Southeast Asia is facing a “gathering storm” of terrorism as the Islamic State militant group has recruited sympathizers at a much faster pace than terror mastermind Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, a regional security conference was warned at the weekend.
The warning from Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional security forum hosted by the island state, was followed by a call from Malaysia for a comprehensive plan to defeat IS involving greater cooperation of all parties, including but not limited to the military.
"Destroying it could very well be the greatest challenge of our generation," Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told the meeting – Asia's biggest security summit – attended by defense ministers and military chiefs from 28 Asia-Pacific countries.
Singapore's Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen told the conference that in the past three years alone, IS has recruited more sympathizers and operatives in Southeast Asia than al-Qaeda did in the last decade, with more than 1,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria.
“Terrorists have capitalized on existing smuggling routes to move people and arms in the region that include Southern Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. This gathering storm has the real potential to destabilize this region, if not tackled decisively and together,” he said.
Some of the militants transit through Singapore in the hope of eluding authorities by taking multiple hops to their final destinations in the Middle East, he said.
Just three months ago, he said Singapore caught four Indonesian travelers linked to IS while they were on the island and handed them back to Indonesia’s counter-terrorism police.
Also in November last year, two other Indonesian men who planned to travel to Syria were held, he said.
Ng called for security forces, including militaries of individual countries, to combat terrorism "rigorously."
"The threat will grow if terrorist groups become more organized to mount sophisticated, large-scale attacks with deadlier weapons," he said. "Collectively, we must work closely together to build up joint responses, and strengthen intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts."
About 30 terrorist groups in the region have publicly pledged allegiance to IS, including Abu Sayyaf in Southern Philippines and Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD), which conducted the Jakarta bombing with IS funding.
In Malaysia, 14 suspected IS militants were recently arrested during a four-day operation across five states. Several personnel from the Malaysian Armed Forces, including two commandos, have also been found to have links with the group.
Hishammuddin cautioned that countries combating terrorism should realize that IS was not the usual terrorist group they had been used to dealing with.
"DAESH is not al-Qaeda," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. "They differ in their goals but are partly rooted in their histories."
Hishammuddin said that terror organizations like al-Qaeda had only hundreds of active cells, could not directly confront military forces, preyed on civilians and most importantly, did not claim control of territories.
"On the other hand, DAESH asserts control over vast amounts of oil-rich land which has allowed the group to build a self-sustaining financial model, unthinkable for most terrorist groups," he said.
At present, IS boasted more than 31,000 fighters with extensive military capabilities engaging in sophisticated operations while controlling lines of vital communication and commanding infrastructure, he said.
"This is why conventional counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategies have not and will never work against DAESH," the Malaysian minister said.
"We need to agree on a comprehensive plan to defeat DAESH – and the plan needs to involve greater cooperation of all parties including, but not limited to the military," he said. "Destroying it could very well be the greatest challenge of our generation."
In a report released at the conference, organized by British think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Singaporean government, IISS said there were growing fears of jihadist violence in Indonesia since IS's January 2016 deadly attack in Jakarta.
Analysts believe that further attacks could be driven by competition between pro-IS groups in the country or between Indonesian IS factions based in Syria, according to the “Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment 2016: Key Developments and Trends.”
"It is also possible that a rivalry will develop between jihadists in Indonesia and those in the southern Philippines, who may seek to curry favor with the central leadership in Syria and to showcase their territory as the potential site of an ISIS wilayat (province) in Southeast Asia," the report said.
It also raised the possibility of IS attacks in Malaysia.
"Activity by Malaysian jihadists has also increased steadily, resulting in speculation that they will soon stage an attack there," it said.
This concern, it said, prompted the Australian, New Zealand and British governments to issue travel warnings in February 2016, naming Kuala Lumpur and the east Malaysian state of Sabah as high-risk areas.