ISIS has eye on South-east Asia, says terror expert

Professor Rohan Gunaratna, associate professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Singapore. -- FILE PHOTO: ZAOBAO
Professor Rohan Gunaratna, associate professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Singapore. -- FILE PHOTO: ZAOBAO

Returning fighters may link up with terrorist groups in region, he says

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group is beefing up its external operations wing and courting support in South-east Asia, a security expert said at a counter-terrorism meeting here.

Professor Rohan Gunaratna, who heads Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), told the Global Security Asia conference yesterday that 22 terrorist groups in South-east Asia have pledged allegiance to ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and are disseminating propaganda in the region in local languages, largely online.

Fighters returning from Syria and Iraq could also link up with terror groups such as Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and Jemaah Islamiah offshoot Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), and pose a continuing threat to the region, he added.

In a speech, Prof Rohan highlighted JAT as a group capable of committing suicide attacks and one that has been active beyond Indonesia's borders, with operatives purchasing weapons from Thailand and transiting through Malaysia, and whose propaganda has even spread to Singapore.

His comments come amid an ongoing effort by a multinational coalition to defeat ISIS by recapturing territory it holds in Iraq.

"As ISIS loses territory, it will become more insurgent, hit-and- run and terrorist in nature, and its influence will spread overseas," Prof Rohan told The Straits Times separately.

"The world must brace itself for a new wave of terrorist strikes, both on the scale we have witnessed in Sydney, Copenhagen, Paris and Ottawa recently, and also ISIS-directed attacks that may even mirror the scale of 9/11."

ISIS' growing support in the region has reignited fears that returning fighters will bring with them battle experience and connections to launch attacks.

There have already been instances of European fighters in Syria travelling through South- east Asia before returning to Europe, raising the question of whether they were surveying targets or just throwing the authorities off their tracks, Prof Rohan said.

He also noted that ISIS, which controls oil fields and banks in areas it controls, could pour funds into global attacks, just as Al-Qaeda did a decade ago.

More than 1,000 radicals from the Asia-Pacific have left for Syria, with about 300 from South- east Asia. Countries are adopting tough measures, with Malaysia set to table a new anti-terrorism law this month.

Conference speaker Idznursham Ismail also warned that the possibility of ISIS turning to unconventional weapons cannot be discounted.

The ICPVTR research analyst said there is online chatter among extremists about the use of chemical, biological and radiological agents, including chlorine bombs. A senior ISIS militant killed in a January air strike was found to be a chemical weapons expert.

Said Mr Idznursham: "They have the experts, they have the resources, so the use of these unconventional weapons is something we will have to keep an eye on."

asyiqins@sph.com.sg