Southeast Asia : The evolving nature of the Security Threat

From Terrorism….

The situation in Southeast Asia has evolved remarkably – and some might say dramatically – since the beginning of the 2000s. Ask any security expert or practitioners in government at the time, and they would have said that the number one security threat was terrorism. This was understandable : the 9/11 attacks, followed quickly by the discovery of cells of the regional al-Qaeda affiliate, the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), meant that interdicting terrorist activity and understanding radicalization were critical issues in the minds of security planners.  This mindset was reinforced by the terrible and tragic attacks carried out by the JI in Bali in October 2002 (and on several subsequent occasions in Indonesia).
Terrorism and the activity of extremist groups remains of course a key concern : witness the siege of Marawi, which took place from May-October 2017, which saw the clan-based Maute group, believed to be backed by a small number of foreign fighters professing allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), hold out against Filipino security forces for five months. Separately, there has also been an outflow of individuals from Southeast Asia to join the IS in Syria, particularly from 2014-2017. A small number have returned; but the fate of many (besides males, many women and children made the journey too) will likely not be known for years. The majority may be dead. But some may remain. Of these, some may be disillusioned and want nothing more to do with the cause the IS stood for. But it is possible that a small number remain deeply committed, and remain bent on carrying out the agenda of IS which includes attacks on what it sees as legitimate targets in Southeast Asia.
It would be unwise therefore to downplay the continuing relevance of the terrorism threat. The detention in February 2021 of a 20-year old Singaporean Muslim who intended to join Hamas in the Gaza, and also to kill members of Singapore’s Jewish community outside a synagogue,  illustrates the need for government agencies to remain vigilant, and to work in concert with partners (Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group, or RRG, being one, but there are also initiatives in Indonesia and Malaysia, to name two countries, which have the same goal) which attempt to deradicalize individuals, rehabilitate them, and, when they are deemed no longer to pose a threat to society, to find ways to socialize these individuals back into the mainstream of society. Quite often, the key is to continue working with individuals who have been released, and providing opportunities where needed, in order to minimize the risk of recidivism (backsliding back into extremist thought and activity).

…To new Radicalisations and Polarisation

What all concerned need to understand, however, is that the nature of the extremist threat in Southeast Asia may well change over time. In February 2021, the Singapore authorities announced the detention of a Singaporean of Protestant faith and Indian ethnicity. This individual, just 16 at the time of his detention, was inspired by Brenton Tarrant, who carried out the murderous attacks in Christ Church, New Zealand, in 2019 against Muslims. In the case of the Singapore youth, he had come to the erroneous conclusion that Islam represented an existential threat against Christianity and that violence was therefore justified in response. Given that almost all cases detained in recent years under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) have been of Islamist radicals, this should set us thinking : could there in time to come be more such (non-Islamist) arrests? Are we as a region in fact so different from the West? It is worth making this observation because the right wing threat has been clearly growing in the United States and parts of Europe for some time now : in fact, in several western nations, attacks by right wing extremists have eclipsed those by individuals professing allegiance to IS. In the West, much of right wing activity seems to be driven by “reciprocal radicalization” : right wing groups feed off the existential threat they see from Islam (or from immigrants, fearing a “great replacement” where they feel that Europe will eventually become overrun by Muslims leading to the extinction of white, Christian culture). In such reciprocal radicalization, both sides – right wing and extremist Islamist – feed off each other’s negative energies; in a perverse and ironic way, they draw strength from each other, and require the anger of confrontation with “the other” in order to grow and sustain themselves.
In order to understand the roots of this, it will be necessary for security professionals and  policymakers to go upstream – very far upstream – to look at situations  where individuals and societies become polarized, and which leads in turn to fringe movements that believe that violence is justified in the name of their cause or ideology.  To be sure, security professionals will still need to devote a great deal of time to tracking and interdicting violent individuals and groups, but I would argue that the same professionals should pay attention and devote resources to polarization. What we have seen in the West is peoples and societies, partly through the pernicious influence of social media, turning inwards in a way which rejects outsiders, or other forms of thought (including other races and religions). In many parts of the world, this means a return to primal, instinctive impulses of human nature that permits no dialogue and no discussions with individuals or take opposing views,  no matter how rational he or she might be. All too often, this echo-chamber effect leads down a pathway of mutual misunderstanding and, taken further, violence.

Individuals and groups proceeding down this negative pathway are often fed by a dietary concoction of fake news, rumour, and conspiracy theories. Ideas of conspiracies, when blindly accepted, can  undermine social resilience, but they also have been shown by experts to play a role in radicalization. It would be unwise to think that we are immune from this phenomenon in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asians are some of the biggest consumers of social media and mobile data penetration is also very high in Southeast Asian nations. In other words, we are susceptible. Many ASEAN nations are historically diverse, plural, and tolerant. This is in our DNA. It is therefore vital that we find ways to shore up tolerance, acceptance of the other, and mutual understanding.

Quite a lot of the action taken against disseminators of fake news and disinformation is by government – understandably so, given that it is government which enacts legislation and its agencies interdict malicious actors. That said, there are budding shoots from the NGO and grassroots level which should be encouraged. Indonesia’s MAFINDO (a leading anti-hoax NGO) has done sterling work in this respect, and is without doubt a leading light in combatting fake news in Southeast Asia. The value of the work it does with likeminded partners is known and appreciated elsewhere : witness how MAFINDO gave expert testimony at the Singapore Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in 2018. It is by sharing key learning lessons, and detailing challenges in stemming viral false news, that valuable learning lessons can be gained, benefitting others in Southeast Asia. It would be useful for more avenues to be made available for those NGOs who have taken upon themselves the thankless task for combatting fake news to come together in a mutually collaborative (and mutually reinforcing) fashion.

A second suggestion, related to the first, is for government agencies, NGOs, and think tanks to come together in expert level working groups to discuss the wider issue of polarization – polarisation of individual thought, and the polarization of societies, which can eventually splinter them. Within such discussions, all concerned need to facilitate wider, society-wide  conversations in terms of strengthening critical thinking. Young individuals in particular who  grew up as “digital natives” can sometimes lack the ability to think critically and to do deep reading : they need to have a healthy scepticism which leads them to interrogate carefully  material which has the potential to indoctrinate or radicalize them. In time to come, relevant NGOs and agencies can come together across the region in an effort to collaborate and compare notes. This could take place across education systems, or in terms of best practices social media literacy campaigns.

If these suggestions are taken up, it is important that key actors in the effort should be grassroots actors and the young.
Our future depends on them.

Dr Shashi Jayakumar
Senior Fellow
Head of Centre of Excellence for National Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU); Executive Coordinator of Future Issues and Technology
March 2021