Terrorism

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months last year, sparking Southeast Asia’s leaders into action (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Despite parts of Southeast Asia experiencing the scourge of Islamist terrorism for decades, the ten member-states of ASEAN have in the past struggled to co-operate to tackle the jihadist threat. After a spate of attacks in the 2000s carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf bandits in the southern Philippines, the regional bloc made determined efforts to forge a region-wide response.

These well-intentioned moves to implement a multilateral counter-terrorism framework ended up amounting to little more than a set of non-binding protocols and agreements outlining desired outcomes and suggesting best practices for member-states to follow, rather than ushering in a new era of enhanced security co-operation between countries in the region.

Last year’s five-month siege of Marawi by ISIS-aligned militants however, proved to be a game-changer. The militants’ brazen attempt to take over a mid-sized city of more than 200,000 people and forge a Southeast Asian ISIS province centred on the Philippines’ war-ravaged southern island of Mindanao reignited the lingering threat, finally sparking the region’s authorities into action.

Southeast Asia has long been afflicted by the presence of local, regional and transnational terrorist groups. Mindanao has been the site of an intractable armed Islamist insurgency since the early-1970s, which started off as a separatist movement but later spawned radical groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Meanwhile Indonesia suffered a string of attacks at the hands of homegrown militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the 1990s and 2000s, supported by Al-Qaeda cells operational within the country. The presence of these groups also caused significant alarm in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, whilst sparking fears in the wider region.

Terror groups were able to establish a home in the Southeast Asia’s maritime states, taking advantage of porous sea borders and areas of weak state presence to set up training camps and bases from which to plan and launch attacks. This was especially true for remote parts of the Indonesian archipelago and in the lawless chain of Philippine islands which divides the Sulu and Celebes seas. In 2002 more than 200 people were killed in suicide attacks by JI targeting nightclubs on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, before Abu Sayyaf bombed a packed passenger ferry in Manila Bay in 2004, killing 116 civilians.

These high-profile attacks in the post-9/11 era prompted ASEAN to introduce a raft of measures intended to combat terrorism. The most important of these was the 2007 ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism (ACCT), designed to ‘‘provide for the framework for regional co-operation to counter, prevent and supress terrorism in all its forms’’ and ‘‘deepen co-operation among law enforcement agencies’’. However, the convention was not ratified by all ten member-states until 2013, and remained merely a set of guidelines with no enforcement or compliance mechanism. Several other region-wide agreements including the 2009 ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter-Terrorism (CPACT) have only had a marginal influence.

The impact of these counter-terrorism measures has been limited for several reasons. ASEAN’s strict adherence to consensus-based decision-making and the principle of non-interference has faced criticism, whilst the bloc’s use of vague language and its lack of enforcement capabilities have prevented the introduction of concrete region-wide measures to tackle terrorism. The grouping has often been described as a forum for discussion rather than a powerful body willing to push its members into taking firm action.

The varied threat level across ASEAN and the differing military and financial capabilities of its ten member-states has also hindered co-operation. For example, the threat from Islamist terrorism may be high in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, whilst their armed forces are also relatively well-resourced. In comparison, countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam face a far lower threat, and may not be prepared or equipped to contribute resources to the fight. The past reluctance of ASEAN nations to share intelligence or permit foreign troops to operate across national boundaries has also blocked greater co-operation in the field of counter-terrorism.

The heightened regional terrorism threat featured high-up on the agenda at the November 2017 ASEAN Summit held in Manila (Image Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office)

Historically, ASEAN’s ten member-states have displayed a preference for strengthening domestic legislation and signing bilateral level agreements to tackle terrorism, seeing the threats as national rather than regional or global in nature, and therefore not requiring a multilateral response.

That was until jihadists stormed the southern Philippine city of Marawi in May last year. The threat which had lain dormant beneath the surface since the decline of JI in the late 2000s had suddenly re-emerged in a form that was clearly regional in nature as ISIS announced their intention to carve out a Southeast Asian caliphate. Leaders quickly realised the need for closer co-operation to prevent the violence spreading, amid fears of further ISIS-inspired attacks and terrorist infiltration across borders.

