The one-two terrorist attacks on the Philippine city of Marawi and a bus terminal in Jakarta this week, with at least 25 people dead between the two strikes, has signaled loud and clear to Australia and the rest of the region that the so-called Islamic State has gained a firm foothold in the region.
South-east Asia is Australia’s holiday playground, and increasing numbers of Australians are setting up businesses or branches of their businesses in the region, or retiring to warmer, cheaper countries. Thailand is far and away the most popular option for the latter.
Such attacks have been the singular fear of Australia’s most perceptive diplomats, along with growing numbers of Australian Federal Police who are posted in embassies across the region. Vigilante President Rodrigo Duterte (himself a native of Mindanao), has declared martial law on the war-torn Philippine island of Mindanao. He has suggested that he might declare martial law on the entire 100 million-person country. Most commentators believe that his tactic in Mindanao is just a likely to backfire as succeed.
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The Indonesian government has moved to ban the pro-Islamic caliphate group Hizb ut-Tahrir for anti-state activities. Some reports estimate that up to 2 million Indonesians support IS. But despite moving on Hizb ut-Tahrur, the government in Indonesia is permitting other radical groups, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI in the Indonesian language Bahasa), which has grown in strength and has a national membership of 7 million people. The group was instrumental in protests that led to the jailing of Jakarta’s Christian governor “Ahok” for blasphemy, so the radical genie appears to be well out of the bottle in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Worse still, the only horrible conclusion is that there will be more to come. Malaysians are in Syria fighting for IS, and there are terror concerns in Thailand, where the region’s dirty little civil war has now claimed more than 7000 lives — more per year than in the long-running sectarian battle between Hindus and Muslims in the disputed Indian mountain state of Kashmir. As Muslims in three Thai states continue their struggle for independence, Thailand’s own terrorist campaign is moving further up the peninsula and into places like Koh Samui, Krabi and Phuket — the key destination for the almost 1 million Australians who visit Thailand each year — which several decades ago were largely Muslim areas themselves. Thailand’s Muslim freedom fighters are also now being radicalised, experts on the region say. The next “Bali bombing” could well be in downtown Chaweng on Koh Samui, or Patong in Phuket — or at a Koh Phangan Full Moon Party. If that’s the case, the chance of Australians escaping injury or death in a well-executed attack would be slim.
Meanwhile, back in Indonesia, the country (in this region) with the worst history of terrorist bombing over the past two decades — and another major Australian travel and retirement destination — anti-terror squad Densus 88 has estimated 550-600 Indonesians have joined Islamic State; 100 have returned home and another 100 have died during fighting in Syria. But the real concern is what happens when more return home as IS is slowly crushed as an occupying force in Syria and Iraq and becomes a more splintered group like al-Qaeda — which, by the way folks, has not gone away either.
Home-grown al-Qaeda-based group Jemaah Islamiyah, far from being a finished force after a laudatory joint effort between Australia and Indonesian security forces following the 2004 Bali bombings, has recently been reported to be laying low waiting for an opportunity. The fear is that the recent “success” of IS, which included the devastating attack on a pop concert in Manchester, England, might have made the group keen to publicly burnish its own credentials as a terror group to be reckoned with. It’s not just suicide bombings or rampaging jihadists who slaughtered more than 23 people in Mindanao that are causes for concern. Kidnappings — long a fundraising and fear-mongering tactic of Islamic groups in the province — is back in vogue.
This time around, the victim is Catholic priest Father Terisito Suganob, together with other Christians. Together with burning of both Catholic and Protestant churches in Marawi — and attacks on Indonesian Christian churches are on the rise too — the kidnapping is designed to make it very clear that IS is particularly keen on targeting and creating fear among Christians and “foreigners”. The Indonesia attack, coming days ahead of the annual Muslim fasting month Ramadan, was executed on the eve of Ascension Day, a major Christian holiday and a public holiday across Indonesia. As more than one commentator has noted, dates and timing are very important to Islamic terrorists.
Last night, Duterte began air and tank-led ground strikes against the Muarte group, backed, it seems now by the US.
“Cowardly terrorists killed Philippine law enforcement officials and endangered the lives of innocent citizens,” the White House said in a statement Thursday. The Trump administration promised to provide “support and assistance to Philippine counterterrorism efforts” as a “proud ally of the Philippines”.
The key message that is emerging from Australia’s closest neighbors as IS continues to spread its intolerance and murder into our region is to be alert, but also more than a little alarmed.