By Siddharth Anil Nair*
The COVID-19 pandemic has helped induce ceasefires in a range of conflict zones around the world. This is not true, however, for Southeast Asia, which has witnessed an overall uptick in terror and counter-terror operations.
What this uptick looks like depends on the pandemic’s impact on both terror and counter-terror dynamics. On an average, the pandemic has left terror groups scattered and underfunded, with state authorities emerging dominant. This commentary will examine the impact in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Myanmar, as these countries represent a range of terror activity in the region.
Terror Operations in 2020
Even though the number of terror-related incidents this year has fallen relative to earlier years, there have been a number of low-intensity operations (LIO) across Southeast Asia, ranging from beheadings to isolated attacks on police and army personnel.
Terror groups, now confined to certain localities, hamstrung by nationwide lockdowns and active surveillance, and unable to conduct training operations due to the loss of appropriate venues, have begun to make greater use of the online space. The repatriation of Islamic State (IS) fighters from Syria and Iraq, along with the IS’s view that the “coronavirus pandemic [is] a punishment of God against the tawagheet (idol tyrants) and disbelievers,” has spurred affiliates such as the Jama’ah Anshorut Daulah (JAD) and the Mujahideen of Eastern Indonesia (MIT) to issue fatwas against the government.
Groups have increased propaganda and recruitment drives by using social media and their own online platforms to influence lone-wolf attacks and pass on bomb-making skills. The experience in Myanmar remains an outlier, with frequent, large-scale encounters between the Tatmadaw and insurgent groups, particularly those of the Brotherhood Alliance.
LIOs such as the attack on a police post in Indonesia’s South Kalimantan, or the drive-by shooting that killed two policemen in the Philippines’ Sulu province, are low risk but advantageous ways to maintain a presence in the eyes of the authorities and civilians. Along with LIOs, some groups – most notably the MIT – have turned to organising social movements and outreach programmes distributing supplies to the needy and poor. Protests and sit-ins against the government or perceived foreign enemies (such as China and Chinese businesses) organised by terror groups were a common occurrence in the beginning of 2020.
In response to a fall in global terror funding, groups have resorted to raids on villages, cargo ships, and military arms convoys. Others in more urban settings have targeted local banks and other financial institutions. Smaller militias have continued with their main source of income: kidnapping and ransom tactics. Myanmar stands out once again, with recent investigations in the northern Shan State revealing the minimal impact the pandemic has had on drug production and smuggling operations.
Counter-Terror Operations in 2020
Most states in Southeast Asia perceive the pandemic first as a security issue, and then a health emergency. There are therefore not many impediments to the execution of counter-terror strategies, which has led to a higher level of militarisation.
Following the efforts of the Philippines’ Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) and the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), a number of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) fighters in the country have either surrendered or been assassinated.
Likewise, Indonesia’s National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT), along with local police, has ramped up its raid and capture/kill operations across all Indonesian provinces, while simultaneously setting up larger intelligence-sharing mechanisms with neighbouring countries. This has resulted in the seizures of record quantities of arms, ammunition, and home-made explosives. Finally, the Tatmadaw has continued high-intensity shelling missions and air raids against groups such as the Arakan Army.
Anti-terror legislation across countries—including regulations for financial crimes and online surveillance— have also undergone changes. In the Philippines, the 2007 Human Security Act has been replaced with the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, which removes a number of checks and safeguards against unlawful rules-of-engagement and human rights abuses. In Indonesia, a presidential decree has extended counter-terror operations to the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), and the Peoples’ Consultative Assembly has revamped financial crimes regulations to meet international standards. Similarly, in Myanmar, barring the dependence on kinetic operations, there have been changes to anti-money laundering regulations. A change across the board is greater use of existing Internet and financial crimes regulation laws sheathed in anti-terror legislation.
From the state’s perspective, the employment of LIOs by terror groups will continue to be a key challenge given the minimal planning and equipment required to execute them. The other challenge is the redirection of policing and emergency response infrastructure towards managing the pandemic.
Terror groups now have an opportunity to recuperate and reconsolidate their capabilities for larger operations in the future. However, with greater population controls and active surveillance as a result of the pandemic, states seeking to dismantle such groups have the opportunity to do so—kinetically, through intelligence operations, and the tightening of legislation.
*Siddharth Anil Nair is Research Intern with the Sout East Asia Research Programme (SEARP) at IPCS.