The key to countering ISIL

And why the Asia-Pacific is especially at risk

Murray Ackman

Government and governance, National security | Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

13 December 2017

Countries of the Asia-Pacific need long-term strategies to prevent the spread of terrorism. First among these must be ensuring existing counterterrorism measures do not inadvertently produce more terrorist recruits, Murray Ackman writes.

Since World War II, while most indicators measuring violence have improved, terrorism is an exception. The phenomenon is at an all-time high, with two out of every three countries measured in the 2017 Global Terrorism Index, or 106 nations, experiencing a terrorist attack last year.

This trend has been particularly pronounced in the Asia-Pacific, which has witnessed a marked increase in the number of terrorist attacks. In 2002, there were only 106 recorded terror attacks. By 2016, this figure had risen to 870 with the largest increases observed in the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar.

This spread of terrorism has been partly driven by the increasing reach of radical Islamist extremism and in particular the meteoric rise of ISIL. Last year the radical group killed over 9,000 people and recorded their deadliest year to date. The overwhelming majority of these deaths occurred in Iraq, although since 2014 the group has spread and now has established networks in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The group’s increasing sphere of influence highlights the need for Asia-Pacific nations and the global community collectively to develop more long-term strategies for dealing with the spread of terrorism. This includes focusing on reducing political terror and avoiding counterterrorism measures that may inadvertently increase the risk of terrorism.

More on this: Marawi the game changer

The spread of ISIL’s impact is noteworthy as it defies a positive global trend with deaths from terrorism declining for the second consecutive year. Three of the four most deadly terrorist groups – al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and Boko Haram – were collectively responsible for 6,000 fewer deaths in 2016 when compared to 2015. Yet ISIL has defied this positive trend with the number of countries experiencing either an ISIL directed or inspired attack almost doubling from 21 countries in 2014 to 40 in 2016.

Importantly, while the military intervention in Iraq and Syria has curtailed the group’s capacity in recent months, it is still capable of providing resources and expertise to affiliate groups. Nearly US $600,000 was transferred from ISIL central to fund operations in Marawi in the Philippines. These resources enhanced the organisational capacity of the militants and helped provide training for urban combat. Intercepted messages, primarily using the highly encrypted service Telegram, also show a sophisticated command structure in the region.

This support from ISIL central encourages foreign fighters, including those fleeing Iraq and Syria, to travel to other regions where ISIL has established networks. It is estimated that nearly 20 Indonesian fighters have joined ISIL-affiliated militants in Marawi.

As a result of this support, in May this year, ISIL-affiliated militants captured the Filipino city of Marawi in what temporarily became their most advanced stronghold in Southeast Asia. The Filipino Armed Forces recently successfully recaptured the city but the preceding battle resulted in 603 incident-related deaths between 30 May and 29 August this year.

The five-month-long capture of the city by ISIL-affiliated militants is emblematic of the group’s tactics. If it perceives the opportunity, the group will exploit vulnerable areas to establish territorial dominance. However, the group’s tactics can quickly adapt to any loss of territory by reverting to more ‘conventional’ insurgency attacks that frequently target civilians.

It also highlights the potential for other pockets of insurgency to emerge across the region with ISIL apt at merging local causes with its broader international agenda. There already exist pockets of perceived persecution against some Muslim groups within the Asia-Pacific, including amongst Rohingya in Myanmar, Muslim Malay in Thailand and Uighur in China. In each of these areas, the local context matters incredibly and the situation on the ground is frequently more complex than media reports suggest. But it is also important to analyse the broader trends driving terrorism.

More on this: Protecting crowded places from terrorism

The recently released Global Terrorism Index highlights the strong link between political terror and terrorism. In fact, the data finds categorically that the overwhelming majority of victims of terrorism – 99 per cent – are in countries either at war or in states that sponsor political terror. This can include extrajudicial killings, torture and imprisonment without trial.

Counterterrorism scholars have also repeatedly warned of the possibility that repressive counterterrorism measures can compound rather than resolve grievances.

For example, a study of al-Shabaab members from Kenya found that 65 per cent of respondents had joined in response to the counterterror strategies of the Kenyan government. In the Asia-Pacific there is the real risk that local grievances could be appropriated by ISIL or other groups to aid their allegedly persecuted Muslim brothers in Thailand, China or Myanmar.

This risk needs to be considered as ISIL continues to suffer territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. There is every possibility that the group will turn its energies to other regions where its ideologies can more easily gain traction. Analysis shows that the group prioritises areas where there is political instability, porous borders and a lack of educational and economic opportunities.

The Global Terrorism Index highlights the need for more long term strategies to curtail the spread of terrorism in the Asia-Pacific. This includes ensuring counterterrorism measures do not inadvertently exacerbate grievances that can give rise to terrorism. This imperative is all the more pressing given the spread of terrorism across the world, and the fact that ISIL’s tactics include internationalising existing conflicts to advance the group’s own agenda.

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