US official predicts terror tactics from Syria, not fighters, to spread to SE Asia

Ida Lim
Members of The Royal Malaysian Police take part in a demonstration showing a mock terrorist attack during the 211th National Day celebration at Pulapol in Kuala Lumpur March 25, 2018. — Picture by Azneal Ishak

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 24 — Malaysians and Indonesians who joined the Islamic State (IS) in Syria are unlikely to make South-east Asian their new destination following the global terror network’s bombardment in the Levant, a US counter-terrorism official said.

However, the US Department of State’s Counterterrorism Coordinator Nathan Sales said the terror tactics employed by IS troopers, including suicide bombings, will likely be adopted by militants in the politically and economically strategic region.

“We know that ISIS core, the remnants of ISIS in Syria, have been encouraging their fighters to leave and fight again, to take the fight to other regions.

“So far, we have seen a few indications of an interest in traveling to South-east Asia, but truth be told, it’s not one of the regions that ISIS fighters seem to be heading to in droves,” Sales said in the transcript of a November 22 press teleconference from the Philippines.

He was asked by Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post (SCMP) if the IS — also called ISIS — was planning to make Mindanao in the southern Philippines its new base after Syria.

Sales noted that the IS was increasingly relying on regional networks and affiliates worldwide, and had sympathisers and affiliates in South-east Asia.

He said the US government has been in talks with the Philippine government to boost joint efforts in border security to block access by air or by sea by militants to the region.

In response to another question by Philippine media outlet Rappler, Sales expressed concern about the “export from the Middle East of terrorist tactics, techniques, and procedures”.

“Suicide bombing is not something that we’ve seen in the region here in South-east Asia until very, very recently, and we are concerned about groups like ISIS and sympathisers of ISIS emulating what they see in places like Syria and places like Afghanistan,” he said.

He said measures being taken to address these terror threats include the boosting of the region’s crisis response teams’ capability to provide real-time response to terrorist incidents, as well as to ensure that terrorists are prosecuted.

“We’re also working to boost border security. We have to stop terrorists from being able to travel, move their fighters, move their money, move their weapons.

“And finally, cutting down on the financing of terrorism primarily by using our designations and sanctions tools.  When we put terrorist organizations on our sanctions list, that cuts off the flow of money that these groups, that these individuals can use,” he said.

He highlighted the link between terror groups and transnational organised crime activity when saying that front companies are also the targets of the financial blacklist.

“Terrorists seek to raise money through a number of different means: narcotics trafficking, human smuggling, as well as seemingly licit enterprises — front companies for terrorism.”

SCMP yesterday reported a former leader from regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, Nasir Abas, as saying that militants from Malaysia and Indonesia were attracted to Mindanao.

“Mindanao is the closest jihad zone for Malaysian and Indonesians and the most economically viable for them to travel to,” Nasir was quoted as saying.

SCMP noted that IS affiliates had in 2017 took over Marawi city in Mindanao for five months before the Philippine government resumed control after fights that killed more than 1,000 people, while also citing Philippine military as observing in July 2017 that foreign militants were training locals to carry out terror attacks including suicide bombings in Mindanao.

Indonesian police recently said a suicide bomber in Medan, Sumatra who killed himself and injured six others in an attack earlier this month was linked to the IS-inspired Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD).

Bukit Aman’s counter-terrorism chief Deputy Commissioner Datuk Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay has said that Malaysian security forces remain on high alert for returning terrorists after the death of IS founder Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

Ayob also acknowledged Malaysian police were aware of a purported IS plan to set up a new caliphate in the region since the 2017 fall of their stronghold in Syria.

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