• Joseph Franco

Business as usual for regional counter-terrorism strategies in Southeast Asia

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

Ground Zero or Main Battle Area in Marawi. (Photo Source: Wikimedia/PIA)

Southeast Asian states continue to confront violent extremist organizations even after the collapse of the so-called Islamic State (IS) caliphate in Iraq and Syria. To date, kinetic approaches to violent extremism (VE) remain the most established form of counter-terrorism in Southeast Asia. The Battle for Marawi highlights deep-seated roots of violence in the region. It is clear that non-military and non-kinetic approaches need to be further emphasized and coordinated through mechanisms such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Rather than a reflection of operational initiative by the IS core, the emergence of Hapilon and his allies was largely a result of long-rooted local issues in the Southern Philippines. Even at the height of the fighting, there was no evidence of involvement by Emni, the group’s intelligence and expeditionary force. Both real and perceived grievances held by the Bangsamoro community along with socioeconomic deprivation has made communities in the southern Philippines vulnerable to the influence of VE organizations (VEO).

The regional narrative during the height of the siege was the notion that Marawi was the bellwether for jihadist influence in Southeast Asia. There were some perspectives that as Raqqa fell, the IS core would transplant itself into Southeast Asia. This is a recent regurgitation of the ‘myth of the second-front’ that inflates the threat of the so-called “global jihad”. At the height of the Marawi crisis, the long-feared emergence of a ‘Wilayah Philippines’ failed to manifest. While IS has claimed the existence of an East Asia Wilayah, it appears more of an aspirational goal. The wilayah is far from exercising the level of proto-governance once seen in the now-defunct wilayahs in Iraq and Syria. As fighting ended in Marawi, there was optimism that militancy in Southeast Asia would experience a downturn.

However, the recovery recapture of territories in Iraq and Syria from the IS core should not be expected to dissipate the localized roots of VE in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, there is an apparent escalation in terrorist tactics. Three near-simultaneous suicide bombings that targeted Christian places of worship rocked the Indonesian city of Surabaya in 2019. Indonesia while being no stranger to suicide attacks, saw the incident as unprecedented as it involved an entire family launching—including children of minor age. In the Philippines, Indanan town in Sulu saw the first suicide bombing attack involving a Filipino, which targeted the 1st Brigade Combat Team in 2019.

Aside from the seeming persistence of terrorist tactics, another area of concern for Southeast Asian states is the return of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) to their home countries. Numbers vary, but one reputable study estimates that more than 40,000 FTFs from 80 countries swelled the ranks of IS. The UNDP estimates that of this number, it is estimated that no more than 2,000 came from Southeast Asia, mostly Indonesians. Fortunately, at the time of this writing the feared waves of returning FTFs have yet to materialize.

The soft institutions provided by ASEAN remain inadequate to respond swiftly to emerging threats. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, ASEAN immediately promulgated its 2001 Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism as building upon the various policy instruments the grouping has crafted to address transnational crimes. The Declaration followed the usual template of ASEAN policy documents which stressed collaborative approaches but prized Member-States’ sovereignty.

The 2007 ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism further enshrined the continued primacy of national responses to counter-terrorism. It is telling that Article V of the 2007 Convention titled “Preservation of Sovereignty” preceded the generic list of activities found on Article VI entitled “Areas of Cooperation”. Even at the height of the Marawi siege, ASEAN’s institutional inertia saw the reliance on generic forms of counter-terrorism cooperation. Thus, while it appears the 2017 Battle for Marawi could have provided an impetus for more concerted regional efforts, it appears that ASEAN Member-States went business-as-usual.

Violent extremism is no longer limited to VEOs organized behind structured ideologies. In Southeast Asia and the West, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated political polarization and heightened economic precarity. According to one expert survey, it is “likely” that the pandemic would lead to more violence in the short term. In the West, there is a resurgence of right-wing nationalism and even conspiracy theory-based movements like QAnon. The same confrontational dynamic is seen with the rise of ‘incel’ violence targeting those deemed as feminist or supportive of the broader women’s rights movement.

Southeast Asian states confronting VE cannot afford to limit their focus on returning FTFs from Syria or VEOs espousing jihadist ideologies. The distinct histories of Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have led to unique socio-political circumstances that sustain protracted conflict. Starting programs from scratch, regional CVE initiatives could draw from other disciplines to confront these ‘other extremisms’. Policies designed to reduce and mitigate juvenile delinquency could have wide applications in challenging the rise of right-wing, other single-issue movements, or even lone-actor idiosyncratic violence. In the same manner, incel rage could be redirected through mental health and psychosocial interventions.

Continuity is the unifying principle behind ASEAN’s current counterterrorism policies. Often it is the emergence of a major crisis such as the Battle for Marawi or the global pandemic that prompts strategic innovation and multilateral collaboration. At this point, it is unclear whether ASEAN Member-states have started to go beyond legacy VE groups and considered more diffused and novel VE threats.


*This is a condensed and updated version of the author’s chapter in مكافحة داعش: نماذج من دول جنوب شرق آسيا [The Fight Against ISIS: Examples from Southeast Asia] Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center, November 2019.


Joseph Franco specializes in countering violent extremism and counterinsurgency. As a Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) he examines terrorist networks in maritime Southeast Asia and best practices in countering violent extremism globally. He is also a member of the RESOLVE Network Research Advisory Council, organized by the United States Institute of Peace.

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