Even before the Marawi siege ended in October, regional leaders gathered on several occasions to discuss responses to the evolving threat. Indonesian President Joko Widodo described Marawi as a ‘‘wake-up call’’ regarding the threat posed to Southeast Asia, whilst Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak reaffirmed his country’s commitment to tackle Islamist terror groups in the region. In September, security officials from all ten ASEAN states took part in a specially-convened meeting on the ‘Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ in the region, whilst terrorism also topped the agenda at November’s 31st ASEAN Summit hosted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila.

The discussions sparked by the takeover of Marawi first resulted in strengthened bilateral and trilateral measures agreed between the states most affected. In June, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began conducting naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to restrict the movement of jihadist fighters to-and-from Mindanao. These measures were later bolstered by the addition of co-ordinated air patrols to spot suspicious activity from the skies. Indonesia and the Philippines have also agreed to establish a hotline to alert one another about security threats along their shared maritime frontier.

More recently two multilateral regional counter-terror initiatives have been established, indicating that ASEAN nations now appear more willing to co-operate on a collective basis than in the past.

In mid-November, the Southeast Asian Counter-Terrorism Financing Working Group (SACTFWG) was established to crack down on the funding of terrorist groups linked to ISIS. The new regional grouping will include law enforcement agencies from across Southeast Asia, and will be led by the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council and Australia’s Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC).

Then in a landmark agreement on 25 January six ASEAN members – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – signed-up to a new intelligence-sharing pact labelled the ‘Our Eyes’ initiative. The agreement is expected to facilitate the most extensive counter-terrorism co-operation within ASEAN to-date. It will see senior defence officials from the participating nations meet twice a month, and will allow for the development of a new database of suspected militants which can be accessed by law enforcement agencies across the region.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have been conducting trilateral naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to prevent the movement of terror suspects across borders. In this photo, Philippine troops are seen participating in a training drill alongside US forces (Image Source: US Navy)

At its launch, Malaysia’s Deputy Defence Minister Mohd Johari Baharum said the initiative would be crucial in enabling a collective response to emerging security threats which are ‘‘complex and trans-boundary in nature’’. It is hoped that the four remaining ASEAN states will later join the group, as well as external actors with a stake in the region’s stability such as Australia, India, Japan and the US.

The crisis in Marawi certainly got the region’s leaders thinking about how to better pool resources to tackle the growing threat from Islamist terrorism; but it has not yet resulted in an all-encompassing strategy involving all ten of ASEAN’s member-nations. Such an aim will always be difficult to achieve, due to the huge variation in threat along with the differing capabilities and priorities of ASEAN states.

However, ad-hoc collaborative responses have emerged involving the countries most concerned, on a scale not witnessed previously in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have looked to work with other interested parties to find workable and pragmatic multilateral solutions to the most pressing and immediate problems facing the region’s vulnerable maritime states.

With a series of overlapping bilateral, trilateral and multilateral mechanisms now in place, ASEAN integration in the sphere of counter-terrorism has been significantly upgraded. In the post-Marawi era of elevated risk, a set of guidelines which meant little in practice is rapidly being superseded by a more co-ordinated regional strategy, aimed at tackling the most critical threat facing Southeast Asia today.

A version of this article is also published on Asian Correspondent.

How Malaysia’s Counter-Terror Strategy Has Kept ISIS in Check

During the tenure of Prime Minister Najib Razak, Malaysia has introduced a raft of new counter-terrorism laws amid heightened regional tensions (Image Source: World Economic Forum)

Since ISIS burst onto the scene after rampaging through northern Syria and Iraq more than three years ago, Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority countries have watched the chaos unfolding in the Middle East amid concern that the new wave of jihadist terrorism would spread to the region.

These fears have indeed been realised: a deadly gun and bomb attack rocked Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, killing four civilians in January 2016; whilst last year ISIS-inspired militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for more than five months, resulting in hundreds of deaths and brazenly confirming the arrival of a dangerous new era of jihadism in Southeast Asia.

As the regional threat environment has evolved rapidly over the past year, Malaysia is one of the countries watching its back. In the first few years after the emergence of ISIS, the threat appeared more distant; yet now there is a very real risk of fighters returning from Syria, Iraq and Marawi to launch attacks in Malaysia, in addition to the threat emanating from ISIS’ online recruitment and radicalization efforts aimed at inspiring sympathizers to carry-out low-tech, lone-wolf attacks.

