Is ISIS' presence in South-East Asia overstated?

Story highlights

  • Co-ordinated attacks shook central Jakarta on Thursday, January 14
  • The attacks have raised fears ISIS is increasing its influence in Asia
  • However, the group's presence in the region may have been overstated, writes Scott Edwards

Scott Edwards is a Doctoral Researcher for the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham.

(CNN)ISIS has claimed a series of deadly suicide bombings and shootings in Jakarta that have killed at least seven people -- including five suspected attackers shot by police.

At first glance, this seems to confirm that long-held worries of a full-blown ISIS campaign in South-East Asia were well-founded -- but viewed in context, the picture looks rather different.
    Indonesians mourn terror victims
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      Indonesians mourn terror victims


    Indonesians mourn terror victims 01:39
    ISIS is undeniably active to some extent in Indonesia and South-East Asia more broadly, and it is known to have recruited fighters from the region. It was recently reported that two suicide bombers who mounted attacks in Syria and Iraq were from Malaysia.
    South-East Asia has an enormous Muslim population, and its states have long had trouble with separatist or terrorist Islamist organizations such as Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf. That makes the prospect of a domestic struggle with ISIS in Indonesia all the more alarming.
    Efforts to head it off are well underway. Malaysian police recently confirmed the authenticity of a leaked memo warning of imminent suicide attacks in Kuala Lumpur, while Indonesian police reported arrests of potential ISIS-linked militants planning to attack Jakarta around the new year celebrations.
    The police and world media alike have already speculated that these attacks may be in some way connected to that same intelligence.
    Other countries in the region are concerned too. The Australian Attorney General ominously announced that ISIS is planning to establish a "distant caliphate" in South-East Asia, which clearly would be a disaster.

    Ominous signs

    This fear is fed by worries that young Indonesians are being radicalized and recruited by ISIS, especially through social media, where certain Malaysians and Indonesians fighting in Syria have won large followings.
    The number of Indonesian fighters estimated to have joined ISIS in Syria is between 500 and 700; Malaysia follows with roughly 200, with an additional 120 arrested before they made it to Syria.
    Elsewhere, Thailand is host to a separatist Islamic insurgency in its southern provinces, and recent ISIS videos have emerged subtitled in Thai. In the Philippines, existing separatist groups such as Abu Sayyaf are increasingly being linked to ISIS.
    To try and assuage his people's worries, Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi), has called for more resources to be dedicated to the issue of returning Indonesian fighters and agreed to regulation allowing for passports to be revoked. He has asked the military to be diligent against attacks, and it has planned exercises in areas with groups potentially linked to ISIS. He's also been pushing a "soft approach," focusing on how cultural and religious approaches should be used, and poverty tackled, to reduce radicalization.
    These efforts are all sensible enough -- but if we only stop to take stock, it actually seems as if ISIS' presence in Indonesia and South-East Asia may have been somewhat exaggerated.

