According to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta-based think-tank, about 45 Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong have been radicalised and linked with the ISIS terror group while living in the territory. It identified some 50 radical women workers in East Asia involved in a variety of discussion groups related to extremism and said the total number may approach 100. Of these women, 43 had worked, or continue to work, in Hong Kong, three in Taiwan and four in Singapore. Unnervingly, three women in Hong Kong had competed for ISIS' attention through arranging funds or helping Indonesian fighters to travel to Syria through Hong Kong.
Although their numbers are negligible in a territory that is host to 153,000 domestic helpers from Indonesia alone, it is nevertheless frightening as even a lone wolf is capable of causing harm. Five maids working in Singapore were also radicalised through social media, it was revealed last year. Cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, which have a high proportion of women in the workforce, are hugely dependent on imported labour to perform domestic tasks. This also means that such help in many homes goes unsupervised for hours, with access to the home Wi-Fi and, if denied that, their own smartphones. This makes them susceptible to peer influence, and other pressure points that terrorists employ, such as a distorted sense of religious duty or the lure of romance.
The threat is not confined to domestic workers, of course. In recent years, 65 foreign workers here have been investigated over terrorism concerns; 27 radicalised Bangladeshi workers were arrested here in 2015 and eight more were detained last year. Such cases highlight how contagious the canker can be. Social alienation and ideology are important drivers, the first because it brings dejection, the second because it is often an opiate to dull the pain. It does not help when host nations diminish their self-worth - some Hong Kong condos used to ban domestic help from taking the main lifts, for instance. Rather than isolating foreign workers, there is value in engaging them and working with them to reach out to those at risk.
The desire of the alienated to belong to a cause larger than themselves should not be underestimated. The demonstration effect from the battle in Marawi is a further complication. Extremists might be encouraged from observing the resilience of the terrorist attempt to hold the city. That would put other nations at risk. This week's regional concord to fight terrorism, between Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand, therefore comes not a moment too soon. A key element of the action plan is to encourage cooperation between governments and companies that provide social media services, video file-sharing and messaging. All means must be tapped to put the squeeze on terrorism.