Yet despite the rise of ISIS and the recent deterioration of security in its neighbours, Malaysia has continued to enhance its record of counter-terrorism success, and a major Islamist attack within its borders has so-far been prevented. This report assesses how Malaysia has avoided suffering the same fate as neighbouring countries, and asks if its strong record in thwarting attacks can be sustained amid the rapidly shifting regional threat picture.

The evolving threat from Islamist terror

Malaysia has long possessed an excellent counter-terrorism record. In past decades, domestic terror groups such as Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), regional groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and transnational groups such as Al-Qaeda have all been thwarted by the Malaysian authorities. In the 2000s, as neighbouring Indonesia was shaken by a wave of deadly attacks – most notoriously the JI-claimed Bali nightclub bombings which killed 202 people in October 2002 – Malaysia escaped the decade of elevated risk which followed 9/11 relatively unscathed, without suffering a major attack.

Regional authorities clamped-down hard on JI and Al-Qaeda, and by 2010 the terrorism threat to Southeast Asia had significantly reduced. Yet the sudden and dramatic emergence of ISIS reignited the threat, sending alarm bells ringing across the region. Soon after ISIS declared its Middle Eastern ‘Caliphate’ in 2014, fears emerged over the growing number of Southeast Asian nationals travelling to join the group as foreign fighters.

The head of Malaysia’s Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, says at least 53 Malaysians are known to have joined ISIS in Syria. In reality, the number could be far higher. ISIS has even formed a separate armed unit in Syria – known as Katibah Nusantara – made-up solely of Indonesian and Malaysian citizens who have travelled to the region. At least 20 Malaysians are thought to have died during battle in Syria, including nine who have detonated themselves in suicide bombings. ISIS has also released several Malay-language videos through its Al-Hayat media centre, encouraging Malaysians to carry out attacks in their homeland. The recruitment and radicalization of Malaysians has also occurred through social media channels and encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram, prompting concern over the potential for ISIS-inspired lone-wolf attacks.

The last two years have provided particularly dangerous warning signs for Southeast Asian nations. The deadly attack in Jakarta in January 2016 was followed by an ISIS-claimed grenade attack on a nightclub near Kuala Lumpur later that year, which injured eight people but failed to inflict any fatalities. The botched attack was the first to be claimed by ISIS in Malaysia. The five-month siege of Marawi from May-October 2017 has further stoked fears and raised the regional terror threat to its highest level, signifying the arrival of ISIS as a fighting force in Southeast Asia. 2017 also witnessed further suicide blasts and attempted attacks in Indonesia, whilst Philippine authorities continue to battle the ISIS-inspired Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mindanao.

However, the threat has so-far not resulted in large-scale fatal attacks within Malaysian borders. The reason why this is the case, has much to do with Malaysia’s multi-faceted counter-terror strategy.

Malaysia’s reinforced counter-terror strategy

In response to the rise of ISIS in 2014, Malaysia quickly identified the risk and immediately set about reinforcing and upgrading its counter-terror measures, as the government in Kuala Lumpur sought to build upon its strong historical record in confronting violent extremism.

Firstly, lawmakers updated anti-terror legislation, replacing the outdated Internal Security Act (ISA) with a raft of new measures. The new Security Offences and Special Measures Act (SOSMA) had already been passed shortly before ISIS emerged in 2014, adding to the existing Penal Code a range of provisions covering terrorism-related offences and crimes against the State. The listed offences include violent attacks aimed at causing fear, in addition to encouraging terrorist acts and financing, harbouring or providing assistance to terrorists. The new laws enable judges to sentence those convicted of terror offences to lengthy prison sentences, and in some cases even the death penalty.

In 2015, Malaysia also introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act (SMATA), giving the police greater powers to arrest and detain individuals, as well as designating two detention centres to house terror suspects. Whilst legitimate human rights concerns have been raised over the powers granted to law enforcement agencies, the updated legislation has so-far achieved its aim of preventing attacks within Malaysia.

The Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division says that since 2013, 19 large plots have been foiled and more than 340 terror suspects have been detained. The numbers have been increasing year-on-year. In 2013 just four individuals were arrested, rising to 59 in 2014, 82 in 2015 and 106 in 2016. In 2017, the number of terror arrests passed the one-hundred mark for a second successive year. The country also has one of the highest conviction rates for terror offences, with 101 individuals found guilty and sentenced in the last four years. Whilst these figures indicate an ever-rising threat, they also indicate the increased capability of the Malaysian authorities to respond in turn.

Secondly, Malaysia has sought to crack-down on terrorist financing – an area which required improvement after widespread criticism of its past performance. Malaysia passed the Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorism Financing Act (AMLATFA) back in 2001, which required financial institutions to submit Suspicious Transaction Reports (STRs) to the Malaysian Central Bank. Full implementation of these measures was initially weak. However, Malaysia’s compliance with global counter-terror financing standards has improved markedly, and in 2016 it was granted membership of the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF), marking Malaysia out as a country committed to cutting-off funding for terrorist groups. These improved anti-terror finance capabilities add to the legislation already discussed, making Malaysia an unattractive base for Islamist terror groups.

Malaysia has so-far avoided suffering large-scale ISIS attacks, but battle-hardened militants returning from Syria, Iraq and Marawi pose a new risk (Image Source: Flickr, Luke Ma)

Thirdly, Malaysia’s deradicalization programmes are among the most successful in the world. Of the 229 suspects enrolled between 2001 and 2012, only seven relapsed into terrorism-related activities, giving the programme a 97% success rate. These efforts are a collaboration between the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA), Ministry of Education (MoE), the prison authorities and religious institutions. Counselling sessions aim to counter extremist interpretations of Islam and successfully reintegrate radicalized individuals back into society, whilst post-release support mechanisms are designed to continually engage both the participant and their family members, lessening the risk of relapse.

Malaysia is often cited as a leading example in the field of deradicalization, and has willingly shared its expertise and best practice with other nations. In the age of ISIS, Malaysia has also taken steps to combat radicalization online, spearheading a new regional initiative – the Digital Counter-Messaging Centre (CMC) – established in September 2016, to counter extremist ideology in cyberspace.

The threat of returning fighters in 2018

Despite the success of these combined measures in recent years, the threat posed by ISIS is entering a dangerous new phase. In the last few months of 2017, Mosul, Raqqa and Marawi were wrestled from the hands of the jihadists, shrinking the size of ISIS’ territory in the Middle East whilst dealing a hammer blow to its attempt to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate in the southern Philippines.

Security analysts have raised concerns that given the collapse of ISIS as a military force, hordes of foreign fighters could now seek to return to their countries of origin, including Malaysia, in 2018.

Malaysia has responded quickly and kept up the pace of its counter-terror operations, in an attempt to pre-empt the threat. The Navy has taken part in trilateral sea and air patrols in the Sulu Sea since June alongside the armed forces of Indonesia and the Philippines, in an attempt to stem the flow of jihadists between Mindanao and the rest of maritime Southeast Asia to the west. In addition, high vigilance has been maintained in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZ) to prevent the infiltration of ISIS fighters into Sabah state; which has become Malaysia’s front-line in the battle against militancy.

In October, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak launched a new National Special Operations Force (NSOF), comprising personnel from the armed forces, police and the Maritime Enforcement Agency, created to respond immediately and effectively any terror scenario which may unfold in the country. The unit aims to smooth the chain-of-command to ensure a highly co-ordinated response in the event of an attack. The authorities also conducted a wave of anti-terror raids in the final weeks of 2017, detaining at least 20 individuals in raids across Johor, Sabah, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.

Conclusion: Malaysia’s hybrid approach is working

Malaysia appears resolute and determined to keep a lid on the threat from Islamist terrorism, and prevent ISIS infiltration into the country. Considering the chaos wrought by jihadists in surrounding countries, it is remarkable that Malaysia has been able to continue preventing attacks since the emergence of ISIS in 2014.

