Did the Taliban victory increase the terrorist threat in Southeast Asia?
The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has raised concerns around the world that its close relationship with al-Qaeda could lead to a new wave of terrorism, including in Southeast Asia. The fears for Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in particular are understandable given recent history, but they need to be faced with reality.
Concerns are whether al-Qaeda’s close relations with the Taliban will allow it to grow, encourage the development of new territorial franchises and possibly open training camps for local and foreign fighters. Could Southeast Asia be a new target for expansion, and if new camps were established, would Southeast Asians flow in?
Could Al Qaeda lobby for allies in areas beyond its bases in Afghanistan-Pakistan, Central Asia, the Islamic Maghreb, Yemen, and Syria-Iraq? Southeast Asia was on the agenda in 2010, when a senior al-Qaeda official traveled to Bangkok to meet with the intelligence chief of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group that has carried out the Bali bombings in 2002. The official tried to persuade JI to join forces, but he was not interested. A decade later, with the JI temporarily out of service, are there other organizations potentially interested in partnering?
The chances of Al Qaeda building a franchise in Southeast Asia are not high. He has no well-structured allies in Indonesia, Malaysia or Singapore to lean on. JI, an ally until about 2004, has been considerably weakened as a result of arrests over the past two years. Most of its main strategists are in prison, and those outside are keeping a low profile, waiting for an opportunity to rebuild. The older generation of JI members, who trained on the Afghan-Pakistani border between 1985 and 1994, are not interested in violence, although they are delighted that their old friends have returned to power. Many actively cooperate with the government in various de-radicalization programs.
The wild card is the Philippines, where al-Qaeda has a history dating back to the early 1990s, most notably for providing safe haven for Ramzi Yousef, the perpetrator of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. found in Manila, trying to plan a coordinated bombing of 11 airliners bound for the United States, but an accidental explosion in a Manila apartment led to the failure of the plot and the eventual arrest of Yousef . Would other Al Qaeda notables, under Taliban protection, seek to use the Philippines again as a launching pad for a major terrorist attack? Nothing is impossible, but al Qaeda has many more accessible options, especially in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Southeast Asia would be far down the list of options.
It should also be remembered that the Philippine police, military, intelligence and immigration are much better trained and more vigilant on the counterterrorism front than they were 25 years ago. A few operatives might get through, and personal rivalries among local extremists, especially within the Abu Sayyaf group, might lead some to attempt to strike a deal with al-Qaeda in order to challenge local clans linked to ISIS. . The likelihood of creating a new Mindanao-based franchise is low, however.
Another concern is what happens if the Taliban struggle to maintain control. Could the possible eruption of micro-conflicts be exploited by Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), which views the Taliban as idolatrous rivals promoting nationalism instead of a universal caliphate? Is there any potential for expansion for ISIS, and if so, would its supporters, including from Southeast Asia, flock to its cause, especially since a small number of between them are already there?
Many traditional Islamist and Muslim organizations in Southeast Asia greeted the victory of the Taliban with euphoria, as a victory for Islam over the West, or over neoliberalism or over secular democracy – the enemy had many different shapes. The main takeaway was that all that was needed was patience, so organizations that have played the long game in their advocacy for an Islamic state should feel justified.
Another concern is what happens if the IS-K strengthens or expands its territorial control. As the attack on Kabul airport on August 26 showed, this is indeed a danger. IS-K attacks could inspire a new wave of attempts by IS supporters in Indonesia and the Philippines, although in the former the terrorist capacity remains low and the ability of the police to ban them. relatively high plots.
IS-K could be an attraction for fighters who want to emigrate – do it hijrah– in a country where Islamic law is fully applied. It has all the end-of-time associations that have made Syria such an attraction for Indonesian families; a famous hadith, or tradition of the Prophet, notes that the forces of the Islamic redeemer will gather under the “black banners of Khorasan” and march towards Jerusalem as the end of time approaches.
In addition, by mid-2019, around 20 Indonesians were already in Afghanistan, having joined or attempted to join the IS-K. Eight were arrested, one of whom, a woman named Wardini, died of illness in June 2021. The others were freed by the Taliban in the final days of the capture of Kabul; we know where six of the other seven are, mostly women and children. An adult male went missing after his release and his whereabouts are unknown.
In addition to this group, other Indonesian nationals had managed to reach Afghanistan through the Iranian border after the fall of Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria, in October 2017. It is possible that some pro-IS Indonesians be able to try. recruit more fighters, but aspiring Mujahedin will have difficulty getting there. Not only are immigration authorities in Jakarta, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere aware of the possibility of attempts being made, the Taliban also has no interest in seeing IS reinforcements arriving.
Logistical support will also be more difficult. In the past, when there were significant flows of jihadists abroad, it was with a system of services in place to facilitate their movements. Al-Qaeda provided a service center at the Pakistani border for the Mujahedin fighting the Soviet Union. The group that in 1993 became JI had a funding and travel aid channel that made it relatively easy to travel to and from its military academy. Indonesian ISIS supporters have organized funds and shelters in Turkey for those who wish to cross. Without such a system, it will be difficult for a few determined individuals to access IS-K.
It should also be noted that those who migrate to ISIS territories generally do not intend to return. It’s not like JI’s training program, which has always been designed to be of short duration, so that skills can be deployed in Indonesia. So even if a dozen more Indonesians reached Khorasan, that would not necessarily indicate that the risk of violence would increase at the same time among them.
Those who fear that JI and al-Qaeda may realign themselves, even in the current state of JI, should take a close look at this training program. If JI had been interested in an affiliation with al-Qaeda, he would have sent his cadres to train exclusively with Jabhat al-Nosra.
As of 2012, however, JI sent 87 men to train with various militias in order to expand international contacts and learn as much as possible from different militias, including IS, whose teachings it rejected. That so many men were trained and sent back to Indonesia is of course concerning, as is JI’s long-term plan to wait for an opportunity to exploit political chaos in the interests of forming an Islamic state. At this point, JI would be ready to use violence against designated enemies to achieve his goal. Such chaos is what al Qaeda thrives on, but by mid-2021 Indonesia seemed an unlikely site.
This leaves the joy expressed by many sources over the victory of the Taliban. The euphoria over the takeover of a conservative Islamic group is not the same as support for terrorism. Those who relish an Islamist victory are those who would like to see a more Islamist agenda in Indonesia, but also those who welcome the political and military humiliation of the United States.
None of this minimizes the very real threat of terrorism that Southeast Asia still faces. Autonomous pro-IS cells are still plentiful, and one could pull off a deadly attack. JI may be dormant for the next few years, but he keeps coming back, and no one should be counting him. Indonesian extremists also have a habit of producing militant dissident groups of disgruntled and frustrated future fighters who resent the restrictions placed on them by their leaders.
The problem does not go away, but it is not necessary to use the Taliban’s victory to dramatize the danger.