Asean nations must brace themselves for small-scale IS attacks

militant-asean-country-1PETALING JAYA: Asean nations must be ready for insurgency-type attacks, which were the mainstay of the Islamic State (IS) group even before it lost its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, an analyst says.

IS has lost many of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria which it built over the course of two years.

In Southeast Asia, meanwhile, the closest thing to a caliphate which the terror group created in southern Philippines lasted only five months after the government declared the city of Marawi retaken from IS-inspired groups on Oct 23.

Media worldwide have reported that the insurgency mode of warfare, which usually involves guerrilla tactics and sleeper-cell operations, only became favoured by IS after the fall of its caliphate.

However, Pawel Wojcik, an analyst focusing on Southeast Asian terrorism issues for Polish current affairs site, said the insurgency mode of operations had always been favoured by IS, even when their proto-state was still alive.

“In fact, in 2016 and this year, the two systems of warfare – insurgency and full-scale war waged by a proto-state such as the IS caliphate in Iraq and Syria – have fed each other and couldn’t have been split,” Wojcik told FMT.

“If they have some territory between Syria and Iraq, this territory enables them to finance growing and resurgent insurgency in the places they have lost throughout the two years, such Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Hit, Mosul and so on.”

Malaysia experienced its only IS-related strike so far last year, when a nightclub in Puchong, Selangor, was bombed.

Eight people were injured in the attack, which police said was carried out by a small IS cell.

Last month, police thwarted attacks by a three-man IS-inspired cell in Kelantan, which had planned to target places of worship and a beer festival.

Malaysian authorities also foiled attacks on the closing ceremony of the 2017 SEA Games and National Day parade, both in August, after detaining members from cells across four states, including one affiliated with the Abu Sayyaf group in southern Philippines.

Wojcik noted that Malaysia had some recent IS sleeper cell experience, but said learning from southern Philippines, which has been battling insurgencies for decades in Mindanao, would be useful.

“Yes, the Movida nightclub bombing is no doubt a sleeper cell operation,” the Polish expert said.

“In the Philippines, sleeper cells and guerrilla warfare might come up together, mainly because of the connection between the fighters outside some conflict places such as Butiq, Marawi, Cotabato, and those inside who are responsible for researching the areas, smuggling material through the cities, conducting low and middle-level operations by targeting police, army and their collaborators and also planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on roads and in buildings.

“With the attempted emergence of the so-called IS East Asia or Southeast Asia franchise in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, new tactics were developed.

“We could say they were ‘copycats’ of the Middle East tactics that other Asean nations could get exposed to.”

Wojcik said an example of this was the advanced production of IEDs that supplied different IS groups, mainly the Maute group responsible for the Marawi city siege, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

He said fighting insurgent-style reduces the likelihood of being easily targeted by coalition forces like what had happened to the IS caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

“In insurgencies, there is no land with clear borders possessed by these fighters that can be easily targeted by the military.”

The analyst said Southeast Asian nations must also be ready to face new threats connected with possible sleeper cells and trans-border terrorism financing connected to their citizens returning from the Iraq and Syria battlefields.

“This is mainly because of the experience and new techniques that IS central might have taught their Southeast Asian militants,” he said.

“We have also been taught that IS central was actively funding the Marawi siege by groups led by its emir-designate for Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon, and the Maute brothers with an enormous amount of money, close to US$2 million.

“While most of the highest Filipino IS command is dead, there is no doubt that the threat might not be going down but will rise even further.

“It is up to governments to create policies to determine what will happen in the coming years.”

For starters, Wojcik said, Malaysia should strengthen its cooperation with other Asean countries in intelligence exchange, data findings, proper dealings with extremism online and terrorism funding activities.

“There are still a lot of things to do – a great flow of cooperation with Malaysia’s neighbours and within Malaysia itself would succeed in tackling groups aligned with IS and Al-Qaeda, which is making a comeback.

“Also, the idea of a common anti-terror force that Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines still have not reached an agreement on for quite some time is, in my opinion, a great project.

“Also, greater cooperation with Australia should be explored because of the nation’s ability to prevent high-level plots that were discovered in 2016 and 2017.”

This way, Wojcik said, Malaysian security agencies would become more experienced in dealing with new anti-terror tactics, which would enable them to prevent conflict in “no-go areas” such as Maguindanao in southern Philippines and east Indonesia.

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