Global ISIS threat: How Asia should counter it


By Rohan Gunaratna

Asian governments and their partners should craft a multi-faceted response to Islamic State (ISIS), the group that claimed the Jan. 14 terrorist attack in Jakarta.

This is in their interest because they cannot afford to let IS expand its influence in the region through local cells and networks, which could disrupt Asia’s security and stability in the 21st century. Today, the regional and global priority should be to dismantle IS across the board.

The group poses a multi-dimensional threat through core operations in its home base of Syria and Iraq, its branches in other corners of the globe, and its online presence. IS foreign fighters and supporters from across the Asia-Pacific are active in all these domains.

To counter this threat the region’s military forces, law enforcement authorities and national security agencies need to develop new capabilities. These integrated measures would include expanding elite counter-terrorism tactical units, enlarging national security services, developing robust legal frameworks for preventive detention, and raising units dedicated to stopping cyber-attacks.

Because Asia-Pacific is rising in the 21st century, its various governments need to do more and work together to secure the region, as well as increase their efforts in the international fight to dismantle IS at its core.

A few regional governments have joined anti-IS coalitions. But it is paramount for more governments, especially those threatened by IS in the region, to join the coalitions.

By working with the coalitions, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, China, Japan and other Asian powers can build their own military and intelligence capabilities.

At the heart of going after the IS core in Iraq and Syria is building intelligence-led military capabilities to kill or capture IS leaders, breaking up their support and operational structures, and disrupting their operations.

Asia can play pivotal role

An air campaign alone will not achieve the desired outcome. Both special and general- purpose ground forces also are essential to degrading and destroying IS. Political will is key to fighting IS in a ground war, but without another mass fatality, mass casualty attack reminiscent of 9/11, public support for this will be unlikely.

The Muslim countries of the Asia-Pacific, nonetheless, can play a pivotal role in countering IS’s radical ideology, narratives, and propaganda.

It is worth noting too that the U.S./Arab and Russian/Shia-led coalitions which are fighting IS will not unite around the threat. However, they will exchange intelligence and develop or sharpen capabilities for containing, isolating and eliminating IS at the core and other areas.

Only a sharp escalation of the threat can unite these various coalitions.

The case of Mehdi Nemmouche

The need for anti-IS collaboration between European, Middle Eastern and Asian services was exposed when Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin, killed four people in an attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014.

After spending a year with IS in Syria, Nemmouche visited Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore while in transit before entering Europe through Germany to stage the attack in Belgium. He took a circuitous route back to Western Europe so as to throw European authorities off guard about his presence in the Middle East.

A convicted criminal who was radicalized and recruited in prison, before the attack Nemmouche recorded a video showing the IS flag. Had the French authorities shared their intelligence with their Asian counterparts, the attack might have been prevented.

Therefore, international and regional cooperation in the fields of security and intelligence cooperation is of paramount importance today to contain and control the threat.

Governments must be proactive

In the Asia-Pacific, it is imperative that governments take preemptive action against IS support groups that have ambitions to collaborate with IS central in declaring their areas satellites of the IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

The key to preventing IS from making inroads and declaring areas as its provinces is for governments to take legislative and executive action. Governments should proscribe entities and people advocating, supporting and participating in IS activities, as well as charge and prosecute them.

To stop IS from declaring an area as one of its provinces the strategy should be to target IS’s core, the satellite and the intermediary link. The tempo of IS attacks in Iraq and Syria created the momentum for spawning and sustaining associated groups outside the theatre of conflict.

Develop zero tolerance in cyberspace

Asia-Pacific governments in particular can play a role in countering the IS threat online.

Between 80 to 90 percent of IS’s online media traffic targets Arabic speakers, but the group’s supporters in the Asia-Pacific have created online messaging platforms that aim to recruit, radicalize and militarize vulnerable segments of Muslim populations region-wide.

In Malay, Indonesian, Devehi, Urdu, Pashtu and other Asian languages, IS supporters promote an IS pop ideology of hatred that seeks to replace mainstream Islam. About 80 percent of social media sites transmitting IS propaganda is hosted by U.S. and European-based servers.

Because of a lack of leadership, will, and strategy among governments and partners tasked with counter-messaging and taking down IS online platforms, the threat will persist and grow. As long as IS social media sites remain intact, the threat will proliferate.

Governments across the Asia-Pacific should develop a zero tolerance against IS propaganda in the virtual space.

The IS operational threat manifests itself in the physical space, but it is growing both in the virtual space. In parallel to a ground campaign, governments should firmly regulate the use, misuse and abuse of the internet in order to prevent IS from indoctrinating young minds through social media.

In preventing IS online messaging from radicalizing and militarizing Muslim communities, governments should build partnerships with the private sector, civil society and community groups.

To fight IS’s sophisticated exploitation of technology, governments should build trusted networks with academia and technology companies.  To protect vulnerable segments of Muslim communities, governments in the region and their partners should complement a whole-of-society approach with a whole-of-government approach.

The twin approaches are to build: (a) on-line and off-line counter-radicalization programs; and (b) de-radicalization programs to rehabilitate those already radicalized.

Failure to craft a multi-faceted response will lead to the disruption to the relations between religious and ethnic communities affecting harmony, which is essential for the region’s prosperity in the 21st century.

Published with permission from BenarNews