Threatening Identity: The Rising Tide of Islamic Terrorism in Indonesia and Malaysia

Indonesian Special Detachment 88, a special forces counter-terrorism unit that has been praised for working with local communities on intelligence gathering. Photo Credit: Associated Press

By: Yuri Neves, Columnist

Long held as examples of moderate Islamic countries and successful multicultural societies, Malaysia and Indonesia are now facing a resurgent threat from Islamic terrorism. Despite past successes in combating extremists the tide of terrorism is steadily rising. Owing to local conditions and the global reach of ISIS, Malaysia and Indonesia are now facing a growing problem of extremism that could further destabilize the region.

In the last five years both Malaysia and Indonesia have seen an increase in terrorist activity. Following the 2002 Bali bombings the U.S. and Australia spent hundreds of millions to support counter-terrorism and police training in Indonesia. This included developing Indonesian Special Detachment 88, a special forces counter-terrorism unit that has been praised for working with local communities on intelligence gathering, and since 2010 the group has interrupted over 80 terrorist plots.[i] Despite these successes, a spate of attacks this May have called into question Indonesia’s security after more than 49 people were killed in a series of ISIS inspired attacks including several in Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya. The attacks were the worst Indonesia has experienced in the past decade,[ii] and perhaps more disturbingly, three of the attacks were suicide bombings carried out by an entire family, including children as young as eight and nine.[iii] These attacks demonstrate that there is an emerging risk of terrorism that takes inspiration from the recent developments in the global jihadi movement. Similarly, in Malaysia there has been a profound increase in terrorism related activities.

On June 28, 2016 Malaysia suffered its first terrorist attack carried out by Islamist extremists after two men threw a grenade into a bar near Kuala Lumpur. Eight people were injured in the attack, coordinated by a Malaysian ISIS fighter based in Syria.[iv] While this was one of the few successful attacks there have been numerous close calls since. In October of 2017 police officers arrested and charged a teenage boy with planning an attack on a beer festival in Kuala Lumpur. The plot showed a high degree of sophistication and sources were alarmed at the degree of detail in the bombs he created, the sophistication reportedly reminding security officials of those used in the 2002 Bali attacks. [v] In the last few weeks alone there have been a string of terrorism related arrests and convictions. In late August ten suspects were arrested for planning attacks in Melaka and Penang.[vi] On October 3rd a judge sentenced a night market trader to 36 months in jail for aiding terrorists and on the 6th police arrested eight men for suspected terrorist ties. Since 2013 police have arrested around 400 people for suspected links to terrorism.[vii] These events demonstrate the rising tide of terrorism in Malaysia and Indonesia. While most of these attacks had ties to ISIS regional and national factors that have also influenced this surge of terrorism.

In both Malaysia and Indonesia Islam has become politicized in the pursuit of political power. The dominant political party in Malaysia, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), was founded to defend Malay-Muslim supremacy in the country. While ethnicity has always been connected to national identity the UNMO has recently shifted to a tactic of linking Islam to the Malaysian identity and has done so by disparaging non-Muslims and asserting Malay dominance. In 2016 former UNMO President, Najib Razak, gave a speech in which he characterized the upcoming election as “an existential battle” between the UNMO and it’s Malay allies against the Chinese majority Democratic Action Party. He also accused the DAP of being anti-Islam and seeking to end Malay dominance in Malaysia.[viii]As other Malay majority parties try to compete with the UMNO they have also adopted tactics that serve to alienate ethnic and religious minorities and push the narrative that Malaysia’s Muslim identity is under attack by non-Muslims.[ix] There have been similar cases in Indonesia, most notably in the case of “Ahok” Purnama. Ahok, The Christian Chinese governor of Jakarta, was accused of blasphemy in 2015 after stating in a campaign speech that Imams were using Koranic verses to discriminate against Christian candidates. This resulted in widespread backlash and massive protests led by Islamic groups and led to his electoral defeat and later imprisonment on blasphemy charges in May of last year.[x] While Indonesia has widely been viewed as a success story, a free, democratic, multi-ethnic society in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, events such as these threaten this view. The rise of Islamist groups have done much to tarnish this image as Amnesty International’s Indonesia director has stated “The rise of sectarianism and the growing power of Islamist hard-liners in Indonesia has led to a decline in freedom of expression and freedom of belief”.[xi] While these conservative parties and groups, for the most part, have not carried out violence, their rhetoric has influenced the public discourse to normalize the exclusion of others and encourage attacks against “enemies” of Islam.

