In November last year, at the general assembly of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in Malaysia, a video was shown. It was the first minute of footage showing a beheading carried out by ISIS.
The screening was a volte-face from a few months earlier, when Prime Minister Najib had implored his UMNO to be brave like ISIS fighters had been in combating the Iraqi army, no doubt influenced by the foiling of an ISIS-inspired plot to target nightclubs and a Carlsberg brewery in Malaysia.
The ruling UMNO is trying to balance Malaysia's fragile social make-up. Malaysia, like states everywhere, now fears the impact of ISIS.
The horrors of ISIS have reverberated across Southeast Asia. Buddhist extremists in Myanmar are using the barbarism of the group to justify its Islamaphobia, as are some Thais in that country's long running conflict against Muslim insurgents in the south. But the biggest impact, and where concern is understandably deepest, is in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, where jihadi groups have long had a foothold. Some of these groups have declared bai'at (allegiance) to ISIS, including Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and Mujahidin Indonesia Timor and Jamaah Anshorul Tauhid in Indonesia (causing a split in the latter group, explained here and here).
ISIS, through its slick media outfit, has made strong overtures to Southeast Asians to join its ranks. This was perhaps most evident in the full back-page photo of Southeast Asians in Issue 4 of the group's glossy Dabiq Magazine. In any other magazine this would be prime real-estate for advertising. In ISIS's magazine, it was a call to arms.
The number of Indonesians going to fight in Syria and Iraq has already surpassed that which went to Afghanistan between 1985-1994, says expert Sidney Jones. The experience these fighters gained during that period was brought home to Indonesia, in effect producing an 'Afghanistan alumni'. The fear now is of a returning 'ISIS alumni'. Estimates vary but in December 2014 the country's National Counter Terror Agency chief said that 514 Indonesians had traveled to Iraq and Syria (he did not specify how many had joined ISIS). In Malaysia the number of known ISIS recruits is approximately 40 and in the Philippines about 200. (By comparison, in February Australia reported that 110 citizens had traveled to join ISIS, of whom 20 have been killed).
Another often overlooked concern arises from the number of Southeast Asian migrant workers already living in the Middle East. The Philippines alone had an estimated 2.5 million citizens working in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE as of 2012. These Southeast Asians could become both recruits or targets for ISIS.
Unsurprisingly, Southeast Asian states have spent plenty of time brainstorming and implementing new measures to curb recruitment.
As terrorism expert Greg Barton noted recently, 'we have the hard side of counter-terrorism right...where we are dropping the ball (or not picking it up) is in case managing individuals'. This appears to be increasingly true in Southeast Asian states, with a few exceptions.
Gaps in enforcement are being patched up. Malaysia will introduce a new security bill in March. Najib controversially repealed the Internal Security Act in 2011. The new Prevention of Terrorism Bill will likely cover much of what was repealed in the ISA.
Increased regional cooperation in counter-terrorism has been boosted through stronger information sharing on suspect Southeast Asian citizens traveling through the region. In attempts to fly under the radar, Malaysian recruits had been traveling to Indonesia before heading to Syria, and coming home the same way. Others passed through or come from Brunei and the Philippines. China is worried that its citizens are also using such travel routes to Syria; Kuala Lumpur said 300 Chinese militants had used Malaysia as a transit point to join ISIS. So border control is being enhanced, proof of which came in December 2014 when at least a dozen Indonesians bound for Syria were stopped by Malaysian border police.
Indonesian security services have kept a close watch on its known jihadi groups. As a September 2014 report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict noted, Indonesia has 'reacted more forcefully to the appearance of IS than to any other extremist movement in memory and so has the mainstream Muslim community'. Indonesia is also moving to invalidate passports of those attempting to join ISIS and those already fighting. Crucially, work still needs to be done in Indonesian prisons, which remain a key recruiting and funding ground. But as a January IPAC report notes, the building of anti-ISIS groups in prisons is making some headway.
Some jihadi groups in Indonesia have been given space to speak out against the Caliphate. While this is a dangerous game that may give undue credibility to these jihadi groups, Southeast Asian states have a decent track record of tackling them. It is perhaps a case of better-the-devil-you-know, or necessary appeasement to stymie local jihadi groups from pledging bai'at.
De-radicalisation programs have also gained renewed support. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have long employed such programs, with mixed results. Recidivism rates vary. Some results suggest that recidivism is lower than in the normal offender populations in Europe or the US (~40%); other results suggest the opposite. These programs are still being modified to meet the new ideological challenge of ISIS. As such, the study of de-radicalisation continues to expand. In January, Singapore announced a study abroad program for students to immerse themselves in a 'summer of study' in de-radicalisation. At the East Asia Summit last year, Singapore's PM proposed a symposium on de-radicalisation to share best practice among experts. That symposium will take place in Singapore in April.
There is no panacea to the ISIS threat. As one expert on de-radicalisation put it to me during a trip to Indonesia in February, every individual recruit needs a different dose of the 'medicine'. We don't know the perfect dose, and we are still figuring out the medicine. That epidemiological work is being studied across Southeast Asia.