Saturday 30 April 2016

'JI, not ISIS, is bigger threat' to South-east Asia

Singapore don tells US House panel that Jemaah Islamiah poses a more resilient threat to region
By Jeremy Au Yong, US Bureau Chief In Washington, The Straits Times, 29 Apr 2016

While the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is grabbing all the headlines, the militant network that will remain the larger longer-term terrorism threat in South-east Asia is the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), US lawmakers were told at a hearing.

The point was made by Dr Joseph Liow, Lee Kuan Yew chair in South-east Asia Studies at the Brookings Institution, on Wednesday. He was part of a four-member panel testifying before the House Committee on Homeland Security about the terrorism threat in the region.

Dr Liow said that while the emergence of ISIS-related activity illustrates how resilient and evolutionary the threat of terrorism has become, the authorities must retain a sense of perspective.

"There are multiple groups operating in South-east Asia that are intent on using some form of political violence to further their ends. Many are at odds with each other; not all are seeking affiliation to, or enamoured of, ISIS," he said.

"Indeed, while ISIS appears an immediate concern, a case can be made that the longer-term, possibly more resilient, terrorist threat to the region may not come from ISIS but from Jemaah Islamiah."

Dr Liow, who is also dean of Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said he was particularly disturbed to see JI leaders given prominent media coverage whenever they denounced ISIS. He cited convicted JI terrorist Abu Tholut as an example.

Said Dr Liow: "There is a problem there. These people have a jihadi agenda as well. They will very quickly be able to use the visibility and publicity they have been given to advance that agenda."

The other panellists agreed with the assessment that US concerns about the threat of terrorism in the region needed to look beyond ISIS.

Said Mr John Watts, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council: "Even if ISIS went away, even if Al-Qaeda went away, the terrorist threat in South-east Asia would not necessarily be less because those motivations for those groups, the political grievances, are local as much as they are ideological, so it doesn't necessarily shift the threat analysis."

Asked by Representative John Katko, a congressman from New York, which region in South-east Asia should be a cause for concern, the panel pointed to the Sulu archipelago in the Philippines, citing the limited ability of local authorities to tackle the problem.

Dr Liow called for deeper international cooperation, saying that information-sharing was not enough.

"The capacity that the Philippines has to deal with the threat in that area is very low, which is why my view is that we really have to look beyond just joint information-sharing. You've got the information, you've got the data, they still cannot do anything with it. We need to really look at operations," he said.

There are no records that track the nationalities of those who appear before US congressional committees, though it is rare to have a Singaporean do so.

ISIS 'may set up caliphate in South-east Asia'
Experts: ISIS may target S'pore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines as it weakens in Middle East
By Francis Chan, Indonesia Bureau Chief In Jakarta, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2016

As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) loses its grip on territories in the Middle East, the militant group is expected to look towards South-east Asia to perpetuate its claims to a caliphate.

Counter-terrorism analysts say the region's long history of militancy and rising number of extremist groups adopting ISIS ideology make it attractive to the Sunni extremist network.

Possible targets include Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, where the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and Jemaah Anshar Khilafah terror networks, as well as the Abu Sayyaf, operate.

"These are existing sanctuaries that the Islamic State would love to plug in," said Mr Patrick Skinner from New York-based security consultancy The Soufan Group (TSG).

"There is no such thing as a clandestine caliphate, they need sanctuary, they need a place for these people to go to, where they can say: This is where our flag is," he added.

The former case officer with the Central Intelligence Agency was testifying on Wednesday before the US House Committee on Homeland Security about the terrorism threat in the region.

He wrote in a report released by TSG on the same day that while ISIS has yet to establish a South-east Asian wiliyah, or state, "it is likely that it will do so this year, as its grip on Syria and Iraq weakens".

ISIS, he added, is also finding Libya "a difficult place to remain (in) and expand, and it is very possible that places like southern Philippines will be its next priority".

His latest analysis comes after ISIS lost a series of territories as local militias, backed by coalition forces, managed to retake cities from the group in the new year. The last of ISIS' major battlefield victories, for instance, was when it seized Ramadi in Iraq almost a year ago.

"Long-held assumptions about South-east Asia not being fertile ground for violent extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State tend to downplay the previous several decades of terrorism in the region," he wrote. "Now, concern is building among... the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore that the Islamic State has the region in its cross hairs."

Analysts from the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) confirmed that ISIS has started a campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate across Asia.

Mr Jasminder Singh and Mr Muhammad Haziq Jani said in a report that to fulfil the vision of a caliphate, ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi affiliated militant groups in South-east Asia with his group's doctrines, "turning them into a unified force".

While terrorism - whether perpetrated by ISIS or JI - will not be eradicated any time soon, Dr Joseph Liow said in a report yesterday that the threat remains "at a low level".

"One possible factor that could prompt a change is a deliberate shift of attention of ISIS central to South-east Asia," said the RSIS dean, who also spoke before the committee in Washington. "This, however, seems unlikely for now as ISIS is preoccupied with its immediate priority of holding ground in Iraq and Syria, and expanding its fight to Libya and Europe."

Dr Liow said while governments in the region today are better prepared to deal with terrorism compared with 15 years ago, "capacity can... be further improved with cooperation among themselves, and with some help from the United States".

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