The security picture in Southeast and South Asia concerning violent extremism and insurgency was in flux in 2019. Most of the conflict zones saw declines in violence and some expected threats never fully manifesting. But 2019 was also a year of lost opportunities. No state took advantage of the reduced violence to attempt to forge durable political solutions.
The most important external factor influencing regional security, arguably, was the Trump administration’s inexplicable decision to stop supporting Kurdish allies in northern Syria, a move that prompted a Turkish invasion. Kurdish security forces stopped guarding several prison camps for Islamic State (IS) members that held more than a hundred Southeast Asian militants and their family members.
A feared flood of militants returning to their home countries in the region never materialized, but at least 50 are still at-large. The controlled repatriation of nationals by Indonesian and Malaysian security forces was curtailed until mid-December, when Malaysia negotiated with Turkey the return of two militants along with several of their family members.
Likewise, the fear that Southeast Asia would become a major new front for Islamic State never manifested itself. A video message from IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that was disseminated in April made no mention of Southeast Asia. After his death in October during a raid by U.S. forces, there were no retaliatory strikes in the region. While Islamic State may have adopted a global insurgency model, Southeast Asia remains a secondary theater for the extremist group.
Some of the last senior Southeast Asian members of IS in Syria and Iraq were killed in 2019, including Muhammad Saifuddin, Akel Zainal, and Mohd Rafi Uddin. Any semblance of direct command and control between regional cells and the IS center has been decimated.
But perhaps the greatest blow to Islamic State was a concerted effort by Telegram and other social media to close IS accounts. Those actions, which began in November 2019, have left IS reeling. An organization that was renowned for its ability to mobilize and radicalize youths online, is now largely voiceless. This has left groups and cells in disarray, operating on their own without any central leadership or guidance.
The pro-IS Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), remains a very resilient organization across Indonesia. Indonesian police noted only eight acts of JAD-related terrorism this year, a 57 percent decline from 2018. And the few attacks that did take place tended to be counterproductive, with over 280 suspected militants arrested in 2019. This was the first year that Indonesian police arrested suspects under preventative detention and other powers through 2018 amendments to the nation’s counterterrorism law.
The elite counterterrorism police, Densus 88, grew by 50 percent in 2019 and was deployed in every province. This proved to be smart, as eight JAD suspects who had fled the heavily surveilled island of Java were allegedly plotting attacks in the Muslim minority province of Papua before they were arrested earlier this month.
This year, Indonesia also launched the controversial counterterrorism unit of the Indonesian armed forces. Though a presidential directive mandated that the 500-member inter-service KOOPSUS had to coordinate with national police and the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), that safeguard did not allay fears among the public as the military also sought to reassert itself in a host of other civil administrative functions, which it had ceded in 1998.
There were three clear trends in counter-terrorism in 2019:
The first was JAD’s focus on the near enemy. Building on the past two years, JAD members continued to focus their attacks on the Indonesian police.
In September, police arrested eight JAD suspects who were planning suicide bomb attacks on police stations in Bekasi. In November, a suicide bomber wounded four police officers and two civilians in an attack at a police station in Medan.
Indonesian police foiled a big plot to disrupt the presidential elections: Police dismantled five separate cells, arrested over 30 suspects (including one of JAD’s top bomb-makers), and seized 11 homemade bombs.
While one could infer that the attempted assassination of Wiranto, Indonesia’s security minister, by a JAD militant was another strategic choice to focus on the near enemy, the evidence to date suggests the target was one of opportunity. There is no evidence that JAD is planning a campaign of targeted assassinations against government officials.
The second trend was the revival of Jemaah Islamiyah. JI has been defunct as a militant organization since 2011, but has been given ample space to regroup, run social welfare organizations, publishing houses, as well as a network of mosques and madrassas.
The government was convinced that the group had renounced violence, but the June arrest of its leader, Para Wijayanto, was a reminder that this period was a tactical lull for JI. His arrest revealed significant funding streams and evidence that the group was preparing to resume militant operations.
The final trend was the continued attempt by the IS-linked Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) to regroup. Although the group has been decimated by security forces since 2014, persistent attacks made clear that the group was trying to revive.
There were no terrorist attacks in Malaysia in 2019, but the year saw an increased number of arrests of IS-linked militants. Of particular concern was Sabah state in Malaysian Borneo, an area that remains a key transit point for foreign fighters moving in and out of the nearby southern Philippines.
Those arrested included over a dozen members of the Abu Sayyaf Group, which continues to stage maritime kidnappings in Malaysian waters. Malaysian security forces repelled several attempted kidnappings in Sabah by suspected Abu Sayyaf gunmen. In addition to its homegrown terrorist threat, Malaysia still remains a haven and transit point for militants. Police arrested seven suspected members of al-Qaeda, including six Egyptians and a Tunisian.
Malaysia has been actively trying to repatriate an estimated 50 nationals, who were detained in Iraq and Syria. Malaysia remains very confident of its terrorist disengagement program for prisoners, citing low levels of recidivism.
