'JI, not ISIS, is bigger threat' to South-east Asia

Singapore don tells US House panel that Jemaah Islamiah poses a more resilient threat to region

While the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is grabbing all the headlines, the militant network that will remain the larger longer-term terrorism threat in South-east Asia is the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), US lawmakers were told at a hearing.

The point was made by Dr Joseph Liow, Lee Kuan Yew chair in South-east Asia Studies at the Brookings Institution, on Wednesday. He was part of a four-member panel testifying before the House Committee on Homeland Security about the terrorism threat in the region.

Dr Liow said that while the emergence of ISIS-related activity illustrates how resilient and evolutionary the threat of terrorism has become, the authorities must retain a sense of perspective.

"There are multiple groups operating in South-east Asia that are intent on using some form of political violence to further their ends. Many are at odds with each other; not all are seeking affiliation to, or enamoured of, ISIS," he said.

"Indeed, while ISIS appears an immediate concern, a case can be made that the longer-term, possibly more resilient, terrorist threat to the region may not come from ISIS but from Jemaah Islamiah."

Dr Liow, who is also dean of Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said he was particularly disturbed to see JI leaders given prominent media coverage whenever they denounced ISIS. He cited convicted JI terrorist Abu Tholut as an example.

Said Dr Liow: "There is a problem there. These people have a jihadi agenda as well. They will very quickly be able to use the visibility and publicity they have been given to advance that agenda."

The other panellists agreed with the assessment that US concerns about the threat of terrorism in the region needed to look beyond ISIS.

Said Mr John Watts, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council: "Even if ISIS went away, even if Al-Qaeda went away, the terrorist threat in South-east Asia would not necessarily be less because those motivations for those groups, the political grievances, are local as much as they are ideological, so it doesn't necessarily shift the threat analysis."

Asked by Representative John Katko, a congressman from New York, which region in South-east Asia should be a cause for concern, the panel pointed to the Sulu archipelago in the Philippines, citing the limited ability of local authorities to tackle the problem.

Dr Liow called for deeper international cooperation, saying that information-sharing was not enough.

"The capacity that the Philippines has to deal with the threat in that area is very low, which is why my view is that we really have to look beyond just joint information-sharing. You've got the information, you've got the data, they still cannot do anything with it. We need to really look at operations," he said.

There are no records that track the nationalities of those who appear before US congressional committees, though it is rare to have a Singaporean do so.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2016, with the headline ''JI, not ISIS, is bigger threat' to South-east Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe