Dr. Rohan Gunaratna

In the last week of February, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued two separate travel warnings in relation to the safety of Australians.

One was for Indonesia and one for Malaysia, the main Muslim countries in south-east Asia. The import was the same: there was a credible threat to foreign tourists from Islamic terrorists.

On Sunday, February 21, the Australian government said there was an ongoing threat of terrorism in Malaysia, especially in major cities, with attacks likely to be indiscriminate and affecting locations frequented by Westerners.

This was followed on February 25 by a warning regarding Indonesia.

“Recent indications suggest that terrorists may be in the advanced stages of preparing attacks in Indonesia,” DFAT said.

The governments of both countries subsequently downplayed the warnings.

Rohan Gunaratna, Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of Security Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, has argued that the group that calls itself Islamic State (also called ISIS or Daesh) is likely to create at least one branch in south-east Asia this year — most likely in either the Philippines or Indonesia — with alarming consequences for the region.

Any foothold by IS will, naturally, present far-reaching security implications for the stability and prosperity for a rising Asia. Now, Gunaratna says, IS is most likely to set up a base in either Malaysia or the southern Philippines where a civil war in the Muslim province of Mindanao, a province that stretches between southwards towards eastern Malaysia and Indonesia, continues to rage.

Gunaratna says if IS succeeds in creating a safe haven in Basilan, a key island in Mindanao, and mounts operations from the Sulu archipelago, training camps will lure recruits from neighboring Asian states who cannot reach Syria — including Malaysia, Australia and even China. In addition, he argues that it is “very likely” that IS will dispatch explosive experts, combat tacticians and other operatives.

Since the declaration of the so-called caliphate in June 2014, IS has steadily deployed its plan for global outreach. To date, more than 65 attacks in almost 20 countries have killed approximately 1000 people outside Iraq and Syria.

The government of Singapore is a zone of sanity between the increasingly unstable Malaysia — where the corrupt government of Najib Razak is pursuing deliberately racially and religiously divisive policies — and Indonesia, where there are pockets of hardline Islam, including on Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra, where there has been a spate of Christian Church torchings over the past year or so. And Singapore has been increasing concerned about the rise of fundamentalist Islam.

“We see the threat of Islamic extremism as a clear and present danger in our region,” Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in December.

“They have sympathisers, they have foreign fighters who are trained, who have motivation, the means and who have a common vision,” he warned.

Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group behind the Bali bombing, is now behind bars in Indonesia. Yet he and the Abu Sayyaf, the Mindanao-based Filipino rebel group, already pledged allegiance to the Islamic State back in 2014.

And it’s not just pure IS; Australian officials are increasingly worried about the rise of conservative Islam in both Malaysia and particularly Indonesia, where there has been a concerted and violent campaign against the LGBTQ community.

Australia, of course, as indicated by the DFAT warnings, has a vested interest here, as demonstrated by the horrific carnage that random terrorist attacks, particularly those aimed at Western tourist havens such as the Bali bombings last decade, showed.

Following those attacks, the Australian Federal Police played a key role in assisting Indonesia in helping to all but neuter JI. Have no doubt the AFP will be in the thick of this again, and ever since the bombings the organisation has quietly expanded its numbers overseas, especially in Asia.

Malaysia is of particular concern. In January, following the attacks in Jakarta, the country’s deputy home minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed had this to say, according to the New Straits Times:

“If anything happens, we would be limited in deploying our forces, vehicles and equipment as all of this costs money. We will usually adjust our business-as-usual budget to cover such events, but it seems that would be cut, too. If that happens, we will be lacking in funds.”

But while the threats in recent weeks have been in Indonesia and Malaysia, the other country that is of extreme concern to Australian authorities has been Thailand, especially since the deadly bomb blast in central Bangkok last year.

About 1 million Australians visit the country every year, and in recent years there has been a history of random bomb attacks in both Bangkok and other popular tourist spots such as Koh Samui with relative impunity.

There is a civil war in the south of Thailand that has claimed 6000 or so lives in 11 years. Many long-time residents fear will make its way into, if not Bangkok, then the southern tourist meccas of Krabi, Phuket or the islands of Samui, Phangan and Tao.

The threat is growing in Australia’s holiday playground, south-east Asia, and it’s serious.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.