Singapore has gone on the front foot and issued a travel warning over parts of Indonesia, serving notice that terrorism threats by Islamic militants haven’t been totally vanquished in the region.
The warning followed the arrests of 11 suspected militants who had apparently planned to inflict widespread damage on targets that included the Singaporean embassy in Jakarta.
Authorities, particularly in Indonesia, have scored enormous success over recent years in hunting down, arresting or killing militants from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), its more radical offshoot Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) and associates within the ranks of the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
All the original members of JI, responsible for the 2002 attacks on Bali that left 202 dead, and a string of strikes in the years after that killed hundreds more, are either dead or behind bars.
Their demise has left a vacuum and created a guessing game within intelligence circles about who is stepping into the breach. What’s known is the crop of Islamic militants who characterized terrorism in the first decade of this century in Southeast Asia were true pedigrees.
JI’s roots can be traced back to the Darul Islam movement that emerged in the 1940s and accompanied Indonesian independence, before spreading from East Java across the archipelago and beyond in the 1950s, eventually clashing with the government.
Indonesia’s National Anti-Terror Agency said an attack on the Singaporean embassy was to be led by Abu Umar, also known as Zulfikar, a former close associate of Ahmad Sayid Maulana, who was killed in a police raid last year and was suspected then of plotting an attack against Singaporean interests.
Zulfikar was a member of the Dural Islam Group and trained in the Southern Philippines in the 1990s.
In that raid, police also found a map detailing Singapore’s metropolitan train network on which the underground station at Orchard Road had been circled. A map of an airport in the southern Philippines city of General Santos was also found, raising suspicions of further plots.
The 11 are also suspected of smuggling weapons from the Philippines into Indonesia via Malaysia, which would indicate the well-worn route through the east Malaysian state of Sabah remains active.
Other incidents in Indonesia have also caused alarm. On July 11, a bomb went off in an Islamic school linked to Abu Bakar Bashir – spiritual head of JI and currently in jail. A suspected terrorist was killed and a three-day stand-off with teachers and students followed. Twenty-six homemade pipe bombs were found, and police believe the school was doubling as a bombing making factory for JAT, which wants to impose Sharia law across Indonesia.
The travel warning, arrests and discovery of the bomb making facilities are hardly signs of confidence in regional security. However, they also serve as a timely reminder that threats of this nature are never completely eradicated, and require constant monitoring.