Security expert and director of Jakarta-based NGO the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) Sidney Jones visited Bangkok last week to speak about pro-ISIS networks in Southeast Asia.
The public talk, held on the evening of May 30, attracted dozens of interested scholars, analysts and journalists to SEA Junction in the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center.
Jones, herself a scholar and longtime expert on terrorism in the region—particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines—spoke to The Irrawaddy after her talk.
As your study focuses on security and pro-ISIS networks, I would like to start with the situation in Southeast Asia. Could you tell us the current state of pro-ISIS networks in Southeast Asia?
ISIS in the Middle East has largely collapsed, but groups that supported ISIS in Southeast Asia are still active, because they believe their mission now is to wage war at home. So ISIS has shifted to a kind of guerrilla strategy where it’s encouraging attacks by local cells around the region. It’s not the case that the defeat of ISIS in the Middle East or loss of territories has discouraged these groups. In some way, it’s given them a new incentive to undertake attacks.
Is there more concern for Southeast Asia as more homegrown groups emerge?
Essentially, there are three kinds of potential threats from ISIS in Southeast Asia. One is people coming back from Syria. Another is from people who were deported trying to get to Syria, but who were caught before they reached [Syria] and were sent back Southeast Asian nations by the Turkish government. And the biggest threat comes from the third group: those who never left home.
These cells do not become discouraged by government crackdowns or the arrests of their leaders. They pop up again in different places, sometimes with only five or six members. Many of them have very low capacity. They are not professionally trained. Most of their bombs don’t work, but it only takes a couple of people with a few electronic skills, maybe little bit of knowledge of chemicals, to be able to follow internet instructions and make something really dangerous.
Does that problem also exist in Myanmar, where there are many vulnerable groups like the Rohingya, and much talk about whether they could join terrorist networks?
There is no link that we know of between ISIS and Rohingya.
I think you have to distinguish between two different kinds of violent extremism: political and ideological. The first includes ethno-nationalist insurgencies that sometimes use terrorist tactics but whose goals are broadly to gain autonomy or independence. And the second includes organizations that are committed to a global jihad.
As far as we know, ARSA (the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) falls in the first category. In that sense, it is like in Aceh. When the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was still fighting, before the 2005 peace agreement, [GAM] had no interest in joining the global jihad, but very occasionally its members used terrorist tactics because they wanted to show that the government was weak. They wanted to try and attract support from the local community by attacking enemies. Like many other insurgencies, they sometimes killed informers as a way of frightening people away from working with the Indonesian military. We have also seen the execution of informants by ARSA in Myanmar. You had that in Aceh. You have that in southern Thailand. You have that in the Philippines.
Everywhere you have an insurgency that has been a tactic used, but it doesn’t mean that there are any links to an international terrorist movement like ISIS.
So does that mean speculation about possible ISIS-affiliated attacks in Myanmar and on Myanmar missions overseas are wrong?
All I am saying is, up until now, there is no evidence of any ARSA links to ISIS. There is some evidence that there was involvement of the Rohingya diaspora in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in setting up ARSA in the first place. I think there are allegations of a Pakistani trainer in 2016 or 2017. But I don’t know of any indication that there is systematic involvement of foreign terrorist groups in ARSA.
Are pro-ISIS networks getting bigger in Southeast Asia and in South Asia?
I wouldn’t say they’re getting bigger, but I think they’re always changing. It is never static. Sometimes there are waves of arrests that weaken a movement temporarily. Between May and August 2018, for example, more than 300 (pro-ISIS terror suspects) were arrested in Indonesia.
But in the meantime there [has been] more Facebook recruitment, so you begin to see groups learning lessons from a government crackdown, or if one leader is arrested maybe they turn to a new leader with different ideas about how to continue the struggle. Or, there might be some event which opens new opportunities. In July 2016, the Indonesian military killed the leader of a small, pro-ISIS armed group in Poso, in central Sulawesi [in Indonesia], and it seemed the group there was down to five people and two guns.
But then what happened? We had the tsunami in Palu, in central Sulawesi, in November and new people came in pretending they were humanitarian workers to help the victims of the tsunami. They went to Poso using aid as a cover and now Poso has a whole new group of fighters.
When you are looking at Myanmar and ARSA now, you can’t say that it will be the same situation six months from now. You have to keep constantly looking at new developments. You have to see who is in charge, how dynamics are changing, what they are saying on social media.
You make a lot of references to social media. In the Myanmar case, do shutdowns or restrictions on social media have a positive or negative impact in terms of radicalization or mobilization?
It is very hard to control the internet fully. I think there is a role for the large social media companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook to [play] being far more careful and speedy than they have been about identifying dangerous content, and they know that now. But in some cases, the financial incentive to allow as many users as possible is still very high.
These groups’ social media use needs to be monitored?
Yes, but it’s got to be very carefully done. You don’t want to diminish freedom of expression on the internet. But there is a responsibility, both of government and the big social media companies, to try and figure out appropriate guidelines, and to very quickly remove [harmful] content. The problem is that it [the harmful content] frequently gets shifted from Google, for example, or Facebook, to Whatsapp, and then goes viral within seconds. And nobody has developed an effective response to that.
In Indonesia, what they did during the riots on 21-22 May was to shut down the function on Whatsapp for sending photographs and videos. I thought that was a good, measured response at the height of the riot, because that was what was getting out of hand. When the situation was under control, the restrictions were lifted. They were only in place a few days. It’s important that governments be responsible in their use of controls.
The Myanmar and Indonesian governments have been trying to collaborate on counterterrorism activities since last year, when both tried to suppress extremist groups. Does it really help [to fight terrorism]? Don’t crackdowns encourage more people to become part of networks like ISIS?
So far I don’t think any de-radicalization programs in Southeast Asia have encouraged more radicalization. I think the danger is sometimes that prison conditions—not de-radicalization programs—can further radicalize some individuals. It becomes important to make sure that the prison administration is humane. If you have serious overcrowding, if you have poor treatment by the prison officials and if you have prolonged solitary confinement, all of that can create problems in the future. Those are the facts that can re-radicalize people.
How about the Rohingya in Indonesia and Malaysia? Are they confined to the camps?
In Malaysia, there are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living perfectly normal lives. In Indonesia, new arrivals tend to be confined to immigration detention centers or camps.
How worried are you that members of ARSA would join ISIS networks outside of Myanmar?
The worry is less that [ARSA] would join pro-ISIS groups overseas than that they would find some way to attack Myanmar embassies or that there might be elements of militant Rohingya who would want to try and target Myanmar authorities overseas. That’s why Rohingya were arrested last week in Malaysia.
You said earlier that ARSA is more of an ethno-nationalist insurgency. In Myanmar and some other countries, many people do not like the idea of militants attacking government security forces. What is your thought?
Of course they will never like it. Of course that is something that has to be punished. I mean, you can’t just go and kill people at police posts, regardless of what your goals are. So it’s perfectly appropriate for governments to arrest those individuals, but what is not appropriate is to engage in collective punishment against a much broader group of people.
During the mass expulsion of Rohingya, everyone said the Myanmar military forced them out. Is it possible it’d have happened without fighting from ARSA as well?
There were periodic expulsions of Rohingya before there was any ARSA, right? So it is not because of ARSA that the Myanmar authorities have been determined to try and expel the Rohingya, but the attacks from ARSA certainly added to the government’s motivation to force them out.
You said there’s no evidence of links between ARSA and ISIS. Does that mean Myanmar shouldn’t be worried about possible links developing in the future?
I think you have to question every time you hear an allegation that somebody has links to ISIS. You need to get evidence. You can’t accept allegations at face value. So one of the things that we have made a point of in my organization is documenting link to ISIS, noting what the sources are and what the evidence is. And we know now how to judge the quality of the materials.
I don’t know enough about Myanmar or about the Rohingya. I don’t know when someone makes an allegation, how to judge clearly whether that evidence is true. But I do know to be skeptical of the government reports and to be skeptical of ARSA’s reports. You have to find sources that you believe are accurate and disinterested and actually try to prove or disprove the allegations.
How would you assess the current situation? Are there pro-ISIS networks, or is ISIS working in South Asia or Southeast Asia?
Generally, I think Southeast Asia is in a better situation than South Asia, the Middle East or Central Asia. You don’t have governments that see their neighbors as enemies. That’s actually incredibly important, because you don’t have any India-Pakistan-like situation where they are always blaming each other. Within Southeast Asia, one of the remarkable things is how well by-and-large the governments get along. So even though cooperation isn’t as good as it should be, there is also no interest in actively stirring up trouble.