There are fears that terror in South-east Asia, previously stoked by fighters from the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, is now being shaped by those fighting under the flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The jitters were heightened by the battle in Marawi city between the Philippine military and an ISIS-linked group. Taking parts of the city, the militants killed innocent civilians and took hostages. The brutal audacity of the group, in facing off against an army brigade, spawned worries that ISIS' influence might spread in the region, especially with the return of hardened militants from the Middle East, and that the phenomenon of ISIS might inspire Islamist groups and lone wolves.
Such apprehensions are capable of both being overblown and not taken seriously enough. First, South-east Asia is vastly different from the Middle East where ISIS has made a great impact. Notwithstanding the existence of a Malay-speaking wing of ISIS, Katibah Nusantara, the central group has not formally expressed an intention of migrating to South-east Asia. Further, the authorities in the region have been generally active in guarding against the rise of terror as the danger is obvious. The first ISIS-inspired event in South-east Asia in Jakarta last year was not a mass casualty attack, as the militants were deterred by tight security at a larger target in the area. Indeed, if the large-scale struggles spawned by ISIS in the Middle East - marked by barbaric acts of beheading - were to be replicated in the region, it would transform South-east Asia from a crucible of growth to a high-risk zone that would condemn all to years of insecurity and uncertainty. However, such a scenario is unlikely.
That said, other forms of terrorism in the region should not be dismissed as these have a long history. The radicalism of the Darul Islam Indonesia movement (Islamic State of Indonesia) has not been entirely wiped out. Under former president Suharto, Islamist hardliners were effectively constrained but, in recent times, they have resurfaced and infiltrated educational institutions and the bureaucracy. The last decade saw the rise of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which was behind the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005. As a result of signal threats arising from the Middle East, JI was later given public space to denounce ISIS which it loathes. But JI and other hardline groups are also capable of violence and division.
These risks are higher in societies where a "climate of religious conservatism and intolerance has created fertile conditions for ISIS ideology to gain popularity", as a commentator has noted. In vying for appeal across a broader plane, even mainstream groups might try to "out-Islam" each other. Blinded by political expediency, they fail to see that the main antidote to the poison of rising radicalism is resilient pluralism.