Terror: The globalisation of extremism

A terrorist suspect with a gun at Thamrin Street last month in Jakarta. The slew of terrorist killings, including the Jakarta attacks and the hacking to death of liberal writers on the streets of Bangladesh, may finally lay to rest the notion that Asian Muslims are somehow less prone to radicalisation than their co-religionists in the Middle East. Photo: Xinhua


Gunmen hunting foreigners kill a Japanese farm expert in northern Bangladesh and an Italian aid worker in the capital Dhaka. Shia Muslims are targeted in a bomb blast in Pakistan that kills 24. In Indonesia, eight people are slain in an assault on civilians around a Starbucks cafe at a Jakarta shopping mall. A bomb explodes at a popular Hindu shrine in Bangkok, leaving 20 dead, including five Chinese tourists.

Terror attacks such as these in recent months — some claimed by Islamic State (ISIS) or its adherents — suggest that the Sunni Islamist extremist group and its violent, ultra-conservative ideology are successfully extending their influence to Asia from the Middle East and Europe.

In a world of instant connections via the Internet and social media, the growing popularity of the ISIS brand among young Asian Islamists should be no surprise.

Asia is home to about one billion Muslims, nearly two-thirds of the world total, and has undergone waves of radicalisation in earlier decades.

The jihad that drove Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in 1989, backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, notoriously spawned the Islamist Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

The first decade of the new millennium saw the Indonesian Bali bombings of 2002, which killed more than 200, and the attack launched from Pakistan on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.

The fact that it has happened before, however, only heightens the anxiety among Asian and Western governments about the latest, continent-wide surge in Islamist militancy — fuelled as it is by online recruitment campaigns and backed by a plethora of local extremist groups whose leaders are impressed by ISIS and its wars in Syria and Iraq.

A risk analysis by consultancy IHS said the ISIS terror attacks in Paris last November are continuing to drive South Asian Islamist factions, including the remnants of Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, into the arms of ISIS.

Such groups would not receive much direct help from ISIS and would rely on their own capabilities to keep attacking foreigners, government and military installations and religious minorities, head of Asia Pacific Country Risk Omar Hamid wrote in the report.

“However, due to the enthusiasm generated by the Paris attacks among jihadis, an increase in the number of attacks on these targets is highly likely over the next six months,” he said.

Western governments are particularly concerned about Russia and central Asia, an important source of the foreign fighters who join ISIS in the Middle East, and see radicalisation in other parts of Asia as well.

“Asia-wide, it’s more of a concern than people think for the governments concerned,” said one Western official. “You’ve essentially had the globalisation of Islamic radicalisation, the Daesh (ISIS) brand … though you still have a range of local brands.”

The slew of terrorist killings, including the Jakarta attacks and the hacking to death of liberal writers on the streets of Bangladesh, may finally lay to rest the notion that Asian Muslims are somehow less prone to radicalisation than their co-religionists in the Middle East.

While it is true that Indonesian Islam, for example, is often coloured by Hindu and other pre-Islamic traditions, that has not stopped puritanical Sunni groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS from finding eager recruits to murder innocents of any age or religion.

South Asia, with Hindu-majority India at its heart, is home to millions of mystical, music-loving Sufis and has Muslim traditions as varied, tolerant and syncretic as those of Indonesia.

However in Pakistan, nearly 60,000 civilians, security force personnel and militants have been killed in terror attacks and government crackdowns since 2003. Almost all the victims were Muslims.

Equally, it is hard to think of any country in Asia — except perhaps the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan — that has not been affected by the rise of ISIS and seen at least some of its citizens migrate to Syria or Iraq to fight for the organisation.

The Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives, a destination for wealthy tourists, is thought to have contributed about 200 ISIS fighters, one of the largest contingents as a share of national population, according to the Soufan Group.


Radicalisation is probably made easier by the tendency of Asia’s Muslim-majority governments and societies such as Malaysia and Pakistan to impose or adopt progressively more conservative rules. Neither increased conservatism nor does the novel appeal of ISIS mean that Asian Muslims are a monolithic group fated to become ever more radical.

