A suicide bombing that targeted a police headquarters in Surabaya, Indonesia killed three members of a family on Sunday 13 May. Local police said that the bombers where from the same family while ISIS claimed responsibility.
Such attacks are not the first of its kind in Indonesia, as the Southeast Asian nation witnessed 15 deadly attacks by terrorists in the 2010s.
Experts on terrorism say that Southeast Asia is no stranger to terrorism. Various extremist groups used violent tactics during anti-colonial periods, and in the 1990s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Southeast Asia received an influx of battle-hardened fighters resulting in another wave of violence.
However, a further wave of post-9/11 attacks killed hundreds, most notably the 2002 Bali attacks, which left over 200 dead. Other groups like Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have had an enduring violent presence in the region.
“The ability of terrorist movements like ISIS to control large swaths of territory in the Middle East has emboldened those that adhere to their twisted world view,” said Jeremy Douglas, Regional Representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Douglas explained that terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda were able to attract radicalised youth from all over the world, including Southeast Asia. It is estimated that up to 1500 members have travelled from the region to fight under the ISIS flag, but with the massive losses encountered by the terrorist group, hardened fighters started to return to establish their own groups in the region.
According to Adam Greer, researcher and WSD-Handa Fellow at Center for Strategic International Studies, Southeast Asia is facing another wave of terrorist violence. After ISIS declared its formation, multiple radical groups and clerics across the region, mainly in the Philippines and Indonesia, declared their allegiance to ISIS.
Greer says that there is a great cause to worry, as terrorists are taking advantage of poor remote communities in Southeast Asia to recruit new members, blaming the poverty they suffer from on the practices and policies of local government in the region.
“ASEAN faces a difficult task in light of the region’s history of terrorism and popular sympathy for radicalism. Governments must aggressively cooperate to prevent, counter, and combat the region’s diverse terrorist groups and Islamic extremist tendencies without further alienating populations vulnerable to radicalisation,” Greer said.
Zachary Watson, a researcher in the Center for Strategic International Studies Pacific form, said that traditional and blunt approaches will not work and threatens to make Asian populations more numb towards more effective counter-narratives.
“Imprisonment, death, and deterrence, however, are not paths to long-term peace. Unless private and public anti-terror efforts work in concert to disrupt radicalisation processes, cycles of terror will persist,” said Watson.
Poorly monitored and staffed prisons of Indonesia, which have become radicalisation hotbeds. Although Indonesia has considerable success in imprisoning terrorists, while in prison, convicts literally have a captive audience of disaffected peers to recruit from. Indonesian prison reform is urgently needed to prevent the spread of terrorism in Indonesia, Watson explained.
“More restorative efforts must be invested in to disrupt cycles of radicalisation” he said.
This is a difficult task not only for Indonesia but for ASEAN as well. To overcome these challenges and empower the public-private anti radicalisation efforts, Southeast Asian governments must facilitate dialogue, invest in targeted polling, fund research and enact policies that work to alleviate the underlying grievances making extremism an empowering alternative to a moderate, law abiding way of thought.
Closing Geo-Political gaps in governance, which allows terrorists to thrive, is another approach ASEAN must put into consideration. Interstate disputes create poor administrative governance, harbour rouge and extremist groups and creates sympathy towards a more radical ideology.
“If ASEAN nations are serious about addressing the region’s terrorist threats, serious effort needs to be put toward resolving disputes and restoring administrative governance and providing basic social services to populations in poorly-governed regions,” says Greer.
“ASEAN countries have a narrowing window of opportunity to counter radicalising narratives and growing terrorist threats,” said Watson. “In opposing terror, governments need to both refine and improve retributive measures that deter and punish terrorism, and heavily invest in restorative approaches that disrupt the cycles of radicalisation,” Watson concluded.