While the threat remains low compared to places like Syria and Iraq, there are several developments that could exacerbate the situation. After the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao in the Philippines there are now hundreds of battle hardened Malaysian and Indonesian fighters potentially seeking new places to wage jihad.[xii] In addition, porous borders and ungoverned regions in both countries present a problem in monitoring and cracking down on these fighters. There have been multiple cases of fighters travelling from Indonesia and Malaysia to the southern Philippines.[xiii] There are also a multitude of areas in the two countries that serve as training camps and staging areas for future attacks. In the interior of Sulawesi, Indonesia there have been reports of terrorist training camps where fighters from other regions, such as Uighurs from China’s restive Xinjiang province, have travelled to train.[xiv] In northwest Malaysian Borneo, the province of Sabah, long a hotbed of piracy, has also served as a departure point to those joining the militants in the Philippines.[xv] While recent monitoring and security measures have made a demonstrable impact, the relevant authorities will have to remain vigilant so that militants do not gain a foothold in the region.[xvi] There is a growing awareness on the need for security cooperation between the countries in the region and a coordinated effort to attack these transnational groups could pay dividends.[xvii] In the face of growing terrorist activity Malaysia and Indonesia need to create a multifaceted approach against extremism to maintain their reputations as tolerant, peaceful and democratic societies.












[i] Barton, Greg. 2018. “How Indonesia’s Counter-Terrorism Force Has Become a Model for the Region.” The Conversation. The Conversation. September 17, 2018.

[ii] Hincks, Joseph. 2018. “Indonesia Attacks: What to Know About the Wave of Bombings.” Time. Time. May 14, 2018.

[iii] Jones, Sidney. 2018. “How ISIS Has Changed Terrorism in Indonesia.” The New York Times. The New York Times. May 22, 2018.

[iv] Quackenbush, Casey. 2016. “Grenade Attack on a Malaysian Nightclub ‘Had ISIS Links’.” Time. Time. July 4, 2016.

[v] “Teen Terror Suspect in Malaysia Beer Festival Plot a Skilled Bomb-Maker, Source Says.” 2017. The Straits Times. October 19, 2017.

[vi] Chew, Amy. 2018. “Malaysian Police Arrest 10 Terror Suspects, Foil Planned Attacks in Melaka and Penang.” Channel NewsAsia. September 14, 2018.

[vii] Hassan, Hazlin. 2018. “8 Held in Malaysia for Suspected Terror Links.” The Straits Times. October 6, 2018.

[viii] Mahavera, Sheridan. 2017. “Najib Paints Enemy to Regain Support.” South China Morning Post. South China Morning Post. July 6, 2017.

[ix] Liow, Joseph Chinyong. 2016. “Malaysia’s ISIS Conundrum.” Brookings. Brookings. July 28, 2016.

[x] Emont, Jon. 2017. “Analysis | Jakarta’s Christian Governor Sentenced to Prison in Blasphemy Case.” The Washington Post. WP Company. May 9, 2017.

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Topsfield, Jewel. 2017. “Terror in Indonesia: The Threat Posed by Returning Islamic State Fighters.” The Sydney Morning Herald. The Sydney Morning Herald. September 23, 2017.

[xiii] Naidu, Sumisha. 2018. “Malaysia Arrests 10 Suspects for Helping Militants Enter Southern Philippines from Sabah.” Channel NewsAsia. February 21, 2018.

[xiv] Liow, Joseph Chinyong. 2017. “ISIS in the Pacific: Assessing Terrorism in Southeast Asia and the Threat to the Homeland.” Brookings. Brookings. May 10, 2017.

[xv] Naidu, Sumisha. 2018. “Malaysia Arrests 10 Suspects for Helping Militants Enter Southern Philippines from Sabah.” Channel NewsAsia. February 21, 2018.

[xvi] Hart, Michael. 2018. “Eastern Sabah: Malaysia’s Frontline Against Militancy.” The Diplomat. The Diplomat. February 1, 2018.

[xvii] Yusof, Zaihan Mohamed. “Exchanging Information Vital to Fight Terror in the Region: Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu.” The Straits Times. October 09, 2018. Accessed October 11, 2018.


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