The southern tracts of Thailand, particularly in places like Patani, Narathiwat, Yala and other adjoining places bordering Malaysia have always been in adverse light due to sporadic cases of hate and violence targeting Thai security forces. In the not so distant past, violence was seen on a larger scale with considerable number of casualties. In the past, Al Qaeda and ISIS had exploited protracted complexity across the Muslim world to pursue their agendas, including in areas that are under the sovereignty of competent states but where the federal authority was weak and less assertive. During the peak of ISIS dominance, transnational jihadism in Southeast Asia was described by some analysts as a “bottom-up” phenomena with pre-existing militant groups (for instance in Indonesia and The Philippines) proclaiming allegiance to the ISIS.
In these countries including in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, individuals and small groups unconnected with any terrorist network, also seemed inclined to join the ISIS or act in its name. With the recent upsurge in Afghanistan, these forces appear buoyant and extraordinarily emboldened in support of a resurgent Taliban.
In the meantime, the priority for the Thai government and southern Muslim militants should be to end the conflict that has cost almost 7,000 lives since 2004. The longer the conflict continues, the greater the risk of increased polarization and intensified insurgency that could spread outside the south, as well as miscalculations that transnational jihadists could exploit. The exodus of ISIS fighters from the Middle East, the propaganda victory of pro-ISIS fighters in the Philippine city of Marawi, Mindanao, and calls from ISIS and Al-Qaeda to avenge the Rohingyas represent a potential volatile convergence for the region. It will therefore be interesting to watch the developing trends post the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Also, it is noteworthy that the ISIS and Al-Qaeda have sometimes succeeded in affiliating with nationalist armed groups pursuing local agendas and have exploited conflict for their own ends, even within the peripheries of capable states.
Under the prevailing scenario, Malaysia calls for more vigil in light of the recent Taliban-related developments. It must contend with the presence of Indian fugitive and hate preacher Zakir Nayak, who continues to enjoy the patronage of Malaysia and is capable of exploiting the Taliban takeover to the advantage of radical Muslims in Southeast Asia. Further, soon after change of guard in Kabul, leaders from the Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS congratulated the Taliban for taking control of Afghanistan. Such statements were considered to be very damaging as they encourage zealots who have been calling for enforcement of Islamic law in whole of Malaysia. Further, Malaysia counterterrorism officials believe that the return of the Taliban opens up an opportunity for terror groups to once again congregate in Afghanistan. This is a serious warning.
As regards the Philippines, places like Mindanao, Basilan and Jolo are already struck by Islamic terror. Intermittent cases of killings, taking of hostages and related violence keep trickling in at regular intervals. These groups too are thought to be rejoicing at the Taliban victory and are expected to gain further ferocity the step up their violence, based on religious extremism.
However, in Southeast Asia, Indonesia remains the most prominent hub of threat because of two principal reasons. First, on 12 October 2002, Jemaah Islamiah (JI) – the South East Asian branch of al-Qaeda set off a series of bombs killing 202 people from more than 20 countries in the deadliest terrorist attack in Indonesian history. JI was virtually unheard of before the Bali bombings, but its notoriety spread rapidly. It had cells in locations including Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines, with the latter two countries bearing the brunt of its attacks. Second, there are a large number of radicalized pro-ISIS Muslims who were indoctrinated by online propaganda from 2010 onwards, and many such elements had gone to Syria and fought alongside the ISIS cadres in pursuit of a hate agenda. Such indicators are bound to further radicalize elements in Indonesia.
The Taliban’s return to power after the 20-year war with US has boosted the morale of militants in Southeast Asia, inspiring some to make plans to go to the country and undertake military and other training though experts say this is a difficult prospect for now amid pandemic-related travel restrictions. It is perhaps germane to mention that those Indonesians who had joined ISIS were among the 5,000 prisoners freed by the Taliban soon after the takeover.
In sum, the global fraternity entrusted with the onerous task of addressing the threats emanating from the Taliban ascent views Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Philippines as being affected by the Taliban’s victory. This is in addition to the impact that will be felt in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst, and a former National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. The views expressed are personal.