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Is Southeast Asia at risk of becoming a terror hotbed?

A simulation handling of a terrorist attack in Indonesia.
Albert Damanik | Pacific Press | LightRocket | Getty Images
A simulation handling of a terrorist attack in Indonesia.

Southeast Asia faces growing risks from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) given its large Muslim population but strategists see several reasons why the region won't become a hotbed for terrorism.

For one, Southeast Asia lacks the military and logistical connections that Europe enjoys with the Middle East as a result of geographical proximity, said Justin Hastings, senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.

Like other parts of the world, terror groups in the region are mostly supporters of Al Qaeda or ISIS sympathizers. The most worrisome networks are in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia—home to the world's largest Muslim population. Within these three countries, more than 30 active groups have been pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, said Rohan Gunaratna, professor of security studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technology University.

While these local groups have inflicted damage, their reach remains limited for now.

"Generally speaking, the threat level from these regional groups is in the early stage, except for the immediate local area where they operate," explained Gunaratna.

There is a third category of terrorists, comprising of ethno-nationalists in southern Thailand and the communist New People's Army in the Philippines, but these aren't widely considered major threats.

"We've seen reports of 500 people from Indonesia and Malaysia going to Syria to fight, which is well below Europe's numbers, so the region is still at a nascent stage from that angle," pointed out Hastings, adding that the terror landscape has considerably weakened in recent years following a crackdown on Indonesian extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

If extremist sympathizers in other parts of the world began contacting regional groups, as people do so with ISIS, that would be a worrisome sign since it would mean Southeast Asia is becoming a viable alternative to the Middle East, Hastings said.

Because terror-related events in the region have been mostly low-level, tourism hasn't been impacted.

"It would have to be a really big attack in a very big visible location to hurt tourism. For example, the 2002 Bali bombings cost Indonesia 2 percent of GDP that year by some estimates," Hastings said. Around 202 people died from the explosion of two bombs placed by suspected JI members at popular bars and nightclubs on the tourist island.

Risks of a Paris-style attack

A series of highly-coordinated attacks in Paris last week by ISIS raised fears of similar events occurring in other capital cities. But Southeast Asia doesn't presently face an imminent threat of attack, according to Hastings.

"The Paris attacks will encourage regional groups but whether they can pull off a similar episode here is another question. They may be able to do so in the future but for now, it's a fairly steep learning curve."

Gunaratna echoed those sentiments, but was more cautious and advised officials to be on the alert. "Paris has emboldened ISIS personalities and networks because the attacks reinforce fundamentalist values and ideologies."

Government strategies

As world leaders gathered in Manila for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit this week, security was high on the agenda.

"Economics is the foundation of security.... [U.S. President] Obama is expected to focus on economic integration and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) at APEC and explain how those things are important to establishing a strategy to beat ISIS in Asia," noted Ernest Bower, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

After Paris, Southeast Asia will be looking to Washington for leadership on the fight against ISIS and the enhancement of intelligence sharing and co-operating on counter terrorism strategies, he said.

"Governments in this region must also prepare for hybrid-style attacks, not just individual, lone-wolf events attacks," Gunaratna said, referring to last week's suicide bombers and shooters in Paris.

Special attention must also be thrown on the sphere of social media, where ISIS supporters are prevalent, he said, urging religious leaders and officials to do more to combat ISIS' online presence.