    Reality check

    First of all, there is no sign that this is a mass insurgency waiting to explode. An estimated 500 to 700 fighters sounds like a lot as a raw number, but relative to the Indonesian Muslim population of roughly 200 million people, it's vanishingly small.
    While ISIS has now apparently claimed responsibility for the latest attack, the attack seems to be on a smaller scale than anticipated. ISIS still seems to have a relatively small impact on the region, and seems to present only a minor threat.
    Terrorism expert: We were caught off guard by attacks
    Manju Gaur climbs the staircase with a fierce but steady determination. The building is decrepit, some walls crumbling, others caked in a thin, greasy film.   Flanking Gaur, just ahead of her, is a row of police officers, some from her native Assam, others from this working class neighborhood in West Delhi.A few steps behind her are a handful of social workers and coordinators from Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a local charity that has rescued thousands of children from human trafficking.But Gaur -- a victim of trafficking herself -- is here on a much more personal mission: Finding her little sister.Gaur was born in a rural village in Assam. Her parents worked on a tea plantation, one of hundreds scattered throughout the northern state, which produces more black tea than anywhere in the world. (WE ARE STILL LOOKING INTO THIS CLAIM)Officially they earned less than $2 U.S. a day. In real life, it was often less after the owners deducted mandatory expenses like housing, education, and medical care from their salaries. With no education and no hope of a better life, Gaur desperately wanted a way to help her parents make ends meet.She still remembers the day the agent came knocking on her door.  She was just 14."One morning, he came to our house and said that he would put us to good work," she says.  The agent said he could arrange for Gaur (and others) to work for wealthy homeowners in Delhi where domestic servants are often employed to do everything from cooking to cleaning to looking after young children.Gaur says the agent lived in her own village and was well-known.  She thought she could trust him.  "I was easily convinced" she says.  "We're poor and live in a broken house -- without a rooftop. I thought I could earn and help my parents, and my sisters, so that we could study."She was wrong.In Delhi, she was kept in a house with other girls from Assam -- just like her -- all waiting to be sold as domestic labor.  That's when she says the violence started. "If the girls didn't listen," she explains, "they often hit them."Gaur says she was never sexually abused, but witnessed a number of incidents where other girls were.  The agents, she says, would often mix alcohol with a fizzy drink and make the girls drink it.  In one case, Gaur says the man who appeared to be the ringleader gave one of the girls a drink that rendered her nearly unconscious, and then took her to an empty room upstairs.   "She said that they got her too drunk" Gaur recalls, "and she couldn't do anything to stop him. I saw with my own eyes the number of girls they abused."(JC- WE SHOULD PROBABLY ADD THAT SHE NEVER TOLD AUTHORITIES FOR FEAR OF REPRISAL, OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT, TO EXPLAIN WHY AUTHORITIES DIDN'T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT)Police in Assam say young girls from tea plantations are easy targets. They live in poverty, have very little education, and their parents are often saddled with debt.Most are descendants of the original bonded laborers brought in from other parts of the country by British colonial rulers. They live in the same circumstances as they did more than a century ago, with the same impoverished lifestyles.Police say young girls see placement agencies as a way to escape the cycle, lured by promises of good jobs and a steady income. Instead, they often find themselves sold as domestic labor or forced to work in the sex industry.  Police say hundreds of girls in tea districts fall pretty to traffickers every year.  In the worst cases, fathers sell their own daughters as a way to escape poverty.After she realized what was happening, Gaur says she pleaded with the men."I tried telling them that I wanted to go home," she says. "But [the agent] said that they had already spent a lot of money on me, and that my family had to repay all of it before they could let me go.  And so, I had to stay."She wound up being sent to a middle-class home, working as a domestic servant. There was no abuse, she says, but there was also no money. Her employers told her they sent her monthly salary directly to the placement agency. She never saw a single rupee. She says she worked around the clock, but never entertained the thought of leaving."I was new there and didn't know anyone," she says. "Who could I have possibly escaped with?After a year, Gaur says she mustered up the courage to explain her situation to a friendly neighbor, who gave her enough money for a train ticket back home. She didn't tell the homeowners she was going.  She just took her things and left.Gaur says life in her village in Assam is still better than working for the trafficker, but now she has another problem. Her sister, Aarti, has been lured away by the same traffickers. The last time Gaur spoke with her on the phone, she was in tears saying she'd been mistreated.Gaur is convinced Aarti has been abused. For help, Manju Gaur has turned to Bachao Bachpan Andolan, or the BBA. Its founder, Kailash Satyarthi, is a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work in combating child labor and trafficking.The BBA has arranged to bring Gaur to Delhi, where they've traced the trafficker's location to the non-descript apartment complex.As police barge through the doors, calling out the trafficker by name, they have no idea what they'll find.  Gaur is led by police, room by room, asking if she recognizes anyone. She doesn't, and when they turn the corner to the next room, they find something that unfortunately is commonplace in raids like this.Three young girls, all huddled in a corner.  They look frightened -- and shell-shocked.  They tell police they're all from Assam, and that they were lured to Delhi by a man who said he worked for a placement agency. They say they were told he received 15,000 rupees -- just over $200 -- for each girl he brought in.  But they haven't seen any money."He told us he gave my mummy the money," the youngest girl says.Upstairs, police finally nab the trafficker, a man with a slight pot belly. When they bring him down, he appears unremorseful, insisting the girls came to Delhi of their own free will.  Later, as the girls are questioned in private by one of BBA's female social workers, they confirm the rescue team's worst fears.  One of the girls admits she was raped, repeatedly.Outside the police station, CNN Freedom Project confronts the trafficker with accusations that he was sexually abusing the girls"What did they complain about?" he says, defiantly.  "You have to find that out first."When we push for answers, saying one of the girls has made specific accusations against him, he refuses to answer, demanding to know which of the girls has made the complaint.  Later, inside the police station, where he awaits formal charges, he cuts a deal with the police.  He agrees to tell them where Manju's sister, Aarti, is working.Two hours later, a smiling Aarti appears, accompanied by police. . (JC- I THINK WE NEED TO ADD WHAT THE TV PIECE SAYS, THAT POLICE FOUND HER AND BROUGHT HER BACK)  Gaur runs into her arms, with the kind of hug that only a loving sister can give. She knows there's a long road ahead.  Aarti will be questioned by police and social workers, sent off to a nearby clinic for a mandatory health inspection, then spend weeks rehabilitating at one of the BBA's shelters for rescued children.But still, for Manju, it's still a victory. Aarti is free. They're together again. For now, that's all that matters.ENDS


      Terrorism expert: We were caught off guard by attacks


    Terrorism expert: We were caught off guard by attacks 04:02
    This all recalls the heyday of al-Qaeda, when much ink was spilled over South-East Asia potentially becoming another major front in the war on terror -- something which never came to pass.
    As Edward Delman has pointed out, Indonesia's social and political cultures have plenty of capacity to fight back. He points in particular to Nahdlatul Ulama, a large organization that spreads ideas of compassion -- an important bulwark against radicalization.
    And as a Muslim majority democratic country, Indonesia has the opportunity to make political space for people to vent their dissatisfaction. Even when ideas are relatively extreme, they can still be discussed and discredited within the normal political framework.
    This isn't to suggest that complacency is acceptable, and that extends to security measures across Indonesia and South-East Asia as a whole. But the gap between fear and reality is not to be dismissed either. We should avoid assuming the worst about the region just because it is host to large, Muslim-majority countries -- or dismissing those countries' ability to fight violent radicalism themselves.