Warwick ASEAN Conference

The New Threat of Religious Extremism in South-East Asia

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.



For four years now, the rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has disrupted much of the normalcy of daily life throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. Their violent attempts at establishing a worldwide Islamic caliphate based in Syria, as well as the countless terror attacks executed all over the world in their name have caused widespread paranoia and xenophobia. However, bar the few small-scale attacks in Jakarta in the last two years, South-East Asia has been, in relative terms, spared the bulk of the brunt of ISIS. Despite housing the largest Muslim-majority population in the world, the threat of religious extremism and terror attacks has always felt distant, leading to a false sense of security around the region. All that changed in May 2017, when Abu Sayyaf militants backed by ISIS themselves laid siege on the city of Marawi in southern Philippines, occupying territory and instigating a military conflict. The problem now simply cannot be ignored, and South-East Asia and ASEAN as a collective must cooperate and stay united more than ever before if this crisis is not to be the foundations of a new region-wide security disaster.

On 23 May 2017, the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group laid siege on the southern Philippine city of Marawi, leading to a full-blown military conflict that has only recently been declared won by the Philippine government. It all started when the Philippines military launched an operation to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of Abu Sayyaf. They met with unexpectedly fierce resistance and in retaliation, the militant coalition (initially made up of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups), armed with 400-500 men and sophisticated weapons, stormed the city of Marawi and captured key installations including the city hospital and the city hall. They took a priest and his congregation hostage, freed prisoners and set fire to buildings. In response, the Philippine military deployed thousands of troops to recapture the city, waging an aerial bombing campaign and employing conventional urban clearing tactics. However, they were found to be grossly underprepared for fighting in urban, built-up areas, as well as for the strength of the opposition with their vast supply of resources and their familiarity with the terrain. The bloody military conflict that ensued has taken the lives of 962 militants, 165 Philippine soldiers and 87 civilians, with the death toll potentially rising still. Much of the city is in ruins, and much of the population has been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in nearby towns and camps. To date, 180,000 people have been evacuated and 1.1 million have been displaced from their homes, with most them having to live in poor and cramped conditions in evacuation centres and tents.


The Abu Sayyaf militant group, along with the Maute group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and Ansar Khalifa Philippines, all extremist Islamic terror organisations operating in southern Philippines, pledged their loyalty to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Led by a certain Isnilon Hapilon, the group has terrorised the Mindanao area for decades with acts of piracy, kidnapping, extortions and bombings. Just this year they beheaded a German hostage and in 2016 they killed two Canadians. But while they have hitherto only engaged in small-scale fighting and terror attacks, the militants, now the regional arm of ISIS, have set their sights on securing territory and establishing an Islamic caliphate in South-East Asia. Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, quickly declared martial law in the region when the fighting began, which was set to last until the end of the year. It effectively replaced civilian government with the armed forces in Mindanao, and heavily restricts civil liberties, legitimising arrests and detentions simply on the suspicion of criminal activity, without trial.

The Marawi conflict is not only the biggest setback in the fight against religious extremism in South-East Asia since the Bali bombings of 2002, but has also showcased a new modus operandi of extremist religious militant groups here. They are not content with simply causing chaos within society and targeting tourist hotspots in retaliation against western ideology; they want to secure territory and establish their “Islamic state” in the region to spread their twisted interpretation of Islam. And while ISIS has been increasingly forced into retreat in the Middle East, developments here are encouraging signs for their leadership. Home to 15% of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims, South-East Asia is potentially the perfect environment for them to base their operations and recruit new members. If successfully captured and defended, Marawi could set a precedent for future ISIS operations in the region, and accelerate their twisted, violent propaganda, giving them the opportunity to market their “jihad” as an attractive proposition to susceptible and radicalised individuals.

Even if the prospect of the Philippines becoming the next Iraq or Syria is at present unthinkable, one does not have to look hard to find evidence of religious extremism breeding in South-East Asia. According to a report by the Carnegie Council, up to 1000 South-East Asians have travelled to Iraq and Syria in recent years to support ISIS. More than 100 Southeast Asians are also believed to have died fighting in the Middle East, many from Indonesia. Many of these fighters would return to the region with expertise and ideological commitment to spread, causing a problem that is extremely difficult to monitor and manage, even with advanced surveillance and security measures. The fact that so many attacks claimed by ISIS have been executed by lone wolf self-radicalised individuals only compounds the problem.

ASEAN must counter this threat together, as any major terror attack or military conflict will disrupt not only our daily functions and trade, but also social harmony and peace within the region. Countries must combine their efforts against this imminent threat by conducting joint military and police exercises, intelligence sharing as well as improve communication and coordination at the strategic and policy level to ensure that those want to fight for a twisted ideology do not have a place in society or indeed anywhere in the region. For example, the annual ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM), having led to regional cooperation for humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations or maritime security issues, should discuss ways to more decisively foil cross-border terror threats and weed out areas prone to religious radicalisation. Beyond strategic action, ASEAN citizens must also stay united in the face of attempts by religious hardliners to divide society and spread xenophobia. There must be a clear line drawn between religion and using a perverted interpretation of it to propagate violence, and in the case of an attack, people must exercise psychological resilience and show the community spirit that brought ASEAN together and led it to prosper in the first place.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail will not be published. All required Fields are marked

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.