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Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Australia has enacted some of the harshest and most extensive antiterror laws in the world. The laws give sweeping powers to security and law enforcement agencies and have reportedly helped thwart several terror plots inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Yet on December 14, Man Haron Monis, a self-proclaimed cleric from Iran whom Australia granted asylum in 1996, managed to take more than a dozen people hostage in a café in downtown Sydney. The siege ended less than 24 hours later when Australian commandos stormed the café; the standoff left Monis and two hostages dead.
Monis’ motivations, and the extent to which he was even inspired by events in the Middle East, remain a matter of speculation; a debate now rages over whether he was a terrorist or merely a mentally disturbed bigot. The siege itself, however, serves as a reminder that even the strictest and most comprehensive antiterrorism laws cannot immunize a society from risk. That lesson is all the more salient for Southeast Asian countries, which have experienced since 2000 several high-profile terrorist attacks in public places.
As I wrote in my recent article for Foreign Affairs, the large number of international fighters joining ISIS today recalls the stream of Southeast Asians who joined the Afghan jihad in the 1980s. I concluded that because of the region’s earlier experience with those fighters returning home, its governments possess a far more extensive set of tools to mitigate the terrorist threat. Even so, I urged caution and warned against complacency. Regardless of Monis’ motivations, the events in Sydney occasion a rethink on the ways in which the region remains vulnerable.
One major concern centers on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelagic chain. Although the islands are Philippine territory, Manila has struggled to assert authority over them. These territories have long been troubled by warlordism and clan conflicts and provide a space for potential ISIS sympathizers to operate and train. Terrorists from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore had frequently used the islands as sanctuaries in the past. And Abu Sayyaf, a criminal gang that operates in Sulu, has already vowed allegiance to ISIS. To regain control over the islands, Manila will have to work closely with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the former Muslim rebel group with which it recently signed a landmark peace agreement. Yet there are also limits to what the insurgency group can do; although it has a strong presence in central Mindanao, its influence is much weaker in Sulu.
ISIS and its sympathizers also pose a threat in cyberspace, where they have used websites and social media to recruit followers and where Southeast Asian governments have struggled to respond. Particularly in Indonesia, extremist websites, many of which brazenly celebrate ISIS battlefield victories and collect donations, are proliferating. Indonesian extremists have also used the Internet to circulate propaganda videos, often depicting carefully choreographed public pledges of allegiance. ISIS, for its part, has created apps and Twitter accounts to amplify its message—demonstrating a level of technological sophistication that sets it apart from other militant groups and makes its ideology more difficult to contain.
Southeast Asian governments, meanwhile, have not yet found a way to stem ISIS’ appeal to foreigners. Although ISIS is believed to have prioritized its recruitment efforts in Europe and the immediate Middle Eastern region, the group has a comparatively light footprint in Southeast Asia. It is still not evident, for instance, that ISIS is actively dispatching operatives to the region for recruitment purposes the way al Qaeda purportedly did in the late 1990s. In addition, ISIS has yet to empower another group to play the partner role that Jemaah Islamiyah did for al Qaeda when both shared a similar ideology and operational knowledge. Nor have any of the so-called Southeast Asian jihads—namely, Pattani in southern Thailand and Mindanao in the southern Philippines—appeared with any prominence in ISIS rhetoric.
That could well change. But for now, it is precisely ISIS’ ambiguity about the group’s goals in Southeast Asia that has made its ideology more potent. The absence of a clear agenda for Southeast Asia has allowed local groups and individuals to appropriate the ISIS narrative for their own ends, not unlike what Monis did in Sydney when he raised the flag of the al Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliates of al Qaeda. Thanks to the prolific media coverage that ISIS enjoys, there is no need for the group to actively reach out to Southeast Asia, certainly not if other friendly groups have already done the work of reaching out to them. ISIS is already seeing the fruits of that labor: more than a handful of Southeast Asians, ranging from religious zealots to those with vague sympathies and little more than a taste for adventure, have flocked to Iraq and Syria to join the ISIS ranks. Many have blogged about their motivations for joining the fight or captured their adventures on film.
So what does this all mean for Southeast Asia, in the wake of the tragic event that unfolded in Sydney? What happened over December 14 and 15 will prompt Southeast Asian governments to reevaluate their own counterterrorism policies and strategies. In the uncertain climate that ISIS’ rise has created, it behooves pundits to avoid scaremongering and governments to resist enacting knee-jerk policies. But it is also a time for clear-eyed vigilance. As the siege in Sydney has shown, even the most comprehensive strategies are not foolproof. Southeast Asian governments would do well to seriously consider how to address their biggest vulnerabilities, both as individual states and as a region.