South East Asian nations, including the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, are stepping up security amid warnings of terrorist attacks by supporters of the so-called Islamic State over the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Indonesia said it is deploying more than 150,000 personnel after police uncovered plans by an IS-linked group to carry out a suicide bombing campaign over the Christmas period.
There are about 24 million Christians in Indonesia, accounting for about 10 per cent of the population, as well as a surge in foreign visitors over the holiday period to the resort Island of Bali.
Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, says the increased security will help put people at ease.
“People in Indonesia are nervous but also somewhat comforted by the fact that every year there have been similar warnings about possible attacks and the police are out in force, especially on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and also on the New Year’s holidays to the point where there’s been an effective deterrent,” Jones said.
The concern follows warnings this week by Australia’s department of foreign affairs that Australians in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand needed to “exercise a high degree of caution” amid the threat of a terrorist attacks” including Bangkok and the Thai island resort of Phuket.
In Indonesia, the department said the terrorist threat level “remained high,” and attacks “could occur anywhere, at any time in Indonesia, including Bali.”
In 2002, an attack by the Jemmah Islamiyah targeting western tourists in the Kuta entertainment district of Bali killed over 200 people, including 88 Australians, 38 from Indonesia, and 27 from the United Kingdom. Hundreds were injured.
Sidney Jones says while there are no specific details of threatened attacks, the concerns come against the backdrop of setbacks faced by Islamic State in the Middle East.
“What is different this year is the fact that ISIS is being pushed back in the Middle East and there have been strong exhortations on a repeated basis coming out of ISIS media that if you can’t do something in Syria, if you can’t join us in Syria or Iraq, then wage war at home,” Jones told VOA.
In Thailand, steps to increase security over the New Year holiday have been taken although there was “no specific information” of an imminent attack, said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist and adviser to Deputy Prime Minister, Prawit Wongsuwan.
“During the holiday season the security agencies are instructed to make sure that the New Year activities and holiday activities are safe and you might see more stepped up security in certain areas but there’s no particular warning on an imminent attack in different locations,” Panitan told VOA.
In Thailand, the main focus lies with possible attacks by separatist insurgents from the southern border provinces bordering Malaysia. Since 2004, a low level insurgency has led to over 6,000 deaths in the Muslim majority populated border provinces.
But analysts say stalled peace negotiations with the Thai military led to a suspected insurgent attacks in August in more northern provinces, including the highly popular destination of Phuket and Hua Hin. The attacks left four people dead and 30 injured.
In August 2015, a bombing of a popular shrine in Bangkok by suspected Uighur militants left 20 people dead and dozens injured, in one of the most serious attacks in the Thai capital.
The bombing was allegedly linked to the deportation by Thailand a month earlier of 109 Uighur male refugees back to China.
“The [Thai] authorities are now much more experienced. They are now looking at different operations. Not only the New Year but the Chinese New Year is in February and then the Thai New year in April, they are planning the whole operations through those months,” said Panitan.
The warnings across South East Asia come as Australian police in the Victorian state capital of Melbourne detained five men suspected of planning a series of Christmas Day attacks using explosives, knives, and a gun in the city center.
Victoria State Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said the suspects had been inspired by Islamic State and had been plotting the attacks over the past month.