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Militants on the Rise in Southeast Asia

Hideki Yabu

Feb. 8, 2016

Indonesian authorities are investigating a local terrorist cell that claimed responsibility for the attack in Jakarta last month. NHK World’s Metalia tracked down a relative of one of the suspects to find out more.

Four suspects died in the Jakarta shooting and bombing attack. One of the suspects was 39-year-old Muhammad Ali.

Syaidina Rafiu is Ali's brother. He says Ali was a mini-bus driver in the slums west of Jakarta. He and his wife were raising three children.

On his days off, Ali played soccer with his friends, showing his social side. His brother says Ali never spoke to him about the Islamic State militant group.

"I never thought of my brother as a terrorist, and I simply cannot believe it,” Rafiu says. “As a member of his family, I want to offer my sincere apologies to the victims."

The suspected terrorists rented a room in Jakarta for two weeks before the attack. The police say three of the suspects stayed there, including Ali.

The apartment's owner says Ali told him that he needed a room for some friends who were working at construction sites.

"Police officers came here and told me my tenants were involved in the incident,” he says. “I was shocked because I knew nothing about it."

Another Indonesian man named Bahrun Naim is suspected of masterminding the Jakarta attack. He’s a fighter in Syria, and he has posted messages on a social networking page urging people to join the Islamic State group.

Nanang Ainurrafiq, an Islamic radical in Indonesia, says such pleas appeal to people who are opposed to Western values and the widening gap between rich and poor.

"Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are playing a big role in spreading the ideology of the Islamic State group," he says.

After the attack, the Indonesian government shut down websites carrying Islamic State propaganda and recruitment messages. It also says Indonesia is ready to make changes to its laws to effectively prevent acts of terrorism.

"Islamic State militants target not only Indonesia but also ASEAN nations such as Singapore,” Indonesian Security Affairs Minister Luhut Panjaitan told reporters recently. “We are working to strengthen the sharing of information among these countries."

The Indonesian government is facing the difficult challenge of containing an increasing number of Islamic State sympathizers. Officials there believe more than 500 citizens have joined the militant group.


Islamic militants are also posing a threat in Singapore.

The multi-ethnic city state has been cracking down on extremism to allow people of different religions and ethnic backgrounds to live together in harmony.

In January, Singaporean authorities revealed that they had arrested 27 Bangladeshi workers, alleging that the men support groups such as the Islamic State.

The authorities said they seized jihadi-related materials. These included video footage of training exercises at what appear to be terrorist military camps belonging to the extremist group.

The authorities also believe the men donated money to groups with suspected links to extremists in Bangladesh, and were plotting to carry out armed attacks.

"The news has frightened everybody,” one Bangladeshi worker says. “I'm afraid Singaporeans will think all Bangladeshis are dangerous."

The men who were arrested became active about three years ago. They held religious study meetings and secretly distributed leaflets to recruit new members.

Abdul Khaeer Mohammed Mohsin has been publishing newspapers for Bangladeshi workers for more than 20 years. He says the news shocked him.

To stop the spread of extremism, he’s talking to workers about their views and planning to print articles on what they have to say.

"Pass the message on to other Bangladeshi people not to become involved in this kind of activity," Mohsin says.

One expert says that Southeast Asia has become an attractive target for the Islamic State group.

"Sixty-three percent of the world's Muslims live in Asia,” says Rohan Gunaratna, a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “Asia is a huge area for IS exploitation, for manpower, for resources and for influence."

Although Singapore has strict anti-extremism laws in place, authorities haven’t fully managed to stop the spread of radicalism in the country.

Like other Southeast Asian nations, Singapore has yet to come up with any drastic countermeasures against the threat.


NHK World’s Singapore bureau chief Hideki Yabu spoke with anchor Sho Beppu from the city state.

Beppu: Hideki, we know Singapore as a very secular country and it's also a place where the police have a good presence. So how are people reacting to the incident?

Yabu: Yes Sho, people don't really think about these things happening here. So there's been a pretty big reaction from the media. Many of the 27 Bangladeshi workers who got arrested are from rural areas. They're said to be very religious people. They went to Singapore to work, and it's possible that they were radicalized over time while working within an isolated group there. Some of those who've been held in custody appear to have ties with radical organizations in their country.

Beppu: And why is the Islamic State stepping up its activity now in Southeast Asia?

Yabu: Yes, at the beginning of the 2000s, radical groups staged acts of terrorism in Southeast Asia together with the international terror organization al-Qaeda. In response the governments cracked down on these organizations, and they have been weakened. And that's when the IS stepped in, using the Internet for propaganda and spending a lot of money to approach and lure young people. The result is a reorganization of radical groups and their stepped-up activity. People sympathetic to IS have been going from Asia to Syria in increasing numbers. Authorities have confirmed that more than 500 people from Indonesia and some 200 from Malaysia joined IS. Inside IS, it's said, there is a group of fighters all from Southeast Asia and they have built up a strong power base inside the organization.

Beppu: How are Southeast Asian countries trying to respond to these threats?

Yabu: It's a major concern, but they haven't been able to come up with any fundamental measures. I covered an international conference on terrorism in Malaysia last month. Experts from 18 countries shared steps to suppress radical ideologies that could lead to terrorism. At the conference, an official from the Indonesian government said his country plan to change laws and strengthen the authority of law enforcement officials. That's in response to the terrorist attack in Jakarta. Officials in Malaysia are also taking similar steps. The move to beef up law enforcement is spreading. But the Singaporean case shows that a crackdown alone won't be enough to solve the problem. The spread of radical ideas, poverty and religious interpretations are deeply intertwined. And it also becomes important to work out long-term measures, like helping young people to find work and training them with the help of religious leaders in the region.