South Asian nations will face “low-end” terrorism by Islamic extremists in 2020 while their Southeast neighbors will see a multi-faceted threat as fighters return home from the Middle East, a Singapore-based think tank warned in its annual threat assessment released earlier this week.
The International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research based its new year’s outlook, “Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses,” on trends over the last 12 months in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.
“Islamist terrorism will persist into 2020, mainly in the form of low-end urban terror attacks involving knives or other stabbing instruments, vehicles and locally assembled IEDs [improvised explosive devices],” the report said of South Asia. “This is exacerbated by the prospect of battle-hardened regional militants returning home from the Syria theater.”
The center, which is located at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, offered a similar outlook for Southeast Asia. It said countries in that region could face “multi-faceted terrorist threats from regional fighters returning from abroad, online radicalization and possible lone-wolf attacks.”
The report pointed out that knife-related attacks were most common while Muslim terrorist groups, including those linked to the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, were “increasingly relying on family or kinship networks to plan and execute attacks.”
In 2019, the threat landscape in Bangladesh was marked by IS extremist ideology and efforts by groups linked to al-Qaeda to relaunch, the report found.
“IS’ current strategy in Bangladesh is to target the police and promote lone-wolf attacks, particularly in the capital, Dhaka,” it said.
The report called developments related to IS troubling because of the group’s ability to recruit from existing terror groups and radicalized youths. It noted that a video was released in November featuring IS supporters in Bangladesh pledging allegiance to the organization’s new leader.
For 2020, the report calls IS ideology a potent threat, adding that lone-wolf attacks cannot be discounted. In addition, efforts to review al-Qaeda-linked groups are expected to continue.
While the report pointed to IS-linked groups having a foothold in Bangladesh, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal and other government officials have denied the group’s existence in the country.
Indonesia suffered from eight terrorist attacks in 2019 while 10 were stopped, compared with 15 attacks and a dozen foiled plots in 2018, according to the think tank.
Law enforcers, politicians and the general election last year were targets for some of those attacks in 2019, the center noted in its report, adding it expected low-grade attacks in the future.
“The involvement of family networks, particularly wives, in militant activities continues to be a feature in Indonesia,” it said.
The report stressed “the need for deradicalization initiatives targeting women and children, that should be differentiated from existing programs that largely cater to male terrorist offenders, and, to some extent, their wives.”
Terrorism in the Philippines, particularly in the southern Mindanao region, was highlighted by the emergence of a new IS emir to succeed Isnilon Hapilon who was killed near the end of the Marawi siege in 2017, localized suicide attacks, recruitment of foreign fighters and the use of fake news, the report said.
“Islamic groups in Mindanao have a track record of releasing false information as part of opportunistic attempts to gain attention and financing. BIFF [Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters] is known to routinely issue warnings of imminent attacks and bombings to residents in North Cotabato and Maguindanao in order to instill fear,” it said.
The report’s 2020 outlook includes the entrenchment of suicide attacks as, it predicted, Mindanao will remain “a desired destination for aspiring foreign fighters from Southeast Asia and beyond,” with eastern Malaysia’s Sabah state used by militants as a transit route to the nearby southern Philippines.
The report warns Malaysia that it could face threats from self-radicalized IS-linked militants and from locals returning from Syria and Iraq who could carry out attacks on their home soil.
“Going forward, the threat landscape for Malaysia remains very much linked to Islamist terrorist developments globally,” it said. “Further, the foreign militant influence needs to be addressed holistically, so that Malaysia does not remain a transit point of choice, as it currently is.”
Thailand has been marked by violence in the predominately Malay-Muslim Deep South since 2004, but saw the number of attacks targeting civilians decline in 2019.
Despite that good news, attacks outside the region including coordinated bombings in and around Bangkok in August “suggest insurgent groups have retained the capacity to launch attacks beyond the conflict area,” the report said.
It pointed out that peace efforts between government officials and MARA Patani, an umbrella group representing Deep South militant groups, made little progress last year as the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the region’s largest rebel group, had little to do with the talks.
In addition, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has shown no intention of making political concessions or allowing for regional autonomy.
“The Thai state will eventually need to address this issue if the dialogue is to be meaningful,” the report said.