It has achieved this through adopting a combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ measures: a hybrid strategy which has approached the threat from opposite angles. Strengthened counter-terrorism legislation and frequent law enforcement operations tackle the threat visible on the surface, whilst sustained deradicalization initiatives mitigate the threat away from the glare of public spotlight, taking on the warped ideology which underlies Islamist terrorism. Malaysia has continually emphasized that a military solution alone will not solve the problems of radicalization and violent extremism.

Malaysia’s counter-terrorism measures have proven highly successful, yet it remains impossible to eliminate the threat entirely. Low-tech lone-wolf attacks inspired by ISIS remain particularly difficult to prevent; whilst in a rapidly-changing regional threat environment, the authorities must maintain heightened vigilance and be prepared to respond to new challenges.

In a world where a lasting solution to Islamist terrorism appears a distant prospect, Malaysia’s hybrid counter-terrorism approach – aimed at preventing attacks and reducing radicalization – serves as the leading example for every state confronting the scourge of ISIS to learn from and follow.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Is Bangladesh Succeeding in its Battle Against Islamist Militants?

Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in the wake of the July 2016 siege on a Dhaka cafe (Image Source: Jubair1985)

Since Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in response to the high-profile attack on a popular Dhaka café by Islamist militants last July, the country has fortunately not witnessed another major attack on the same scale. Yet sixteen months on from the siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery – during which terrorists massacred 20 civilians with sharp weapons before Bangladeshi commandos stormed the building – fears over violent extremism in the south Asian nation remain ever-present.

Despite thousands of arrests and the deaths of top militant leaders at the hands of state security forces, signs of heightened political tensions and evidence of militant activity just below the surface have raised concerns over the potential for separatist violence and a new wave of attacks, in a country which until recently had little past experience of dealing with terrorism.

Whilst Bangladesh’s improved law enforcement capabilities have almost certainly prevented further bloodshed over the past year, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has faced criticism over its somewhat contradictory approach to confronting terrorism. At the same time as pledging to tackle Islamist militants head-on, the government has been accused of facilitating an environment in which extremist ideology can flourish.

This report asks if Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism crackdown will ultimately prove successful in keeping a lid on militant activity, and asks whether the government in Dhaka is doing enough to combat the radical ideology which fuels such violence.

The issue of terrorism in Bangladesh first caught the world’s attention in 2015, after an unrelenting wave of small-scale attacks targeting secular bloggers, university professors, foreign citizens and members of religious minority groups. In all, more than 20 people were shot dead or hacked to death in a two-year period by Islamist militants, with attacks often taking place in broad daylight.

The level of violence was unprecedented in what is usually considered one of the most secular and tolerant Muslim-majority countries, especially in comparison to regional neighbours Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have long been blighted by sectarianism, religious intolerance and suicide bombings. The attacks made global headlines and hit the tourism industry and Bangladeshi economy hard.

PM Sheikh Hasina’s government blamed the attacks squarely on domestic jihadist group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which it said were linked to its political opponents and seeking to destabilize the country.  This was despite claims of responsibility for some of the attacks by trans-national jihadist groups including the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Neither claim could be proven concretely, however the government’s investigation into the attacks was roundly criticized at the time as few people were brought to justice over the killings.

The attack on the Dhaka café in July 2016 – often described by analysts as ‘Bangladesh’s 9/11’ – was seen as a game changer, and prompted the government to take concrete action. A sweeping security crackdown followed and large-scale police raids led to the arrest of thousands of suspected terrorist sympathizers across the country, whilst a number of senior militant leaders were killed during security operations. Nine suspected militants were killed in the Kalyanpur neighbourhood of Dhaka just three weeks after the café attack, whilst on 27 August last year police claimed to have killed the head of ISIS in Bangladesh – Tamim Chowdhury – during a raid in Narayanganj.

PM Sheikh Hasina denies that ISIS has a presence in Bangladesh, blaming attacks on local JMB militants (Image Source: DFID)

A newly-formed Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU) of the Dhaka Metropolitan police took on hundreds of new recruits was granted a national mandate several months after the café siege, and has overseen counter-terrorism operations across the country. Authorities have clamped-down hard and have received much praise for their actions.

