“The threat is no longer over there; it is over here,” said Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in March 2015, at the Asia Security Summit. The Prime Minister described how Singaporean authorities were able to detain disenchanted Singaporean youth and prevent them from joining ISIS in Syria. He said ISIS’s declaration to establish an Asean wilayat or province under its caliphate was a “grandiose, pie-in-the-sky dream”. He nonetheless predicted that it wasn’t far-fetched the terrorist organization would aim to establish a base in the region, “somewhere far from the centers of power of state governments, where the governments’ writ does not run”.
His words proved prophetic. The plan materialized in Marawi City.
Asean has long been threatened by radical extremism. Many young Southeast Asian Muslims went to Pakistan in the 1980s to help Afghani jihadists defend against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. They were exposed to the radical groups, such as al-Qaeda. These young Muslims returned home to the Asean region in the 1990s and founded their own extremist groups—like Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI), which was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing and the 2000 “Rizal Day” bombings around Metro Manila.
Its coming may have been late, but the antiterrorism pact among the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia is very much needed. Valuable benefits and lessons will accrue from shared intelligence, joint maritime patrols and heightened security measures.
Terrorism undoubtedly cannot be defeated through military action alone because of its multifaceted origins. Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director for Humanitarian Dialogue, suggested in a recent article that violent extremism is taking root because of a long-standing democratic deficit in the region. He wrote, “Together with the alienation and fragility generated by protracted sub-national conflicts and the chronic impunity with regard to abuses of power and human rights, little wonder that Southeast Asia is susceptible to becoming a haven for violent extremists feeding off social division and disaffection.”
Specifically referring to the Philippines, a 2016 Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT) study outlined that several motivational factors are at play in the radicalization of Filipino youths, especially in Mindanao.
The first was poverty. Extremist recruiters lured disenfranchised youths with promises of food and funds. New recruits were said to have been offered up to P20,000 just to sign up, while bomb-makers in Mindanao were reportedly receiving as high as P15,000. The money becomes a useful life support of their families, whether or not they subscribe to the radical ideology of the group they signed up with.
Another factor was what the report called “perceived differences between what was required by the state and what was dictated by religion”. This leads to a situation where some Filipinos feel they are penalized for being Muslim—hence, forced to choose between the religion they grew up with and a state that has historically discriminated against them.
A third factor was the prevalence of a “gun-culture”, where children at an early age are reared into thinking that “power, control and conflict resolution” can only be influenced and shaped by “violence, guns and intimidation”.
Clearly, countermeasures beyond the use of military force and other punitive measures are needed. Hopefully, the tripartite cooperation between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia can evolve into a comprehensive initiative toward countering the “narrative” that pushes and pulls so many disenfranchised Asean youth to join violent extremism. That means closer interfaith and intrafaith dialogue, the propagation of more positive messages and, important, better education, better health, more job opportunities and well-thought-out cooperative program embodying a common vision.
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