Media-driven panic fueling fears in Southeast Asia
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Media-driven panic fueling fears in Southeast Asia

As Southeast Asia faces a resurgence of terrorism under the blood-soaked brand of the Islamic State (IS), the region needs to takes to take a deep breath -- and resist the urge to panic.

The IS call to violent extremism poses a real enough concern which, depending on how matters unfold in the Middle East, may yet become more serious. But the relentless media-driven hype that has gathered momentum since the attack in Jakarta last January is anything but helpful in reaching a balanced assessment of the threat.

The frenzy was palpable again last month with the dismantling of an IS-inspired cell on the Indonesian island of Batam. The six men arrested were accused of plotting a rocket attack on Singapore's iconic Marina Bay tourist zone.

Despite the fact no rockets or even designs for one were actually found, the "Foiled Rocket Attack" headlines were entirely predictable.

Very few reports bothered to point out that assembling a rocket in your backyard that will actually take off is no easy feat; or that in this region picking up a military-grade missile on a black market dealing mainly in handguns would be more difficult still.

Similar hysteria has also been emanating from institutions that should know better. In April a report from one respected regional think-tank raised -- apparently entirely seriously -- "the real threat of IS hi-jacking the South Thai insurgency." This, on the basis of social media chatter and a Facebook posting with an IS-style black banner superimposed on a map of Thailand's southern border provinces.

As last month's bombings in tourist resorts made clear the southern separatist conflict poses real dangers. But the suggestion that IS might "hi-jack" an insurgency ideologically and operationally dominated by an ethno-nationalist movement which has resolutely rejected international jihadism reflects the sort of knee-jerk alarmism dressed up as analysis that currently travels well.

A less fevered assessment suggests that in a world where a degree of low-level terrorist activity is becoming a new norm, several strengths enjoyed by this region in the confrontation with jihadist extremism amount to a glass half-full -- or more.

Not least of these is that most security and intelligence services are both experienced and vigilant. For Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore jihadist terrorism has been the primary domestic concern for nearly two decades.

Within and beyond Asean more broadly, intelligence exchanges have improved significantly over the last year driven both by the rising profile of the IS and the Erawan bombing in Bangkok. The success of patient intelligence work and cross-border cooperation rather than non-existent rockets were the real take-away from the Batam affair.

A more visible reality has been the striking unpreparedness of local IS affiliates for terrorist prime-time. Stumbling incompetence on the part of cells of untrained amateurs has been a consistent pattern throughout the year. It was evident in Jakarta in January; in Puchong, Malaysia, in June; in Solo, Indonesia, in July; and in Batam in August.

Which raises the thorny issue of Southeast Asians who have rallied to the IS in Syria and Iraq and who clearly have yet to join the battle at home. Will the return of hardened fighters inject professionalism into the current amateur mix and presage a descent into region-wide mayhem?

At least two factors are acting to mitigate dangers which should neither be dismissed nor exaggerated. The first turns on numbers. In contrast to north Africa, the Middle East and Russia -- from where thousands of combatants have flooded the battle-fields of Syria -- notably small numbers have joined the IS from Southeast Asia, the most populous Muslim region on earth.

And of the approximately 700-800 overwhelmingly Indonesian sympathisers from the region understood to have travelled to the IS Promised Land, an estimated 40 or 45% are women and children, while many males have reportedly been assigned often menial support roles rather than combat duties.

In terms of combatants, the strength of the IS's Southeast Asian battalion, the Katibah Nusantara, is assessed by regional intelligence agencies at approximately 250 -- mainly Indonesians but including some 50 Malaysians. As the IS is increasingly pushed onto the defensive, casualties -- already mounting with over 100 fatalities reported this year -- will inevitably rise further. In other words, some fighters may make it home undetected -- not the "hundreds" tossed around in media reports.

Secondly, the degree of attention accorded to Southeast Asia by the IS leadership is questionable. The group's external operations wing has been undoubtedly disrupted by the death of its chief Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in an August drone strike. But even before that, there was no evidence that planning and supporting attacks in Southeast Asia was a priority on the level of cost-effective, high-impact operations in politically and strategically important regions, notably Europe, Turkey or the wider Middle East.

Evidence to date in fact indicates that pressure for action in this region has come mainly from Bahrun Nahim, a commander from Indonesia, eager to burnish his credentials at the IS "top table" and outflank Indonesian rivals. The string of botched operations to date suggests he's failing on both counts.

Finally, the importance of the southern Philippines as an incubator and springboard for regional terrorism has been consistently overblown. Several insurgent groups in the Mindanao region have raised their "street cred" by proclaiming allegiance to the IS; some have loose links to like-minded factions in Indonesia and Malaysia. But over the medium term at least, assertions from terrorism experts that militants in Mindanao pose an "unprecedented challenge to the Manila government" or even a threat to the security of Australia should be treated with scepticism.

While these groups maintain temporary jungle camps which can be used for basic training, all remain under constant pressure from the Philippine military which has been further ramped up by the Duterte administration. None controls swaths of territory or population remotely comparable to the IS heartland or even its "provinces" in Libya or Sinai.

In the coming months more attacks of the type seen this year are entirely possible. And as the pressure tightens around the Sulu strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf Group, retaliatory bombings in the Mindanao region such as that seen in Davao on Sept 2 are even likely. A complex terrorist operation on the scale of Bali 2002 or Paris 2015 is not.

The region faces a range of real security concerns including extreme weather events, the Zika virus, potential hostilities in the South China Sea and, not least, commercially-driven cross-border haze which every year kills hundreds and poisons millions.

Anthony Davis is a security consultant and analyst with IHS-Jane's.

Anthony Davis

Security consultant

Anthony Davis is a security consultant and analyst with IHS-Jane’s.

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