How to Counter Terrorism in Southeast Asia

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How to Counter Terrorism in Southeast Asia

Facing a growing threat from ISIS-linked militants, Southeast Asian states must perfect their counterterror policies.

How to Counter Terrorism in Southeast Asia
Credit: Indonesia police image via Mirek Nowaczyk /

This article was originally published with the Qulliam Foundation and can be found here.

Terrorism was again on the agenda during this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, and was argued to be one of the top, if not the top security concerns facing Southeast Asia. This is not surprising, nor is it new—attacks in Jakarta and the Philippines earlier this year brought terrorism to the forefront, but it has been discussed with increasing fervor in Southeast Asian academic and policy circles since the formation of Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014.

Southeast Asia is no stranger to terrorism. Various extremist groups used violent tactics during anti-colonial periods, and in the 1990s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Southeast Asia received an influx of battle-hardened fighters resulting in another wave of violence. A further wave of post-9/11 attacks killed hundreds, most notably the 2002 Bali attacks, which left over 200 dead. Other groups like Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have had an enduring violent presence in the region.

Southeast Asia may be on the verge of yet another wave of terrorist violence. Following the establishment of ISIS, multiple radical groups and clerics across Southeast Asia—mostly in the Philippines and Indonesia—declared allegiance to the newly formed caliphate. From a statistical standpoint, there seems ample cause to worry; recent Pew polling indicated that some 11 percent of Malaysians are sympathetic to the ISIS cause. Although Southeast Asians represent only a fraction of foreign ISIS fighters, nearly 800 Southeast Asians are estimated to be in Iraq and Syria supporting ISIS, enough that ISIS stood up a group—Katibah Nusantara—to help integrate Southeast Asians into ISIS ranks.

Retribution vs. Restoration

ASEAN faces a difficult task in light of the region’s history of terrorism and popular sympathy for radicalism. Governments must aggressively cooperate to prevent, counter, and combat the region’s diverse terrorist groups and Islamic extremist tendencies without further alienating populations vulnerable to radicalization. Traditional, or “retributive” anti-terror approaches—which include military/police kinetic action and/or legal imprisonment—are urgently needed, but may further aggrieve or isolate populations vulnerable to radicalization.  In many cases, national and sub national security forces have intensified their traditional counterterror efforts over the past few years with varying results. Importantly, retributive approaches do little to reduce recidivism rates or disrupt the underlying cycles of anger and grievance central to radicalization.

Scholars, policymakers, and activists are increasing anti-terror efforts under the broad (if not banal) umbrella of “winning hearts and minds.” Proponents of these “restorative” approaches conclude that if radicalization—the immensely personal process of being ideologically transformed by an extremist narrative—is central to terrorist recruitment, then victory against terror can only be achieved by disrupting or countering narratives assumed central to radicalization. Hearts-and-minds strategies, however, often work on long timelines, require detailed understanding of local and even personal motivations, and lack the shallow satisfaction of retributive approaches. Furthermore, counter-narratives often backfire when propagated by biased messengers, such as governments viewed as inadequately addressing (or even causing) foundational grievances.

The Way Forward

Progress will require both restorative and retributive approaches. Southeast Asian nations need to build on post-9/11 anti-terrorism cooperation, including intelligence sharing, law enforcement collaboration, and military-to-military exchanges to improve the effectiveness of retributive approaches and to minimize blowback borne of new grievances. These methods have already born fruit; Malaysian forces killed terrorist leaders Azahari Husin and Noordin Mohammad in 2005 and 2009, respectively, and in 2015 Malaysian officials arrested some 100 individuals purportedly involved in terrorist plots, including one individual en route to detonate a bomb in Kuala Lumpur. Indonesia has achieved similar success in jailing convicted terrorists, and the tragic January 2016 Jakarta terror attacks would have been much worse had the original target, a busy mall, not been discarded due to tight security.

Imprisonment, death, and deterrence, however, are not paths to long-term peace. Unless private and public anti-terror efforts work in concert to disrupt radicalization processes, cycles of terror will persist. This phenomenon is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the poorly monitored and staffed prisons of Indonesia, which have become radicalization hotbeds. Although Indonesia has considerable success in imprisoning terrorists, while in prison, convicts literally have a captive audience of disaffected peers to recruit from. Indonesian prison reform is urgently needed to prevent the spread of terrorism in Indonesia.

More restorative efforts must be invested in to disrupt cycles of radicalization. ASEAN needs to develop local, data-driven restorative approaches to prevent and rehabilitate radicalization. Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) is worth emulating. The RRG originally formed to rehabilitate Singaporean Jemaah Islamiyah detainees but has since expanded to promote a wide range of social discourse on extremism through dialogue sessions, publications, and community engagement in schools, mosques, and online communities.

Multi-stakeholder collaboration—a key feature of Singapore’s grassroots approach—is essential in countering extremism, and requires open engagement with civil society. The largest and most influential allies against extremism can be found within ASEAN’s Muslim community. Two of the largest Muslim mass movements in the world, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiya, for example, have launched programs to counter ISIS narratives. In one example of their efforts, following the January 2015 Indonesian terror attacks, NU Muslims took to social media to denounce ISIS under the viral hashtag #KamiTidakTakut (#WeAreNotAfraid).  Anti-terror organizations like Quilliam advocate the dissemination of thoughtful counter-narratives that consider a target audience’s vulnerabilities, grievances, and demographics.

This is an admittedly difficult task given ASEAN’s diversity—blunt approaches that fail to account for nuances that differentiate local populations will not work and threaten to make populations numb to more effective counter-narratives. To overcome these challenges and to empower public-private counter-radicalization efforts, governments and ASEAN should facilitate dialogue and best-practice exchange, invest heavily in targeted polling, fund research into target audience analysis, and enact policies that work to alleviate the underlying grievances that make extremism appear an empowering alternative to a moderate, law-abiding lifestyle.

Don’t Forget the Geopolitics

In addition to retributive and restorative approaches, a third category of anti-terror advancement is critical: closing the geopolitical gaps in governance that allow terrorists to thrive.  Southeast Asia has several such gaps, most notably in the Sulu-Sulawasi region, where interstate disputes create poor administrative governance and harbor rogue groups and extremist organizations for decades. If ASEAN nations are serious about addressing the region’s terrorist threats, serious effort needs to be put toward resolving disputes and restoring administrative governance and providing basic social services to populations in poorly-governed regions.


ASEAN countries have a narrowing window of opportunity to counter radicalizing narratives and growing terrorist threats. While ISIS is focused on Iraq and Syria, military setbacks there may lead the group to embrace a more decentralized, networked, and ultimately global, threat. The Islamic State, however, is not necessarily the region’s only extremist concern. Jemaah Islamiyah is a much more enduring regional threat, as are groups like the Philippine Communist Party, Abu Sayyaf, and MILF.

In opposing terror, governments need to both refine and improve retributive measures that deter and punish terrorism, and heavily invest in restorative approaches that disrupt the cycles of radicalization. States should be careful to not neglect one course of action at the expense of the other. Recently proposed Indonesian legal reforms, for example, may be useful in revamping the state’s ability combat terrorism, but largely neglect the larger underlying issues behind radicalization that  are ultimately much more local and personal. Oddly, Singapore’s RRG remains the only of its kind in Asia, and only one of a half dozen worldwide; such restorative approaches are urgently needed.

Adam Greer is a Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic International Studies WSD-Handa Fellow. He holds a M.A. in Asian Studies from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and an M.A. in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution, and Peacebuilding from California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Zachary Watson holds a M.Phil. in Development Studies from Cambridge University and is a Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic International Studies Young Leader. The views of the authors are their own.