Counter-terrorism in Asia: The state partnership with civil society organizations

Rohan Gunaratna


In the spectrum of conflict in ASEAN space, insurgency and terrorism is preceded by extremism and exclusivism. The strategy to prevent violent extremism (PVE) is to engage extremists living amidst communities. Likewise, the strategy to counter violent extremism (CVE) is to engage in rehabilitation to deradicalizc terrorists. Working in the pre-insurgcncy and pre-terrorism space is complex but cost-effective. Implementing PVE and CVE strategies requires governments to collaborate with a range of partners, especially civil society organizations, to reach out, influence and shape the human terrain.

An indispensable weapon in the fight against terrorism and extremism is rehabilitation and community engagement. Unless governments work with partners to rehabilitate terrorists and extremists, they will pose a threat to security, spread their ideology, and will be hailed as heroes. With terrorism and extremism emerging as the tier-one national security threat, it is vital for governments to restore stability and security by developing rehabilitation programmes for inmates and engagement programmes for radicalized individuals in the community.

The Southeast Asian region has recognized the significance of rehabilitation, but not all the countries challenged by terrorism have succeeded in developing rehabilitation capabilities. While Malaysia and Singapore developed comprehensive and structured programmes, Indonesia and the Philippines developed ad hoc and unstructured programmes. Although the capabilities differed from country to country, ten modes of rehabilitation are practiced in the region. These are: (1) religious; (2) social and family; (3) educational; (4) vocational; (5) entrepreneurial; (6) cultural; (7) financial; (8) creative arts; (9) recreational; and 10) psychological.

The context

A new wave of terrorism and extremism is currently affecting Southeast Asia. From the western edge of the Rakhinc to the eastern edge of Mindanao, ethnopolitical, politico-religious and left-/right-wing ideologies challenge the security landscape of the region. Unprecedented in its scale, magnitude and the intensity of threat, governments alone cannot cope with the present-day situation. The key is for government to build partnerships with the community organizations, the private sector and academia to prevent the radicalization of communities and build community resilience among its vulnerable segments.

As Southeast Asia has no coordinated policy, plan, and strategy, this project will research the current and emerging developments of IS in Southeast Asia following the siege of Marawi. Although ASEAN leaders were determined to fight terrorism, Southeast Asians have not yet understood that terrorism is a vicious by-product of extremism. If we are to prevent terrorism in the region, we need to map the relationships between exclusivism and extremism and, in turn, between extremism and terrorism. In the region, governments and non-governmental partners have done some work but much more has to be done.

Today, Southeast Asia’s military forces, law enforcement authorities and national security agencies arc overwhelmed. The Islamic State (IS) is transforming from a caliphate-building group to a global terrorist movement. Despite its defeat in Mosul, Iraq on 9 July 2017 and Raqqa, Syria on 17 October 2017, IS is evolving into a deadly movement by linking up with local groups across the world. In Southeast Asia alone, 63 groups pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled “caliph” and IS leader. Operating in both the physical and virtual spaces, IS cells, networks and groups have a different risk threshold (Gunaratna 2018).

In Southeast Asia, Muslims are moderate, tolerant and value coexistence. However, a fraction of Southeast Asians embraced foreign ideologies from the conflict regions of South Asia and the Middle East. The Southeast Asian recruits entering Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and other theatres are diminishing. In its strategy of decentralization, as the Marawi siege (May-November 2017) demonstrated, IS seeks to destabilize Southeast Asia. Although IS was unable to replenish its core battlefield losses and wastage, every month Indonesians and Malaysians continue to travel to the Philippines to join IS-centric groups. Although IS is primarily an Arab movement, Arabs constitute only 20 percent of the Muslim world, and IS is now expanding into Asia, a region hosting 63 percent of the world’s Muslim population. To assert wherever Muslims live, IS-designated and unofficial propagandists arc reaching out to vulnerable segments of the Muslim communities. Exploiting encrypted communication platforms and harnessing its returnees, IS is making inroads into existing and emerging conflict zones, including Mindanao, Sulawesi, Pattani and Rakhine. After networking and uniting disparate groups, IS created groupings appointing leaders. Through its local entities, IS is either consolidating in or expanding to parts of Southeast Asia.

Contrary to public perception, the rising regional threat is not confined to politico-religious extremism. Although Muslim threat groups present a formidable threat, the Buddhist extremists in Myanmar have displaced a million Rohingya. Both Al-Qaeda and IS seeks to radicalize and recruit Rohingyas.