However, a number of small-scale suicide bombings earlier this year reignited fears and indicated a possible shift in tactics away from the knife attacks witnessed in the past, towards more sophisticated and well-planned operations of the nature seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whilst the threat appears to have been contained for now, these developments show there is little room for complacency – especially given that some of the driving factors behind Bangladesh’s surge in terrorism over the last few years remain unresolved.

The initial wave of machete attacks on secular bloggers and foreign citizens came after a period marked by what some analysts describe as a ‘creeping Islamism and sectarianism’ in Bangladeshi society. The rise of religious intolerance was evidenced by two attacks on Shia targets in late-2015. First, a bomb blast targeting a procession outside a Shia shrine left two people dead, before a few weeks later a Shia mosque in Bogra was attacked, killing one person and wounding several others. These attacks on Shia targets – a minority group in Sunni-majority Bangladesh – raised suggestions that some in Bangladesh were becoming increasingly sectarian in mindset.

Longer-term factors have also played a role. Following the country’s 1971 independence war, senior leaders from the Jamaat-e-Islam party were convicted many years later on charges of crimes against humanity, with several of them sentenced to death by hanging. These events have stoked anger and exacerbated tensions in Bangladeshi politics which remain close the surface to this day. The Jamaat-e-Islam party is part of the current opposition alliance to the ruling Awami League, which has been in power since 2009. Divisiveness has been a key feature of the political scene in recent years, which has only worsened as the government has linked the terrorist JMB group to opposition parties.

In this sense, the government’s counter-terrorism campaign must be viewed in the broader domestic political context. The debate over naming perpetrators and ascribing blame following terror attacks has become a heavily politicized issue. Despite numerous claims of responsibility from international terror groups – including for the Dhaka café siege – Sheikh Hasina’s government has continued to deny the presence of ISIS or AQIS within the country’s borders, referring only to the JMB group and domestic political forces looking to ‘destabilize the government’.

This language has facilitated a corresponding crackdown on opposition political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islam and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), exacerbating concerns that Hasina’s administration is becoming increasingly authoritarian in its approach to governance. More worryingly, absolving ISIS and AQIS of responsibility allows them to act with impunity – if indeed they are directing attacks within Bangladesh – and establish a firmer foothold under-the-radar.

Whilst terrorism remains a concern in Bangladesh, a repeat attack on the scale of the Dhaka cafe assault has so-far been avoided (Image Source: Souvik.arco)

Whilst launching a crackdown and condemning Islamist terrorism, the government’s approach has also been contradictory. At the same time as appearing to clamp down on terrorist elements, PM Sheikh Hasina has several times in the past warned secular bloggers for criticizing religion, saying ‘I don’t consider such writings as free-thinking but as filthy words. It is not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions’. Some have labelled this as victim-blaming, and say it constitutes a sympathetic attitude towards terrorism, facilitating recruitment and legitimizing extremist ideology. At the very least, many argue that it is an attempt to stifle debate and restrict freedom-of-speech in a country which had been considered relatively open.

Despite these problems, a high-profile attack on the scale of the Dhaka café assault has not been repeated, to a degree validating the government’s strategy and indicating its improved counter-terrorism capabilities. The tide of less-sophisticated lone-wolf attacks has also slowed markedly. However, this type of attack is extremely difficult to guard against as perpetrators make use of easily-obtainable weapons and often have no known links to militant organizations.

When incidents do occur, the government continues to blame local groups such as JMB. And it is true that concrete links between domestic militants and ISIS or AQIS have not been proven, despite claims of responsibility. Yet the politicization of terrorism remains a concern, and a clear distinction must be made between political parties and militant groups unless there is concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.

The government’s denial of ISIS presence in the country raises fears that the violent ideology of transnational jihadist groups is being underestimated. As ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq, it may look to further its recruitment in south Asian countries, including Bangladesh. As we have seen recently in the southern Philippines, local groups can be heavily influenced by such ideology and act upon it, whether concrete links to international groups exist or not.

As a result, the authorities in Bangladesh must remain vigilant and alert. The anti-terror crackdown has undoubtedly made progress, but this alone is not enough. Violent ideology must be countered and criticized, meaning that the space for those who wish to defend secular ideals – as well those who wish to defend various strains of religious thought – must be protected in Bangladesh if violent extremism is to be defeated in the long-run.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor