Make no mistake: Islamic State is already putting down roots in Asian countries where many Australians do business and take beach holidays.
To date, over 500 Indonesians and 200 Malaysians are believed to have joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Since 2013, Malaysian authorities have arrested more than 120 individuals for either trying to join IS or fighting with them.
According to Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, radicalised Malaysian men have found their way into the IS network through a combat unit known as Katibah Nusantara, led by an Indonesian named Bahrumsyah. (The group is also referred to as the Malay Archipelago Combat Unit or Katibah in Malaysia).
Jones notes that the original combat unit started out with about 100 men last year. Since then, Jones says, “indications are that it had grown considerably and was being deployed in different areas”.
During a speech to United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party faithful in last year, Prime Minister Najib Razak asked for members to be as “brave” as IS in fighting the Iraqi army. What sort of message does this send to impressionable youth?
Still, by sheer dint of numbers, the most fertile ground for IS is naturally Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world.
The majority of Indonesians practise a more moderate version of Islam than most other Muslim nations, including its neighbour Malaysia, where there is an increasing weight of Middle Eastern money and influence. To use a rough comparison — Indonesia compared to, say, Iran — is like comparing the aggressive evangelical Christians of the United States to mainstream Catholic or Anglican churches.
Still, there are regions of Indonesia, such as the province of Aceh in northern Sumatra, that exist under much more hardline versions of the religion. Also fresh in the minds of Australians is the Jemaah Islamiyah group, an offshoot of the IS hardline predecessor al-Qaeda that was responsible for the Bali bombings, which killed hundreds of people and devastated Australian families and communities.
Experts have said that hundreds of Indonesians, including entire families, have gone to Syria and Iraq to support the cause. This is a striking change from what happened in Afghanistan, when mostly single men went to fight. Some of today’s volunteers aren’t necessarily fighters but professionals with specialised skills who have travelled to the Middle East with their wives and children to build new lives.
“The overall capacity of Indonesian extremists remains low, but their commitment to ISIS could prove deadly,” said Jones.
But it is in impoverished Bangladesh where IS has made the most significant inroads so far. Most concerning, as far as foreigners, including Australians, are concerned, is that IS has claimed responsibility for a number of murders of foreigners — and has promised more will follow.
While Islamic fundamentalists are understandably the focus of the week, there is also a disturbing and very real trend of radicalisation in Asia’s other two big religions: Hinduism and Buddhism.
It’s worth remembering that India’s ruling party the Bharatiya Janata Party was initially formed as a hardline Hindu group. While the party is now so mainstream it is enjoying its second term running the government in Delhi, significant fundamentalist factions remain extremely influential.
Since the BJP swept to power in 2014 under its paedagogic leader Narendra Modi (to get a feel for his impressive oration, watch his speech to the UK Parliament last week), the number of murders and other violent acts perpetrated in the name of Hinduism has been ratcheted up. Modi, who has some form here when he was head of the state of Gujarati, has remained embarrassingly silent.
In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where Buddhists are a vast majority, hardline groups have emerged with similar, awful results. Even Thailand, the self-styled land of smiles, has not been immune, with radical Buddhists locked in a 10-year civil war against Muslim separatist groups in the country’s deep south.
Australia has a very real and very important role in helping our Asian neighbours deal with the threat of murderous fundamentalism.
The Australian Federal Police played a critical, if perhaps unsung, role in assisting Indonesian authorities with a very successful campaign to significantly weaken JI.
Thomas Jefferson is famously credited with saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” and while the AFP has only stepped up its role in the region, with dozen of officers now stationed in key nations helping Asian countries deal with people movement, drug smuggling and terrorism, there is scope for more.
These programs are a key plank in Australia’s regional aid program, although not named as such. It is here, on our doorstep — where millions of Australians holiday each year, and tens of thousands of companies do business — where government efforts and taxpayers dollars should be spent, not the Middle East.
The unspeakable events in Paris at the weekend should only serve to sharpen that focus.