×

The terror groups on Southeast Asia's doorstep

Armed members of the Philippines' Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
Jeoffrey Maitem | Getty Images
Armed members of the Philippines' Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

Even as the world reeled over the attacks in Paris last Friday, a terror group in the Philippines was likely preparing to behead Bernard Then Ted Fen.

The engineer, who had been kidnapped in May in the Malaysian state of Sabah, was reportedly killed in the jungles of the Philippines' Sulu province early this week, after militants from the Abu Sayyaf group received a smaller ransom payment than they demanded.

The killing, in the wake of the deadly events in Paris, has brought new attention to Southeast Asia's own terrorist networks, many of which are supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

While the region has seen a number of high-profile attacks in the past two decades, experts say its networks don't pose as great of a threat as those in neighboring South Asia. Still, lawmakers are paying close attention, especially to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines because they have the biggest terror groups, Control Risks told CNBC.

Here are the key facts on the region's major militant organizations:

Indonesia

Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) has long dominated the country's terror landscape, rising to international fame after it was blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings. Dedicated to establishing an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the region, the group is now largely dormant thanks to a decade-long police crackdown.

Following the clampdown, Indonesia's militant networks have become fragmented, with the launch of a JI splinter group called the Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) in 2008 and a JAT faction called the Jamaah Ansharusy Syariah (JAS) in 2014. While both call for implementation of the Shariah, i.e. Islamic law, they are divided regarding their stance towards ISIS.

Members of both groups remain at large but analysts aren't too worried.

"When looking at JAT, we must be conscious that it is a divided movement and it will hardly pose any threat to Indonesia's stability," according to a research paper from the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (IEEE) this year.

One of the country's top terrorists is a man known as Santoso, formerly of JAT, according to Control Risks.

"Based in Sulawesi, he has developed a reputation for being a key militant-trainer. He has managed to elude capture from authorities for the past few years and militants from within and outside Indonesia have continued to travel to Sulawesi to contact him," the consultancy said.

Well-known radical clerics such as JAT leader Abu Bakr Bashir and ISIS supporter Aman Abdurrahman are currently jailed but remain influential due to Indonesia's prison system, which does little to deter extremist recruitment.

"Due to overcrowding and limited resources, Indonesian prison officials struggle to isolate jihadist inmates from the general jail population ...Numerous inmates have been converted to Islamic militancy in jail after coming under the influence of terrorist detainees," according to a September report by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Philippines

Islamist militants here are mostly located in the Muslim-majority southern provinces, especially the Mindanao island group.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is one of the largest groups that seek an independent Islamic state within the Philippines. MILF has been in peace negotiations with the government over the past year, which could see Manila agree to give Muslims on Mindanao more autonomy. However, there could be an uptick in violence if the deal falls through, warned Control Risks.

Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) is a breakaway faction from MILF with the same goals but it has conducted attacks to discourage the latter's peace treaty. The group has been weakened by internal divisions however, with the death of its founder Ameril Umbra Kato this year.

Abu Sayyaf is an Al-Qaeda-inspired group and although it started out with the goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate, it's developed a more commercial focus, as seen by a series of cross-border kidnappings for ransom money to buy arms.

Overall, the ISIS danger to the Philippines is small, Ahmed Hashim, associate professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technolgical University, wrote in a report this year. Presently, "none of the small militant groups have the capabilities to establish a functioning caliphate," he said.

Meanwhile, the communist New People's Army is the guerrilla arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines. While not a high-level threat, they are one of the main non-Islamic groups with a reach spanning across the country, as opposed to the Muslim extremists whose strongholds are in the southern provinces, Control Risks explained.

Malaysia

Unlike Indonesia and the Philippines, Malaysia lacks a history of terrorism, but there are still active militant cells in the country. Overall, though, the risks aren't as high as its neighbors due to Kuala Lumpur's robust counter-terrorism framework.

Tanzim Al-Qaeda Malaysia, or Al-Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago, is a splinter group of JI, with experienced operatives throughout South Asia and the Middle East. Six suspects were arrested earlier this month.

The Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia was initially an organization set up to overthrow former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government but it also nourished dreams of establishing a caliphate and had strong links with southern Thailand, but is believed to be largely defunct now.

Darul Islam Sabah is another such Muslim extremist group that is mainly active in the Sabah province, with links to Abu Sayyaf.

These three groups have come back to public attention amid news reports of efforts to formalize a sort of pro-ISIS coalition in Southeast Asia, together with groups in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Thailand

The country's Muslim-dominated southern region on the Malaysian border has been engaged in a decade-long conflict over autonomy with the government. But unlike its neighbors, Thailand's conflict isn't a religious one, with independence more driven by racial and socio-economic issues.

This greatly reduces the likelihood of insurgents being drawn to the ISIS cause, according to experts.

"The revival of violence in Thailand's Deep South has spurred fears that radical extremists will make their presence felt there as they have in other conflict zones such as Syria. That fear remains overblown. Other than a handful of training manuals downloaded from the Internet, there have been few proven links to any international movement, including Jemaah Islmaiyah or the Islamic State," a June report by military academy WestPoint concluded.

Meanwhile, the bombing of a popular Bangkok shrine in August this year that killed 20 people has yet to be linked to any terror group. Two foreign passport holders, one Turkish and one Chinese, have allegedly confessed to the crime and their case is currently awaiting trial, but their motive remains unconfirmed.