Interview: Zachary Abuza on ISIS in Asia

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Interview: Zachary Abuza on ISIS in Asia

A closer look at the threat Islamic State poses to the Asia-Pacific.

The deadly attack on a bakery in Bangladesh drew new attention to the threat of the Islamic State – and terrorism in general – in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. What is the true extent of the Islamic State’s presence in this region, far from its base in Iraq and Syria? How ready are regional governments to handle the terrorist threat? In collaboration with Consensus NetThe Diplomat interviewed Zachary Abuza, a Professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, to talk about these issues. A Chinese language version of the interview has been published by Consensus Net.

The Diplomat: After the deadly Islamic State-linked attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh earlier this summer, how worried should Asia-Pacific states be about the group’s presence and influence in the region?

Zachary Abuza: On July 1, a group of Bangladeshi militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State stormed a restaurant in a high end part of Dhaka, killing some 20 civilians — hacking many of them to death — and two policemen before the siege was put down. But it was not the first attack in Bangladesh; indeed some 30 secular activists, religious minorities, and foreigners had been killed in the past year.

The problem is understanding who is actually behind the attacks. The media wing of ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] seemed to have been caught off guard, failing to propagandize or immediately take credit. The problem with such attacks, including the January attack in Jakarta or July attack in Kuala Lumpur, is who to ascribe the violence to. All of the attacks were done by groups or individuals claiming allegiance to the Islamic State, though without clear command and control. Ascribing all attacks to ISIL is both inaccurate and something that plays into their own media narrative. Their command and control is simply not that strong.

But governments in the Asia-Pacific have plenty of reasons for concern. First, while harder for law enforcement and intelligence services to break up, “lone wolf” or self-radicalized groups, tend to be more amateurish. For example, while the July 2016 grenade attack on a pub in Kuala Lumpur was the first terrorist attack in the city, it had a small casualty toll and Malaysian police have broken up the cell. That said, we need to expect more lone wolf attacks, for no other reason than the fact that senior ISIL leaders have called for them. As an ISIL spokesman said in a May 2016 speech, “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us, and more effective and more damaging to them.”

Second, there are roughly 300 Southeast Asian militants currently fighting alongside ISIL and Al Nusrah in Iraq and Syria — and they will start to return home. This will improve the tactical effectiveness of the militants. For example, in the January siege in Jakarta, only two of the eight had had small arms training, and that was back in 2010, before a five year period of incarceration. So with better trained militants, even lone wolf or self-organized but inspired attacks can increase in their lethality.

Third, ISIL’s propaganda is ubiquitous. Sharply produced, and tailor made for smartphones, it has an ability to attract followers. The online recruitment has hastened the scope of recruits and the speed of radicalization, in particular the time between radicalization and the act of violence. ISIL’s propaganda is “multi-channel.” It is not just a deluge of beheading videos and violence. They have channels for religious questions, for women, and other social issues.

How prepared are governments in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region to combat homegrown terrorism with links to the Islamic State? How is the U.S. addressing the potential for such attacks in its cooperation with regional states?

The governments of Southeast Asia have been far more proactive in dealing with the rise of ISIL since mid-2014 than they had been with the threat posed by al-Qaeda and their regional affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah. Since 2014, there has been stepped up intelligence sharing and cooperation, with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore taking the lead.

The Philippines, however, has seen a significant setback in its security situation. Since the Mamasapano incident in January 2015 that derailed the Moro peace process, the security situation in Mindanao has worsened. There are now at least six groups that have pledged bai’at [allegiance] to the Islamic State. While individually none pose a serious threat, since January 2016, ISIL has made some attempts to unify the groups under a single leadership. With the killing of the Indonesian terrorist Santoso, who headed the Mujahideen Indonesia Timur, only groups in the southern Philippines control physical space. They will continue to attract recruits and followers from the region.

In Bangladesh, it is very evident that the government has been far less proactive in dealing with the growing threat of religiously-inspired militants. The death of some 30 individuals since 2015 provoked little reaction from the government. The July 1 attack should have provoked a stronger response than it did, and it seems like the government is only starting to come to terms with the problem as the negative fallout impacts the country’s lucrative garment sector.

What is the U.S. perspective on the counterterrorism activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)? How does the U.S. expect the SCO to contribute to international counterterrorism actions?

Terrorism is a transnational threat as groups intentionally operate across jurisdictions. As such, any effective counterterrorism requires international cooperation. I am unaware of the current U.S. position on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, since its failed bid in 2005 to gain observer status. The U.S. supports international cooperation on countering all forms of violent extremism, based on the rule of law and international norms.

China often accuses the U.S. of a “double-standard” on terrorism, while the U.S. criticizes China for its policies toward the Uyghur minority group. Given those divides, is there room for meaningful counterterrorism cooperation between the two sides?

Yes, the U.S. at times does have a double standard when it comes to terrorism. But I would argue that that has hurt the U.S. inordinately. When we fail to live up to our ideals and commitment to the rule of law, it undermines our cause and the ability to reach out to partner states and moderate Muslims around the world.

China has had fairly repressive policies toward its Uyghur minority, including bans on people from attending mosque, wearing hijabs, or growing beards. More importantly, its policies have been overly militarized. While getting tough may seem like a good idea, it drives people further underground (or overseas) where they are forced to take up even more extreme tactics and network with individuals and groups that they otherwise wouldn’t associate with. Many in America understand that China does have a group of committed separatists, and that China has the right to defend its territorial integrity, but worry that Beijing’s current policies are exacerbating the situation.

So yes, the two countries do not see eye to eye on the issue of terrorism. And yet there is room for cooperation. Chinese citizens, for example, have been kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines, while terrorist attacks have impacted regional trade and investment. Uyghurs — Chinese citizens — have been involved in terrorism in Thailand and Indonesia. So regional law enforcement cooperation is absolutely essential.

With the Islamic State’s territory in Iraq and Syria dwindling, while the group’s attacks abroad increase, what will the next phase of the fight against ISIL look like?

The majority of terrorism analysts that I read and follow assume that with ISIL’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria there will be significant bleed out, i.e., militants will start to return home. As I said above, if this happens, it could be very serious. Malaysian police have the ability to detain people who have traveled abroad to fight with ISIL. Right now, Indonesian authorities do not, though they are currently amending their counterterrorism law which would enhance their preventative detention powers.

Some people will clearly slip back in; the region’s borders are simply too porous. However, the real concern is that there will be more lone wolf attacks. As ISIL loses ground, it will need a sturdy barrage of attacks or else it will look weak in the eyes of both its enemies and supporters.