Understanding and Countering Violent Extremism in Southeast Asia

February 6, 2017

George Soros Visiting Practitioner Chair Sidney Jones gave a sweeping and nuanced presentation about the nature of violent extremism in Southeast Asia at CEU’s School of Public Policy on January 31. She focused her remarks on Indonesia, where she has lived and worked for 18 years, and on Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Jones stressed repeatedly during her lecture that there were important differences with the situation in Southeast Asia and, for example, Europe where many more people have left to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. By contrast, only 600 Indonesians (out of a population of 250 million), about 80 Malaysians, and “negligible numbers” from the Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar, have left for Syria or Iraq. Many of the individuals who have left are responding to “pull factors,” according to Jones. “They are going to fight. They don’t intend to return.” This is very different from the situation in the 1990s when Southeast Asians went to Afghanistan. “Those people didn’t go to fight, but to get trained so they could come back and fight Suharto in Indonesia,” said Jones.

Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel
Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel

There are other ways in which violent extremism in Southeast Asia today differs from the situation in the 1990s: there are many fewer fighters returning to Southeast Asia than returned to Afghanistan. “One of the biggest mistakes that people make is to assume that because fighters flooded back to Afghanistan and caused problems there, that the same thing will happen in Indonesia,” she said.

Another difference: women play a more active role in Southeast Asia, aided in some cases by social media.

The role of women has been understudied to date. Many of them want to play a larger role – including as fighters,” commented Jones.

One of the challenges of studying violent extremism in Southeast Asia is “who’s being counted” – and how. Jones pointed out that different agencies in Southeast Asia “have different numbers” and often don’t take into account the fact that, for example, a number of the people who have left for Syria were killed and so will not be returning.

There has been growing pressure in just the past year, such as the audio message from Abu Mohammed al-Adnani in May 2016, urging those who cannot travel to Syria and Iraq to organize attacks in their own countries. “These are not just exhortations,” said Jones. “They send detailed instructions too.” Although the capacity is still low and there has not yet been a successful suicide bombing, there has been an increase in the number of attacks in Indonesia since June 2016.

ISIS supporters in the region are also working to establish a province of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia. The only place in the region where extremists can claim to control territory today is the Philippines. Jones observed that although there are very few (if any) Filipinos fighting in Syria, the base in Lanao del Sur (central Mindanao) is important as it provides training and a safe haven for fighters from other countries. “There are more foreigners in the Philippines than people realize,” said Jones.

Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel
Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel

Jones spoke during her public lecture about law enforcement and deradicalization efforts to counter violent extremism in Southeast Asia. She pointed out that some of these initiatives have been successful, but that because countries’ circumstances vary enormously, it is difficult to duplicate a successful effort in one country to another country. Singapore and Malaysia, for example, enforce preventive detention provisions in a way that is not possible legally or practically in Indonesia today.

Despite the obstacles, Jones said that there have been some targeted local civil society initiatives that have been effective. She spoke about one in particular that had been organized by Farha Ciciek. During the course of her dissertation research, Ciciek learned that different extremist groups were targeting children who were part of an Islamic study group called ROHIS that is active in high schools throughout Indonesia. Ciciek proposed that one way to thwart these recruitment efforts was to change the faculty advisor every three months. “This was a simple idea, but one that was potentially effective,” said Jones. She pointed out that Ciciek’s initiative “did not stigmatize anyone.” She noted also that there had been no follow-up and so there was no way of knowing whether it had had a long-term effect.

Jones said that it was the role of government to encourage local initiatives, study what worked and why, and try to scale up, without co-opting or compromising NGO independence. “In Southeast Asia, as everywhere else, the trick is finding the balance,” concluded Jones.