An examination of leading Asian countries shows they are buffeted by an array of influences, including ethnic separatism and political disputes as well as Islamism, religious bigotry and deep-rooted anti-Western sentiment.

In some, ISIS is only the latest actor to join in long-running extremist campaigns. In Afghanistan, for example, where a Western-backed government under President Ashraf Ghani is struggling to ensure security, ISIS is vying for influence with the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other Sunni groups.

There are signs that established groups in Pakistan have sought to form alliances with ISIS. Had a militant group not cited revenge for “the killings of innocent Muslims in Syria” as the reason for its Dec 13 bomb in the mainly Shia town of Parachinar, the attack would have been just another example of sectarian carnage. But Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has for months been suspected of trying to become a branch of ISIS.

“LeJ is trying hard to become enrolled in Daesh. They want money and weapons,” said one intelligence official.

India detained 14 suspected ISIS sympathisers shortly before the arrival of Francois Hollande, the French President, in New Delhi last week. With 170 million Muslims, India has one of the religion’s largest national populations, but they are rarely regarded as extremists and only a few dozen are thought to have left for Syria.

“Most of the Indians whom we know were attracted to Daesh were brought to our attention by their own family or community,” Mr Shivshankar Menon, a former National Security Adviser, said in a recent speech.

“What should worry us is the fact that 10 years ago we could say proudly that there was no Indian in Al Qaeda. Today we can no longer say so.”

And in Bangladesh, two strands of Islamic militancy have been prominent over the past year. First, a group known as Ansarullah Bangla Team, an Al Qaeda affiliate, has murdered five liberal writers and atheists and circulated a hit list with many more names. Second, ISIS claimed various shootings and bombings that killed foreigners, policemen and Shia Muslims and boasted of “the revival of jihad in Bengal”.

Last month, Singapore announced it had arrested 27 Bangladeshi men who were working on construction sites for supporting the ideology of Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities said they have frustrated several plots and are concerned by the number of nationals who have gone to fight with ISIS. The ruling United Malays National Organisation has also sought to bolster support among rural voters by emphasising its Islamic credentials.


In short, ISIS may indeed have Asia in its sights. The latest issue of its magazine Dabiq talks of Islam conquering or reconquering “the cow-worshipping Hindus and atheist Chinese” from “Khurasan”, an imagined Islamic land centred on Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

But Asia is not yet as important for ISIS as its embattled Middle East heartland or the temptingly vulnerable and nearby nations of Europe.

Asian militants, in fact, sometimes seem more eager to associate themselves with ISIS than its overburdened leaders are to co-opt them. ISIS is only one of many extremist Sunni groups in Asia, and its ideologues spend much of their time attacking organisations such as the Taliban that are ideologically almost indistinguishable from itself.

“Extremism is a spectrum in this part of the world and it is very difficult to draw the line,” said Mr Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group. “I don’t think ISIS central is interested in South-east Asia. I think Indonesians in ISIS based in Syria are interested in showing they can put the region on the map.”

Few analysts think Asian countries face immediate threats to their existence from Islamist radicals. Indeed, it was just such a threat to the stability of Pakistan from its homegrown Sunni extremists that persuaded the armed forces to launch operations against the militant groups they had helped to establish. Islamabad has, however, been less willing to abandon the jihadis it finds useful: Those destabilising neighbouring India and Afghanistan.

Like Indonesia and several other Asian countries, Pakistan can now boast of some successes in suppressing violent radicals who want to attack their fellow citizens. And, with the notable exception of Afghans and Pakistanis, most Asians can assume they are as safe as Europeans from attacks by ISIS or its fellow extremists.

Unfortunately — after the attacks of Paris, Istanbul, Bangkok and Jakarta — that is small comfort.


Victor Mallet is the Financial Times’ South Asia Bureau Chief

Sumber: Todayonline, 4 Februari 2016