Expert Commentary

Returning Foreign Fighters or the Ones Who Stayed Home – What’s Worse?

Zachary Abuza
Professor, National Security Strategy, National War College

As the Islamic State diminishes in Iraq and Syria, experts have warned that returning fighters could reorganize and carry out attacks in their home countries. In Southeast Asia, this fear is greatest in Indonesia and the Philippines. However, the greater threat may be the spread of ISIS’ ideology, methods, and funding to fighters who never left home according to National War College Professor Zachary Abuza. The Cipher Brief’s Will Edwards spoke to him about the severity of the threats posed by ISIS and other terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, and the efforts of Southeast Asian nations to cooperate on transnational terrorism.

The Cipher Brief: Many experts feared that ISIS would spread to other countries as it lost territory in Iraq and Syria. Do you feel this has come to pass in Southeast Asia? Are terrorist threats from other groups increasing in the region?

Zachary Abuza: Returning foreign fighters is a legitimate concern, but in Southeast Asia, it will have a limited effect.  There were never that many Southeast Asians in Syria and Iraq.  That is not for want of trying. Many supporters got tied up in a logistical logjam as the governments made travel there more difficult.  There were an estimated 1000 Southeast Asians there, but roughly half were wives and children.  There were an estimated 400-500 combatants, including roughly 15 Southeast Asian suicide bombers, and a hundred or so who were killed fighting—no one really knows for sure.  So we’re talking about a few hundred returnees.

Malaysia has detained everyone that they have found. Indonesia does not have the legal powers to arrest those that have returned from fighting abroad, though that is being debated now in their counterterrorism bill.

Those that do return may indeed be a threat: they have battlefield experience, transnational networks, and “street cred” that could help them recruit and indoctrinate.

But it is also important to note that not everyone who returns from Syria has been a supporter of Islamic State; there have been multiple cases where people have been horrified by what they saw. This is why I am against laws that try to criminalize fighting overseas. There must be prosecutorial discretion. You need to give people an off ramp; and I can think of no one better to counter the IS message, than those who saw it first hand and can expose the barbarity and lies.

The real threat in Southeast Asia is not from those who traveled overseas, but from those who are still at home.  IS really helped to rebuild terrorist networks.  Since 2014, every attack in Southeast Asia, whether successful or not, was at best supported by militants in Raqaa, who may have done the first pitch recruiting.  But execution and planning of almost every attack was local.  Several of the attacks were by lone wolves.

I am actually more concerned about pro-al Qaeda groups in Southeast Asia.  When IS emerged, Jemaah Islamiyah was in total disarray and defunct as a militant organization. Some jumped on the IS bandwagon, but most did not.  The Indonesian government has given JI networks a lot of space to indoctrinate, preach, and recruit, as long as they are not involved in militancy; indeed, many in Indonesian CT circles, actually see JI as an antidote to IS. This is a tactical retreat.

Regardless of whether pro-IS or pro-AQ groups emerge on top, I think it is very clear that militants in Southeast Asia are going to refocus their energies on the “near enemy.”  In particular, they are going to be motivated by the success of militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi and driven to action by the mistreatment of the Rohingya community.

Finally, we need to consider terrorism by non-JI or IS groups. The August 2015 Erawan Shrine bombing in Bangkok was perpetrated by Uighurs and Turkish militants. In southern Thailand, there is a long-running insurgency that has largely stayed in area, but occasionally goes out of area, making symbolic attacks in tourist venues.

TCB: What is the history of regional cooperation on counterterrorism in Southeast Asia?

Abuza: Well, it is not a long history.  The security services in Southeast Asia tend to be very suspicious of one another.  Post 9/11 and in particular after the Bali bombing in October 2002, the Indonesians really led the way. At first, security cooperation tended to need the highest level political support. It took many years, but now there is improved cooperation at the service level.  Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore tend to work well with one another. Malaysia and Thailand have a fairly fraught relationship. One has to understand that there are vast differences in the resources, professionalism, and capabilities of the security services in Southeast Asia. Sadly, the primary focus of many is regime survival, not national security.

TCB: What have been some of the recent efforts by the Maphilindo coalition (Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia) on counterterrorism?

Abuza: This is an important development. In March of 2016, the Abu Sayyaf Group began a spate of maritime kidnappings. By July 2017, they had kidnapped 65 mariners from 6 different countries in 18 operations.  Many more seamen were either not taken or got away.  But this had a profound impact on intra-regional trade, for example, Indonesia’s $700 million in annual coal exports to the Philippines. From the ASG’s perspective, this was a great target, most tugs or fishing boats are slow moving and they were able to get higher ransoms from foreigners, and the shipping/fishing companies paid quickly.

But this put considerable pressure on the Philippines. Malaysia and Indonesia demanded trilateral maritime patrols, including the right of “hot pursuit” into Philippine waters.  An agreement was signed in September 2016 but not implemented until June 2017.  The good news is that it has had a positive impact. Maritime kidnappings are down.  Even before the trilateral operations began, a more robust presence by maritime security forces from the three countries, as well as by outside partners such as the U.S., did raise the costs. The downside is, once again, one of resources.  While Malaysia has a fairly good and well-resourced coast guard, the Philippines and Indonesia do not, and ironically the two archipelagic nations also have very small and under-resourced navies.

There has been a lot of hope that the trilateral Sulu Sea policing will build on the success of the multilateral policing in the Strait of Malacca.  It will fall short for many reasons. For one thing, there will be no centralized fusion center where real time information is shared. The U.S., Australia, Japan, and Singapore may be working at supporting one.  Second, the resources dedicated to maritime policing remain woefully insufficient for the amount of territory to be covered.  Third, there are maritime territorial disputes between them. Only the Philippines and Indonesia have a demarcated maritime border.

TCB: In your opinion, do you think there has been enough regional cooperation? If not, what do you see as some necessary improvements?

Abuza: Obviously I would like to see a lot more regional cooperation. But the problem is that states are too guarded of their sovereignty.  Right now, there is real and legitimate concern about the number of foreign fighters from across Southeast Asia and South Asia in Marawi.  The only way to stop that influx is through regional cooperation, intelligence sharing, and joint patrols.  Likewise, the Rohingya situation is going to require significant inter-state cooperation, but Myanmar will most likely thwart that.

The Author is Zachary Abuza

Zachary Abuza is Professor of National Security Strategy at the US National War College, where he focuses on Southeast Asian Security and politics. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the position of the U.S. Department of Defense or the National War College.

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