Malaysia 'working to thwart ISIS in region'

SINGAPORE - Terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses a very real threat to South-east Asia, with older militant groups like the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in the Philippines pledging allegiance to ISIS and seeking to create an Islamic state in this region, Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said.

And Malaysia has been working with its Asean counterparts including Brunei and Indonesia to ensure the places these groups operate in do not become an area where they can declare a caliphate, he told a panel at the Shangri-La Dialogue yesterday.

Security analysts have flagged concerns that some 30 militant groups in the region have pledged loyalty to ISIS, and some of them are based in areas that security forces may struggle to penetrate, such as Mindanao in the Philippines and Poso in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Some 200 Malaysians have also joined ISIS in Syria, with over 100 more arrested at home for ISIS links.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had on Friday raised the spectre of ISIS establishing a base somewhere in the region, "in a geographical area under its physical control like in Syria and Iraq... somewhere far from the centre of power of state governments, where government writs do not run".

"There are quite a few such places in South-east Asia," he said. "If ISIS did that, it would pose a very serious threat to the whole of South-east Asia."

Mr Hishammuddin said Malaysia was studying the effectiveness of ongoing actions against ISIS in the Middle East, so as to learn from mistakes there and better deal with ISIS as it rears its head in the region.

He also raised concerns over maritime security in the Straits of Malacca - an area extremists have said they want to target - and said Malaysia has been working with Asean countries to beef up security in the waterway.

"The threat is a different threat," he said of ISIS, which has gained significant territory and allies and drawn close to 1,000 fighters from the region.

"It is still unfolding before us. We're still grappling and trying to find solutions to face off with them," he said. "The present solutions we've been seeing, the present actions that have been taken, have not been successful if you watch.. Iraq and Syria."

Mr Hishammuddin also discussed the need to cooperate and step up efforts to deal with ISIS, in separate meetings with Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and United States Defence Secretary Ashton Carter yesterday.

asyiqins@sph.com.sg