Written by Joshua Snider.

Nation-states in the ASEAN region acknowledge the problem of religio-political extremism. In particular, the appeal of violent Islamist movements (notably ISIL) presents some worrying trends at both state and regional levels. While the military defeat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria presents some room for optimism, the displacement of foreign fighters (and conflict tourists) yields a very real set of security concerns for many states in the ASEAN region. In particular, Malaysia and Indonesia are struggling with various policy implications associated with the reintegration of 500-1000 returned Jihadis and various conflict tourists.

The dynamics associated with Islamist violence pre-date ISIL by decades … Islamist-inspired religio-political extremism is a structural feature of political life across many states in the ASEAN region.

In addition to managing the dynamics associated with the reintegration of former conflict volunteers, states also face a changing space related to violent Islamist activism, which is being complicated by factors ranging from the ISIL phenomenon, to the use of social media as a recruitment tool and the increasing intra-regional linkages between networks. ISIL’s metamorphosis into yet another deterritorialised Jihadist “brand,” capable of latching onto and transforming local and region-based sectarian grievances, presents a raft of security problems that will be felt at sub-state and regional levels. Given the trend towards regionalising responses to both traditional and non-traditional security problems, seeking responses to the problem of Islamist-inspired religio-political violence via regional security mechanisms might be a logical step. This short piece will address the ASEAN region’s efforts to address religio-political extremism and will discuss issues impeding (or complexifying) deeper cooperation in this area.

ASEAN – The Politics of Expectation Management?

For all of its faults, ASEAN has proven itself to be one of the most durable and successful security communities, and a global model for regional integration that doesn’t involve ceding large amounts of sovereignty. In the realm of security cooperation, the mechanism and instrumentalities have over the past five decades gone some distance to reduce mistrust between nation-states, and at an inter-state level has turned Southeast Asia into a region of relative peace and prosperity. While the community has been remarkably successful in conflict mitigation at the inter-state level, security problems that emerge from complex identity politics at the sub and/or transnational levels pose a unique challenge. Amongst these, seeking region-level responses to Islamist-inspired religio-political extremism and the violent agenda therein unquestionably pushes the limits of the community’s core commitment to sovereignty and non-interference. Beyond rhetorical condemnation of terrorism and/or formulating broad joint statements, the body is constrained by its own mechanisms and founding documents from commenting on specific events/dynamics at the sub-state level within the member states. Consequently, achieving consensus on issues like: 1) a specific definition of Islamist-inspired religio-political extremism, 2) when/where extremism begins, 3) the role of certain theological interpretations in inspiring extremism are virtually impossible.

The Complexity of Islamist-inspired Religio-political Violence

While ISIL and its supposed “push” into the region is the topic de jour in regional counter-terrorism circles, it would be problematic to view dynamics in the region through the ISIL lens alone. To be sure, the dynamics associated with Islamist violence pre-date ISIL by decades – and will continue long after the last remnants of the group are routed. As I discussed on IAPS Dialogue last year, Islamist-inspired religio-political extremism is a structural feature of political life across many states in the ASEAN region. In the case of Southern Thailand and the Southern Philippines, the sectarianisation of ethno-seccessionist movement has resulted in religio-political insurgencies, which in turn become proving grounds for militants from across the regional and further afield. Conversely, in Malaysia and Indonesia, despite the veneer of moderate sectarian identity and absence of overt ethno-religious conflict, the impact of rapid de-secularisation combined with the globalisation extremist discourses has resulted in the rise of violent and non-violent extremism. Indonesia has experienced active Jihadist violence directed at a mix of state and foreign targets. Thus, the variable nature of Islamist movement and myriad of radicalising drivers across different movements and states in the region problematises the development of a regional grand strategy

Marawi and Rakhine

For many years, the accepted wisdom has been that while there might some evidence of connectivity between groups at the regional and global levels, these movements were largely local in orientation and feed off local grievances. In my view, recent incidents in the Philippines, especially Marawi and Sarangani and in the Rakhine state in Myanmar go some distance to challenge this wisdom and highlight some worrying trends in relation to the trajectory of Islamist-inspired militancy in the region. The takeover of Marawi and Sarangani in the Philippines by militants connected to ISIL was significant for several reasons. First, it demonstrates the globalising impact of the ISIL phenomenon to the extent to which locally-based movements can shift allegiances to whatever groups look the strongest – regardless of the level of real connectivity between groups. Second, significant funding and tactical planning for the siege came from militants in Indonesia, demonstrating a level of intra-regional connectivity previously thought to be the stuff of unproven conspiracy.  Finally, the militants were able to capture and hold territory.

The dynamics in Rakhine state of Myanmar pose an equally serious if somewhat different threat. The brutal subjugation of the Rohingya and the increasingly Islamised resistance to this should be of great concern to policy makers in the region. As it stands, the resistance movement is local. However there is still the very real possibility that South Asia-based militants (i.e. from Bangladesh and/or Pakistan) could add another more violent and toxic dimension to an already calamitous situation. There is a strong possibility that unless there is a rapid de-escalation in violence, Yangon’s intransigence will be met with Islamised resistance and ensuing conflict volunteerism from across the region and further afield. The growing internationalisation of the violent Islamist activism in Southeast Asia was demonstrated aptly by the recent arrest of an Iraqi ISIL bomb maker in the Philippines. Malaysia’s recent admission that it has detained 70 foreign ISIL affiliated fighters since 2013 demonstrates the transnational and inter-regional nature of the conflict.

Region-level Responses – Challenges and Opportunities

The idea that ASEAN could deliver a region-level consensus on a counter-extremism response might not be entirely rational. Given the foundational limitations of ASEAN, the inherent complexity of regional Islamist movements, differences in perception amongst states in the region on key related issues and the dynamics described above vis-à-vis the Philippines and Myanmar, it remains to be seen how exactly regional cooperation in countering extremism could work more effectively. Perhaps rather than as a venue used to solve terrorism within the Southeast Asian region and/or achieve a grand consensus on the issues mentioned above, ASEAN and its mechanisms might be best utilised as a venue to discuss ancillary issues on the margins, such as border management, maritime security and intelligence sharing. Despite the need to maintain realistic expectations of ASEAN and look to use its mechanisms appropriately, its inability to engage substantively on intra-state and transnational security implications (like extremism) will ultimately limit its effectiveness in the security sphere.

Dr. Joshua Snider is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus. His research focuses on radical Islam in Southeast Asia. Image Credit: CC Wikimedia Commons.

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