Malaysia came under international scrutiny when it released Yazid Sufaat, the head of al-Qaeda’s anthrax production, after he completed his latest prison sentence. Although he is free, the unrepentant former army captain is currently restricted in his movements, the people he can meet and his internet access. Although it pledged during its election campaign to do so, the Pakatan Harapan government still has not repealed the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
In 2019, the Philippines saw both progress and setbacks in many of its internal security challenges. On the plus side, the implementation of the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) continued without any major setbacks. Following two plebiscites, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao was formally established in February 2019, governed by an interim transitional government until elections are held in mid-2020.
The interim government is finding its footing, making the transition from rebels to administrators. Importantly, they have been able to do this despite challenges from a host of competitor organizations, all of whom have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, including the Abu Sayyaf, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and Islamic State Lanao (the Maute Group).
The BIFF carried on with their campaign of sporadic bombings meant to undermine confidence in the peace process. The Maute group continued to demonstrate their intention to regroup following their late-2017 defeat in the battle of Marawi, with low-level skirmishes.
The Abu Sayyaf continues to be the greatest threat to security. Led by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan in Sulu and Furuji Indama in Basilan, the two have assumed command of Islamic State battalions in the Philippines, following the death of Abu Dar in March 2019. The two have ramped up the use of suicide bombings, whose tempo increased in 2019.
In January, an Indonesian couple blew themselves up at a cathedral in Jolo, killing 23, and wounding more than 100. In June, two men, including the first Filipino suicide bomber, detonated their explosives outside an army camp in Sulu, killing five, including themselves, and wounding 22 others.
The ASG, after an 18-month lull, resumed their campaign of kidnappings for ransom, including renewed maritime operations. The ASG abducted a Briton and his Filipina wife, while a longtime Dutch captive of the group was killed in a firefight.
Meanwhile, the Philippine government continued to eschew peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines, whose New People’s Army operated across the country, though 2019 saw increased operations in the islands of Negros and Samar. The NPA has boosted their operations in Mindanao.
Violence in Thailand’s restive Muslim-majority provinces in the Deep South continued to decline in 2019. Insurgents, nevertheless, staged their single most lethal attack in years, killing 15 and wounding three more in a twin attack on security posts in Yala. Despite this, violence in the southern border region was at its lowest level since 2004.
The decline in violence is a positive development but, counter-intuitively, it may have the effect of prolonging the conflict. The government is now able to pay lip service to the peace process, without making any concessions on the ethnic Malay community’s litany of grievances.
The military-backed government, which came to power after rigged elections in March, will not tolerate any challenge to the unitary nature of the Thai state. Indeed, in October, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) charged 12 opposition politicians and academics for holding a conference where they discussed putting forward proposals for regional autonomy.
Chief amongst the grievances remains the impunity of security forces. In August, a militant suspect died after what appeared to be complications from a prolonged lack of oxygen, while in army custody. The military has denied any wrongdoing, and the CCTV cameras in his cell and interrogation room were apparently not working.
The military leadership pledged a full investigation, but to date, no charges have been made, and the military seems determined to run out the clock. In December a government security unit killed three unarmed loggers in Narathiwat province, mistaking them for insurgents. In a rare case of accountability, two members of the unit were charged with murder.
In other developments in Thailand, the Aug. 2 bombings that took place in Bangkok during an ASEAN summit remain largely unresolved. The police arrested Malay-Muslim suspects from the Deep South, but the government hasn’t provided compelling evidence as to whether they were tied to the insurgency, and, if so, what the Malay insurgents stood to gain from the attacks.
The Rohingya conflict remained completely intractable, with the surreal images of the former Nobel Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, defending her military and government in The Hague against charges of genocide toward the Rohingya people. The Bangladesh and Myanmar governments met to facilitate the return of some Rohingya, but without any legal protections, let alone citizenship, no Rohingya volunteered to return.
Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi government struggled with how to deal with the more than 1 million Rohingya refugees, and whether to resettle them to a low-lying, cyclone-prone island. There is unlikely to be any progress on the return of the Rohingya ahead of the 2020 election in Myanmar. Even then, little progress is likely.
While concerns about transnational jihadist organizations taking on the cause of the Rohingya have not materialized, the intractability of the conflict increases the likelihood of terrorism. Malaysia arrested at least three people in 2019 with suspected ties to the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army.
While both terrorist and secessionist violence declined in around the region in 2019, governments did little to build on that and seek durable political solutions to be bring closure to longstanding conflicts. Core grievances remain unaddressed, and conflicts have a way of festering. The absence of violence is not peace.
And sadly, several governments have put in place policies that could fuel further tensions with their minorities. Malaysia, for example, has tried to counter the jihadist narrative by stepping up its Islamization, something that has provoked a backlash by its already beleaguered Chinese and Indian minorities.
In the Philippines, the continued gutting of the rule of law by the Duterte administration, will impact legal resources for grievance adjudication. Ultimately, insurgencies are about governance, which is weakening in the Philippines. Finally, the impunity of security forces around the region, which continue to amass new legal authorities and resources, could blow back.
One additional thing to watch out for in the region in the coming year is how militant groups address the plight of other groups, such as the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Uyghurs in China. While the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have largely whitewashed China’s systematic repression and incarceration of close to 2 million Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province, civil society groups have increased their anti-Chinese activism.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.”