Similarly, the communist insurgents in the Philippines present a challenge comparable to those posed by the Muslim and Buddhist extremists. To manage the existing and emerging politico-religious, ethnopolitical and left-/ right-wing conflicts, the region needs to adopt a comprehensive counter-terrorism framework. Southeast Asian governments need to think regionally and ASEAN needs to develop a regional policy, plan and strategy which should include strengthening existing and fostering new rehabilitation and community engagement initiatives.


With the rise of contemporary terrorism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Southeast Asia faced two waves of Jihadist threats - the Al-Qae-da-centric wave in the 1990s and 2000s and the IS-centric wave in 2010s. Southeast Asians participated in the insurgent and terrorist campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and later in Iraq and Syria. Southeast Asia suffered from Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, notably JI after Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia trained Southeast Asian recruits. However, the returnees were not monitored and not rehabilitated. They formed a dozen threat groups and posed a threat by working with Al-Qaeda and IS. The region dealt with the Al-Qa-eda-ccntric threat reactively in the 2000s. This framework of response continued all the way up to 2017. Thus, until the siege of Marawi in May 2017, the governments in the region fought the IS-centric threat using the same foundation that they had established to battle the Al-Qaeda-centric threat.

However, as the threat landscape has demonstrated, this mode of response is outdated due to IS’ remarkable ability to adapt to an evolving situation. With a depleting strength of an estimated 5000 IS fighters in Syria today, down from 50,000 fighters in 2015, the group is no longer capable of holding territory in its heartland in Iraq. However, to compensate for its battlefield losses, IS is reinventing and expanding globally, in both cyber and physical space. In Southeast Asia, IS has evolved from a semi-conventional force in Marawi to an above-ground extremist and an underground terrorist network. With its continuous recruitment both in the real and virtual spaces, IS will sustain itself.

The threat in Southeast Asia is an extension of the developments in South Asia and in the Middle East. With the IS centre of gravity shifting from Iraq and Syria to overseas, IS is decentralizing by forging ideological and operational affiliations with regional cells, networks and groups. With IS fragmenting, multiple centres of IS power are emerging in the Middle East, Africa, the Caucasus and in Asia, including in Southeast Asia. In addition to consolidating the groups that pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Bagh-dadi, IS seeks to survive in the established external wilayats (provinces) in Libya (Barqa, Fezzan and Tripoli), Egypt (Sinai), Nigeria (Gharb Iriqiyyah), Afghanistan and Pakistan (Khorasan), Russian Caucasus (Qawqaz), Yemen (Al-Ycmcn), Algeria (Al-Jazair) and Saudi Arabia (Najd, Hijaz and Bahrain).

Operating out of these hubs, foreign fighters are likely to cross borders and strike the enemies of IS. Over a dozen foreign fighters operated in Southeast Asia during the Marawi Siege, many originating from these IS bastions.

Apart from IS, it is also important to note that AQ still plays an important role in the region given that Southeast Asia has been the traditional playing field of Al-Qaeda. Several threat groups, from JI to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), are active. Although JI appears dormant, through its factions including neo-JI, the ideology of the group persists. Despite the fact that Southeast Asians do not serve in the Al-Qaeda in Syria coalition, together with Al-Qaeda central and its affiliates, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) provides inspiration and hope to Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the region. Led by the former Al-Qaeda in Syria commander Abu Mohammed Al-Julani, HTS maintains a strength of at least 20,000 fighters and competes with IS. Al-Qaeda central, led by Aymcn al Zawahiri, is operationally weak but ideologically present and rivals both the IS and Assad regimes. Although the IS threat is imminent, Al-Qaeda constituents present a long-term threat and the ideology driving both these groups and personalities needs to be physically and psychologically dismantled. Against this backdrop, I provide an account of rehabilitation programmes that can also be implemented across other countries.


The rehabilitation of terrorists and extremists in Malaysia was implemented after the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001. The programme was designed in the Kamunting Detention Centre in Taiping, where the communists were also rehabilitated. Laura Khor wrote: “The Malaysian concept of detainee rehabilitation can be traced to the Malayan Emergency, which was a colonial idea and program further developed and adapted to address both Islamic radicalization and provide pathways for terrorist disengagement. The intelligence philosophy and successfill policies in the Malayan Emergency served as ‘lessons learned’ for current Malaysian officials who have adapted them to achieve intelligence and counter-terrorism success” (Khor, The Colonial Foundations of Malaysia’s Terrorist Rehabilitation Program 2013b).

