Like the stirring of a hornet’s nest — as an expert here put it — the imminent defeat of Islamist militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi could pose a bigger problem further down the road, terrorism analysts said yesterday.
What was previously largely contained in the Philippines could escalate into a security nightmare for the region if the militants regroup in other areas near the Sulu Sea such as eastern Malaysia, and parts of Indonesia, said S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) research fellow Graham Ong-Webb.
Dr Rohan Gunaratna, who heads RSIS’ International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, also warned that if “regional governments fail to contain the threat, (the problem) will spill over into Singapore”.
The Philippine military said yesterday it was close to retaking Marawi, which was held for a seventh day by the militants. More than 100 people have been killed, most of them militants, according to the military, and most of the city’s residents have fled.
Last month, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam underscored the growing terrorist threat in Singapore’s backyard, and warned that the southern Philippines, which is less than a four-hour flight away from Singapore, was becoming a sanctuary for returning fighters from the Middle East and from where attacks could be launched on South-east Asia.
Speaking at an international exhibition on homeland security held here, Mr Shanmugam noted that, with the Islamic State (IS) losing ground in Iraq and Syria, the “potential locus of the threat” could move closer to home.
Similarly, there could be unintended fallout from the efforts of the Philippine authorities to drive the militants, who consist of both local and foreign fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, out of their country.
Dr Graham Ong-Webb noted that if the militants were “pushed to a corner”, they could flee the Philippines, and “find pockets elsewhere” to re-establish themselves. Using an analogy of a hornet’s nest, he pointed out that when the nest is provoked, the hornets “either attack, or … surrender, die fighting, or … fly to another location to rebuild their nest”.
Given its size, Indonesia, for example, could potentially provide hideouts for fleeing militants to reorganise and hit back, with the help of traditional insurgents which could morph into terrorist groups “if they find it to be in their interest”.
“It is difficult (for Indonesia) to consolidate internal security, and there (could be) pockets of insecurity, or lawlessness,” said Dr Ong-Webb.
Assoc Prof Kumar Ramakrishna, head of Policy Studies and coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme at RSIS, noted that West and Central Java, as well as Central Sulawesi, may be “fertile socioeconomic and political ground for IS ideology to take root”. He also cited southern Thailand, where there is an ongoing insurgency. While the Thai-Muslim separatists have been “not that interested” in broader agendas such as those perpetuated by Al Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiyah, the insurgency in southern Thailand could provide a source of weapons for IS cells in Malaysia, Assoc Prof Kumar said.
Assoc Prof Kumar said the Mindanao region “has arguably been a weak link for decades”. The fighting in Marawi, which is located on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, confirmed Mr Shanmugam’s concerns, he added.
The analysts reiterated that Singapore is a prime target for terrorists, and the fierce fighting that broke out in Marawi showed that Singapore should not take security for granted.
“Singapore is a symbol of financial and economic success, any successful attack on Singapore by terrorists would be deemed a terrorists’ jackpot,” said Assoc Prof Antonio Rappa, who heads the Management and Security Studies programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. Last week, a suicide bombing at a Jakarta bus station killed at least three policemen and injured 12 others. The IS has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Each successful attack in the region would embolden the terrorists, said Assoc Prof Rappa. “The weak links lie outside Singapore’s borders. In the neighbouring states, there is often a lack of sufficient public education and a high amount of security complacency,” he said.
Lauding the establishment of the SGSecure movement, Dr Gunaratna said Singapore “should work to create competencies in the region to fight the threat”, and beef up defences against IS’ online propaganda. “The Government of Singapore needs to play a greater role to build the offshore counter terrorism operational capabilities,” he said.