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Why It Matters

Terror links in South-east Asia

It should not surprise anyone that a Malaysian arrested at the weekend for plotting terror attacks had ties to an Indonesian militant in Syria.

After all, Malaysians and Indonesians have long had a common bond due to the proximity of their countries, as well as the similar culture and language they share. It was that sense of affinity which led to the formation of the Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiyyah, the Malay archipelago unit within the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, based in Raqqa, Syria.

What is of greater concern is that the Indonesian man linked to the latest arrest of the seven-strong terror cell in Malaysia is Bahrun Naim. The Indonesian ISIS loyalist, believed to have been in Raqqa since last February, is also tagged to the cell behind the siege on downtown Jakarta on Jan 14, which left eight dead, including four militants.

While the degree of Bahrun's involvement in the attack is not clear, the fact that he is also linked to the cell in Malaysia may be a sign of his growing ambition for the region. Cross-border ties between extremists across Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines have intensified in recent months.

Bahrun has always harboured dreams of being the point-man for ISIS in South-east Asia. This would give the 32-year-old either command of the Katibah Nusantara, or control over ISIS' operations and network in the region, or both.

But he is up against hardened fighters from Indonesia such as Bahrumsyah and Salim Mubarak Attamimi alias Abu Jandal, as well as the country's most wanted terrorist, Santoso, for the role.

To impress the ISIS leadership with his capabilities, Bahrun will have to outdo his rivals who have already conducted mass murder for their cause. This will involve a deadly strike against enemies of the terror group. If this is indeed Bahrun's aim, then his proxy war against everyone in South-east Asia is just beginning.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'Terror links in South-east Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe