Hundreds of fighters from Southeast Asia have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State (IS) militant group, and security analysts say they are tracking growing links between the terrorist organization and regional militant groups.
Researchers say they do not want to overstate the threat posed by these links, but that it warrants increased attention.
“Yes, the governments of Southeast Asia are concerned about returning foreign fighters and they’ve been concerned for several years now," said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta. "The level of concern may be rising even though there isn’t evidence at the moment that there’s any huge exodus from the Middle East.”
IS-inspired attackers have attempted several strikes in Southeast Asia in recent years — far fewer than the number of attacks in South Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the United States.
In 2016, IS-aligned fighters launched attacks in Indonesia's capital and a police station in Central Java, as well as several in the southern Philippines, parts of which are considered safe havens for militants fleeing the Middle East.
However, the number of IS sympathizers traveling to Iraq and Syria from Southeast Asia is relatively small. Analysts estimate 800 fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia, roughly 100 Australians, as well as a “few" supporters from Singapore and the Philippines, have traveled to fight in the Middle East.
But there is increased worry that IS radicals could unify and empower disparate militant factions in Southeast Asia, some of which already enjoy relative autonomy.
Winning Friends in the Sulu Sea
A particular concern is the Sulu Sea, a body of water bordered by the southern Philippines, Malaysia’s Sabah State and Indonesia's Sulawesi Island.
There, in the Philippines Basilan province, Jones says at “least four to five militant groups” representing different ethnic groups have sworn allegiance to IS, a powerful testament to the group's ability to unify disparate factions.
“For the first time, the existence of ISIS has broken down some of those clan and geographic barriers,” she said, using a different acronym to describe IS, which is also known as ISIL and Daesh.
In April this year, Philippine security forces in Basilan were attacked by groups claiming allegiance to IS.
Joseph Chinyong Liow, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, in a recent Brookings Institute report, said the violence in the Philippines is a reminder of the persistent threat terrorism poses to Southeast Asian societies.
In 2014, IS militants formed the Katibah Nusantara, a Southeast Asian wing composed mainly of fighters from Malaysia and Indonesia. Despite the group's increased attention on Southeast Asia, Liow said governments in the region have toughened security and contained the terror threat. But he said that does not mean the danger has passed.
“In this respect, the greater threat may will be that idea and phenomenon of ISIS would provide greater inspiration for local jihadists to continue waging what are essentially localized struggles,” he said.
IS links in southern Thailand
Evidence of this came with a recent investigation by Australian authorities into evidence of IS links with Muslim insurgent groups in southern Thailand.
Thailand’s southern insurgency has claimed over 6,000 lives since 2004. But the fighters have largely focused in increased autonomy or independence from the Thai state — not any broader international aspirations. Thai police have repeatedly denied evidence of militant links with IS.
The Australian report cited evidence of Thais providing financial support for IS as well as over 100,000 Facebook users in Thailand accessing militant websites.
Intelligence sources told VOA there were “identified IS linkages and regional threats,” but the Thai government appears to recognize the threat they pose.
Srisompob Jitromsri, a professor at the Prince of Songkla University, says although direct links to IS by southern insurgent groups are unclear, they require constant monitoring.
“According to my study the people in the deep south, around 10 percent or less agree with the ideology of ISIS," Srisompob said. "It’s quite sizable. It’s a concerning trend. Eight to 10 percent of people agree with what ISIS has done.”
Roger Shanahan, an analyst at Australia's Lowy Institute, said that could mean the trickle of fighters who return from battle zones in Iraq and Syria may eventually pose a threat if they come home to communities sympathetic to the IS cause.
“The fear is [that] even if there’s a small number of returning foreign fighters, their skillsets are going to be quite well developed," Shanahan told VOA. "And so they are going to be able to pass on knowledge, they’ll have a much better understanding of operations, security, of bomb-making or operational planning — so that’s the concern.”
“You only need a disproportionately small number to get through the net, and no net catches everybody, so the problem is it’s going to be a persistent threat," he added. "People just have to be prepared for it.”
He said governments need to begin planning for possible attacks.