The Internal Security Act (ISA) is a mechanism developed to fight communist insurgency, which has been inherited from the British. Although developing intelligence was not the aim, “the program”, Khor added: “affords intelligence officers long-term contact and dialogue with detainees to understand their pathways into terrorist groups and organizations. The rehabilitation program separates the more ‘hard-line’ from the wavering terrorists, which eases information gathering for Malaysian Special Branch. This separation also minimizes radicalization within the rehabilitation program” (Khor, The Colonial Foundations of Malaysia’s Terrorist Rehabilitation Program 2013b).

The ISA enabled Malaysia to preventively detain its terrorists and extremists until it was abolished in 2011. Since 1948, Malaysia claimed, it had rehabilitated 15,000 insurgents, terrorists and extremists in the country, with a success rate of97.5 percent (Hamidi 2016).

The region, including Malaysia, witnessed the steadfast rise of Muslim threat groups in the 1990s after their nationals returned from Afghanistan. After fighting communism from 1948 to 1989, Malaysia witnessed the above-mentioned two phases of threats - the Al-Qaeda-centric and the ISIS/IS-centric threat. In the first phase, 196 Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), Al-Qaeda (AQ), Darul Islam (DI) and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members were arrested in Malaysia and most of these individuals were rehabilitated and reintegrated under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

ISA 1960 provides powers to stop and prevent any action taken and to end the threats. It also provides powers for preventive detention in the name of national security. Section 73(3) of ISA 1960 empowers the police to detain a person for a maximum of 60 days. Until it was attacked by Al-Qaeda on September 11,2001, the United States criticized ISA; after opening a detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, however, it refrained from commenting on the use of the ISA.

Formed in Kuala Lumpur in April 1996 to create an Islamic State in Malaysia, Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (Kumpulan Militant Malaysia: KMM) attempted to use force to change the ruling government. Like Al-Qaeda and JI, KMM also disagreed with the democracy system. KMM was founded by Zainon bin Ismail (alias C.N. Afghani), a primary school teacher in the late 1970s who joined PAS. He was then involved in Islamic movements. Having trained, fought and served with the Taliban as a Mujahidin in Afghanistan, he returned to Malaysia and voluntarily took care of the members and their families after the Memali incident (19 November 1985). He established the KMM, along with other group members, to protect PAS in order to wrest power from the ruling party. The PAS leader’s son, Nik Adli Nik Abdul Aziz, was also arrested under the Internal Security Act 1960 on 4 August 2001 for his involvement as a KMM leader. He was released on 18 October 2006. Currently, he lives in Kota Bharu, Kelantan and rears goats.

For both new and existing members, KMM conducted training in Malaysia, beginning in June 1999, on firearms handling and jungle navigation in Bruas, Perak. Of its 84 KMM members, 42 members had trained in Afghanistan and many others trained in Malaysia and the Philippines. Its strongest branch in Selangor (with 32 members) collaborated with JI and Al-Qaeda. The Malaysian Special Branch (MSB), the intelligence arm of the Royal Malaysian Police, dismantled KMM after its operatives failed to rob the Southern Bank in PJ, Selangor on 18 May 2001. KMM had conducted a number of other attacks, but they remained undetected. On 25 October 2000, the group attacked a Hindu temple in Puduraya, Kuala Lumpur. Shortly after, on 4 November 2000, it conducted the assassination of Dr Joe Fernandez, and on 4 February 2001, they conducted an attack on Gua Ccm-pedak Police Station in Kedah to steal weapons. In parallel, KMM worked with JI and even al Qaeda to mount attacks in Singapore, Indonesia and beyond. An Afghan veteran from Malaysia, Zulkifli Abdhir (alias Marwan alias Musa bin Abd Kliir) was involved in Ji’s planning to blow up the US Embassy in Singapore by hiding 160 packets of ammonium nitrate ordered by Yazid Sufaat at his father’s house in Muar, Johor in October 2000.

Both Zulkifli and Marwan were involved in the JI Christmas bombings on several churches in Indonesia in December 2000. Between November 2000 and January 2001, together with seven members of KMM, Zulkifli went to Poso, Indonesia to fight in the Christian-Muslim conflict and also attacked a church. In March 2001, Zulkifli gave 20 detonators to JI member Zid Zaharani Bin Mohamad Isa in Kuala Lumpur for the planned attack on US soldiers visiting Malaysia. Although Zulkifli escaped, other KMM members were arrested and rehabilitated under ISA.

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