ISIL recruits in South-east Asia a rising threat despite weak attacks

While terrorism plots in South East Asia have been far from successful, experts warn that the threat from the militants, spread across predominantly Muslim Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines, should not be underestimated.

In this July 5, 2016 photo, members of the police bomb squad examine the surrounding area where a suicide bomber blew himself up at the local police headquarters in Solo, Central Java, Indonesia. Experts say the threat from the militants, spread across predominantly Muslim Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines, should not be underestimated. AP Photo
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JAKARTA // Ineffectual attacks by ISIL’s South-east Asian followers have shown them to be fragmented and lacking in the expertise that has produced devastating death tolls elsewhere in the world.

But terrorism experts say the threat from the militants, spread across predominantly Muslim Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines, should not be underestimated. They say it could be transformed into a more dangerous force by training and leadership.

There are plenty of signs radicals in the region have been swayed by ISIL leader Abu Bakar Al Baghdadi’s call for attacks and the group’s ambition to create South-east Asian provinces of the ISIL “caliphate” even as it loses territory in Syria and Iraq.

A grenade blast at a bar outside the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur in June was acknowledged by police as the first ISIL attack in the country, where more than 150 people have been detained for involvement with the militant group since 2014.

While there were no deaths, it injured eight people.

A suicide bombing directed against police last week in the Indonesian city of Solo killed only the bomber. Both attacks occurred during the Muslim month of Ramadan but attracted little notice at a time when a wave of militant violence in several countries, including the US, Turkey and Bangladesh, killed about 350 people.

“The IS threat has increased across the region but from a relatively low base,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

“We are seeing more connections,” she said. “We need to be open to the possibility that both the method and the professionalism of attacks could increase.”

So far, the success for ISIL in South-east Asia has been the power of its slick propaganda and online savvy.

An ISIL news site, alfatihin.com, which uses the Malay language understood throughout Malaysia and Indonesia, began publishing in May in an apparent attempt to broaden the group’s reach. The power of the group to inspire lone-wolf style attacks such as Orlando or San Bernardino where the perpetrators have no known connections to other radicals is also a potential threat for the region.

“Radical movements are benefiting from information technology,” said Brig Gen Hamidin, director of prevention at Indonesia’s counter-terrorism agency.

Traditional recruitment through indoctrination at Islamic study groups that can be easily detected and monitored by authorities has been replaced by instant messaging and social media, said Brig Gen Hamidin.

But the attacks ISIL has inspired in South-east Asia have had less effect because of the inexperience of the recruits combined with the vigilance of security forces in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The June grenade attack near Kuala Lumpur was an example of the low level of ISIL capability in Malaysia but also a sign it is training to make a bigger effect in the future, said Badrul Hisham Ismail, an analyst with Iman Research, a Malaysian group that studies religion and society.

“The threat level has risen because IS has shifted focus to build an Islamic state in this region,” he said.

* Associated Press

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