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Shock after the lull: Southeast Asian terrorists in the Middle East

18 Jun Shock after the lull: Southeast Asian terrorists in the Middle East

Ahmad Tarmini Maliki, a 26-year-old Malaysian factory worker from Selangor, allegedly blew up 25 elite Iraqi soldiers at Iraq’s SWAT headquarters in al-Anbard on 26 May. He is believed to be Malaysia’s first suicide bomber and is linked to militants of the group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

While a suicide bombing by a Malaysian may be unprecedented, this is not the first time Southeast Asians have engaged in terrorist activities related to Middle East conflicts. Malaysia, for example, has recently been cracking down on militant activities. Last year, the police set up the Special Task Force (Operations and Counter Terrorism), recognising the growing threat from home-grown extremists. In April, Malaysian police arrested 11 people who planned to send fighters to Syria; earlier this month, they arrested another three men, including a Navy officer, who also planned to launch attacks in Syria and Iraq.

One international security expert has said that said more than 100 Southeast Asians, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq. The rest are from southern Thailand, the Philippines, with a few from Singapore.

The rising involvement of Southeast Asians in Middle Eastern terrorist groups, ISIS in particular, could be extrapolated into a worrying trend. ISIS has capitalised on the political turmoil of the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars to strengthen its existence. Disenchanted members of the Sahwa tribal militia in Iraq joined ISIS because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki broke his promise to incorporate them into the regular Iraqi army, after the US left. Their tactics are extreme and brutal – even al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Zawahiri, has long disagreed with ISIS’s leader, warning him against beheading its opponents.

The bulk of ISIS’s fighters however, are not from Southeast Asia. ISIS reportedly has up to 11,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, of which 3,000 are estimated to be foreigners from Chechnya, France, Britain and elsewhere in Europe. The numbers from Southeast Asia, therefore, are still rather small and disparate in comparison.

Experts say that a regional multi-agency effort was needed to arrest them, seize their assets and disrupt their support network. This is where leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries need to build upon the political and security aspects of the ASEAN Community. Back in 2005, former ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong highlighted that ASEAN had begun cooperation on counter-terrorism even before the events of 9/11. Given the recent pattern of events, it is an ideal time for ASEAN to focus and cooperate on counter-terrorism again, while the problem is still manageable.


Malaysian carries out suicide bombing in Iraq [Straits Times, 17 June 2014]

Two Arab countries fall apart [The Economist, 14 June 2014]

At least 30 Malaysians join militant group to fight in Iraq, Syria [Straits Times, 16 June 2014]

Asean’s contribution to regional efforts in counter-terrorism [ASEAN Secretariat, 21 February 2005].