Taliban Return May Revitalize Southeast Asian Terrorist Groups

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Taliban Return May Revitalize Southeast Asian Terrorist Groups

The Talibans takeover of Afghanistan was swift and thorough. The U.S. government’s $83 billion project of state-building failed spectacularly. And the U.S. military’s provision of $6 billion a year in security assistance proved meaningless, as Afghan security forces simply evaporated in the face of Taliban offensives, surrendering without a fight.

So what does this mean for Southeast Asian security? How will it impact Islamist militancy moving forward? Right now, there is no clear answer, but a look at recent history suggests the return of the Taliban could revitalize weakening terrorist networks in the region.

An intertwined history

Afghanistan has always played a part in the development of terrorist networks in Southeast Asia. Not many Southeast Asians traveled to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, but those that did returned to Southeast Asia and took over leadership of almost every militant Islamist group, including Jemaah Islamiyah, Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, and Laskar Jihad. These returnees were placed on pedestals and established madrassas that they used as centers of recruitment and indoctrination for the next generation of militant jihadists.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front broke away from the secular Moro National Liberation Front in 1984, and moved their headquarters to Lahore, Pakistan, where they deepened ties to transnational jihadists. By 1996, al-Qaeda was dispatching operatives to replicate at the local level their Afghan training camps.

Southeast Asian militants were increasingly being trained at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. And the results were devastating. One only has to look at the casualties of the 2002 Bali bombings to see the devastation that could be wrought by al-Qaeda-trained operatives.

Jemaah Islamiyah’s operations chief Hambali and al-Qaeda anthrax researcher Yazid Sufaat were in Afghanistan on 9/11 waiting to procure a virulent strain that could be produced in a Malaysian lab.

Southeast Asian militants played key roles in al-Qaeda operations, as well. A meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 2000 reviewed the failed attack on USS The Sullivans (January 2000), planned the USS Cole attack (October 2000), and made final preparations for the 9/11 attacks the following year.

Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, al-Qaedas operational chief, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, called for militants in Indonesia to launch a diversionary attack. The result was the Bali bombings that caused the death of 202 people.

Other attacks against U.S. interests were planned, including a bombing of U.S. naval vessels in the Singapore Strait. From 2002-2009, Jemaah Islamiyah was al-Qaeda’s most consistently lethal franchise.

With the initial defeat of the Taliban and much of al-Qaeda being driven from Afghanistan, in 2001-2002, the links between Southeast Asian militants and Afghanistan became more tenuous. Years of effective counterterrorist operations across Southeast Asia led to JIs collapse as a militant organization. It launched its last terrorist attack in 2011.

By 2014, the Islamic State, which had swept across Syria and Iraq, was the new shiny thing to attract the interests of regional militants. Former leaders and cells of the pro-al-Qaeda Jemaah Islamiyah defected to the Islamic state, and Southeast Asian militants began to travel to Syria to wage jihad. By November 2014, there were enough to establish a Bahasa-language-speaking company.

Now what?

What does the Taliban’s takeover mean for militancy in Southeast Asia?

At one level, it’s a clear propaganda victory. The Taliban and their Mujahidin antecedents can claim to have defeated two superpowers. Islamists will rejoice in that fact, alone. And it will inspire them to set their sights back on their own corruption-ridden governments, which they view as being propped up by the West.

We do not know if Afghanistan will return to being a terrorist safe haven. Some argue that al-Qaeda never left, and that the Taliban have not moderated their stance on the group one iota. Others contend that after been driven from power for 20 years, the Taliban have an incentive to make sure that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven again.

But the most important factor is not what happens in Afghanistan, but the terrorist trajectory in Southeast Asia. For the past seven years, pro-Islamic State groups have been the most consistently lethal terrorist organizations in the region. JI has quietly let them absorb the body-blows of the region’s security forces, who have been far more proactive with the Islamic State, far more willing to cooperate with regional partners, and armed with far greater legal powers and authorities. Pro-Islamic State groups, especially in Indonesia, are significantly weakened.

And Jemaah Islamiyah is waiting to pick up the pieces. It certainly has the financial resources to do so. They are stronger than they have been in years, as the state gave them ample space to regroup, run their madrassas, mosques, businesses, and charities.

Jemaah Islamiyah never renounced violence, waiting patiently for the appropriate time to resume terrorist operations. And unlike in parts of South Asia and the Middle East, things are much more fluid in Southeast Asia. Groups and individuals can move between groups without consequence.

What is very telling is that by July 2021, Indonesian security forces had already arrested over 30 members of Jemaah Islamiyah.

And of course, things in Iraq and Syria remain far from settled. Though the Islamic State has suffered reversals, it is far from a defeated force. They too, could regroup, one again drawing support from Southeast Asia. 

Arguably the greatest impact on regional security from the fall of Afghanistan will simply be a greater questioning of American reliability and commitment as an ally and security partner. The damage has been done, and this plays into the hands of Chinese propagandists who revel in sowing seeds of doubt regarding U.S. reliability.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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