Fears that the troubles in the Middle East – where Islamic militants are fighting for a caliphate and centralized Muslim leadership – will spread to Southeast Asia are proving tragically real with a series of bombs and gun battles in Jakarta.
Two civilians and five terrorists were killed. Another 26 were wounded and authorities were lucky the toll was not substantially higher after militants opened fire around a Starbucks coffee shop and Western-styled supermarkets in the first such strike in-country since 2009.
Experts say the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is looking to build at least one base in Southeast Asia in 2016. The Philippines and Indonesia are most likely the preferred locations given their historical links to jihadists in the Middle East.
It is a similar objective that was once pushed by the now defunct Jemaah Islamiyah during the 2000s, through a bombing campaign backed by al-Qaeda and their infamous leader Osama bin Laden. Their claim straddled most of Southeast Asia and even included parts of northern Australia.
Southeast Asia is already a key recruitment center for ISIS, attracting more than 500 Indonesians and dozens of Malaysians. They have formed their own unit, the Katibah Nusantara (Malay Archipelago Combat Unit).
Maj. Gen. Tito Karnavian, Jakarta police chief, said the militants responsible for Thursday’s attacks belonged to a group led by Bahrum Naim, an Indonesian militant who currently resides in Syria.
“We have identified all attackers… We can say that the attackers were affiliated with the ISIS group,” he said.
ISIS has spread its tentacles across 10 countries in the Middle East and divided their real estate claims into “provinces”. The Indonesian strike came amid warnings from the security services that an attack was pending.
One diplomatic source familiar with the country told The Diplomat those security services in Indonesia had already foiled “perhaps 10 planned attacks” over the previous 12 months.
Regional leaders and security services have also been forceful in warning ISIS was planning to establish a base in Southeast Asia as part of a broader objective to establish a regional caliphate.
Indonesia’s counterterrorism chief warned in September that ISIS – also known as Daesh – was collaborating with people-smuggling networks and bringing in foreign fighters to Indonesia from Malaysia.
Saud Usman Nasution, head of Indonesia’s counterterrorism agency, has also said ISIS fighters were arriving in Sumatra from Malaysia. From there they were taken to training camps hidden in Poso in Indonesia’s far east province of central Sulawesi for training.
“Sumatra is a rich area for concern,” American academic and long-time Indonesian observer John MacDougall told The Diplomat.
Australia’s attorney-general George Brandis has also added he had “no doubt at all” that ISIS was seeking to establish a distant caliphate in Indonesia.
“You’ve heard the expression the ‘distant caliphate’? ISIS has a declared intention to establish caliphates beyond the Middle East, provincial caliphates in effect. It has identified Indonesia as a location of its ambitions,” he said just before Christmas last year.
His sentiments were similar to those expressed by Singapore, which has also been warning of ISIS efforts to establish a Southeast Asian base.
That worrying scenario found some solid ground last month after militants returning from the battlegrounds of the Middle East were charged with conspiring with terrorists. At least 19 people are before the courts and face up to 20 years behind bars under Indonesia’s tough counter-terrorism laws.
Indonesians found guilty of pledging allegiance to ISIS are considered to have pledged allegiance to a foreign country. This can result in a person’s citizenship being revoked.
The strikes also contributed an ominous start to 2016 which has already been marred by similar attacks in Istanbul and a North Korean nuclear test while the Vietnamese have launched its latest submarine technology amid escalating tensions in the South China Sea.
A further rout on equity markets was also an unwelcome reminder of pending economic issues. That and the troubles Indonesia and elsewhere also overshadowed the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) on January 1.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt