Speaking in May last year, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong discussed the risk of ISIS terrorism and conceded that “The threat is no longer over there, it is over here.” In November, Malaysia’s deputy home minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed said “I think the Paris situation can also be transplanted here, in Southeast Asia.”
These were prescient words. A little under than two months later, in January, ISIS attackers set off suicide bombs and exchanged gunfire with police outside a Starbucks and police post in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. Eight people died, four of whom were the terrorists themselves.
What is surprising about this attack is that anyone was really surprised. South East Asia has all the right conditions to be a fertile breeding ground for Islamic extremists, including a dense Muslim population – the world’s densest, in fact – and a number of remote and un-governed spaces in which it might be easy for terrorist groups to prosper.
Small wonder, then, that ISIS has the region trained in its crosshairs; it has already stated its intention of establishing a Caliphate there. The leader of the group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Abu Bakar Bashir, has already announced his allegiance to ISIS from his prison cell, while a number of smaller jihadist groups are proliferating.
Yet despite all this, the majority of South East Asian states - both people and politicians - are not receptive to ISIS. Indeed, Muslim-majority nation Malaysia has proved itself to be one of the U.S.’s most loyal allies in the region.
In January of 2015 it scored a slam-dunk when ISIS announced that attempting to make passage through the country on the way to Syria was ‘tantamount to suicide’ for extremists. In September, the country was officially welcomed as a member of the now 65-country strong U.S.-led coalition to counter the threat posed by ISIS, where it is proposed that it become a leading member of the working group dedicated to counter-messaging.
As part of this, Malaysia will set up a joint messaging centre with the U.S., the Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communication Center (RDC3), which will act as the hub for countering the ISIS message in the region, and of course, as a Muslim-majority nation, Malaysia has an excellent vantage point from which to re-shape the narrative.
The progress being in made in Malaysia shows just what can be achieved when the US and South East Asian states work together. However, successful counter-terrorism programs bear a hefty price tag, with RDC3 alone estimated to run up a bill of billions of dollars.
It is catastrophic, then, that in June, the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CPF) was poleaxed when Congress slashed funding from $2.1 billion to $750 million per year. The fund aims to facilitate partnerships– such as the one with Malaysia – and “provide the flexibility to respond to a range of terrorist threats and crisis response scenarios.” Just, one might argue, what is needed right now.
If this decision were reversed, the progress of RDC3 and of similar programs could be accelerated. Moreover, the hugely successful Indonesian anti-terror squad Detachment 88, formed in the wake of the Bali bombings and funded by the U.S. and Australia, could not only be revived, but expanded.
The U.S. and South East Asian states have the will to work together, just as ISIS does. What it needs is sufficient funding to apply the correct strategies.
The perfect opportunity to discuss these matters is on the horizon in California, where President Obama is hosting a summit of leaders from the 10-country strong Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at Sunnylands in February.
This is an ideal time to discuss not only how the ASEAN nations can work together to quash the terrorism threat in their midst, but also how the US can and will help them. Yet without the reinstatement of CPF, these, and many other useful counter-terrorism measures simply cannot be given the appropriate priority on that summit’s agenda, sacrificed as they are on the altar of domestic party politics.
In terrorism, excising the lesion is never enough. Treatment must last for years, even decades. The US has the opportunity to be an instrumental voice in what is prescribed in South East Asia, yet, for the flimsiest of reasons, may be forced to stand back. If the CPF is re-instated, this doesn’t have to happen.
McKinney is a private security adviser with hands-on experience in multiple conflict areas around the world.