Militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is beefing up its external operations wing and actively courting support in South-east Asia, a security expert said at a counter-terrorism meeting here.
Rohan Gunaratna, who heads Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), said at the Global Security Asia conference yesterday that 22 terrorist groups in South-east Asia have pledged allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and are disseminating propaganda in the region in local languages, largely online.
Fighters returning from Syria and Iraq could also link up with existing terror groups such as Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and Jemaah Islamiah offshoot Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), and pose a continuing threat to the region, he added.
In a speech, Professor Rohan highlighted JAT as a group capable of committing suicide attacks and one which has been active beyond Indonesia's borders - with operatives purchasing weapons from Thailand and transiting through Malaysia, and whose propaganda has even spread to Singapore.
His comments come amid an ongoing effort by a multinational coalition to defeat ISIS by recapturing territory it holds in Iraq.
"As ISIS loses territory, it will become more insurgent, hit-and-run and terrorist in nature, and its influence will spread overseas," Prof Rohan told The Straits Times separately.
"The world must brace itself for a new wave of terrorist strikes, (not only) of the scale we have witnessed in Sydney, Copenhagen, Paris and Ottawa recently, but also ISIS-directed attacks that may even mirror the scale of 9/11."
ISIS' growing support in the region has reignited fears that returning fighters will bring with them newfound battle experience and connections to launch attacks on countries in the region.
There have already been instances of European fighters in Syria travelling through South-east Asia before returning to Europe, raising the question of whether they were surveying targets or just throwing the authorities off their tracks, Prof Rohan said.
Over 1,000 radicals from the Asia-Pacific have left for Syria, with some 300 from South-east Asia. "Our concern is they will form the nucleus of a new set of groups," he added.
Countries are adopting tough measures and Malaysia is set to table a new anti-terrorism law this month.
Meanwhile, conference speaker Idznursham Ismail also warned that the possibility of ISIS turning to unconventional weapons cannot be discounted.
The ICPVTR research analyst said there is online chatter among extremists on the use, or attempted use, of chemical, biological and radiological agents, including crude chlorine bombs. A senior ISIS militant killed in a January air strike was also found to be a chemical weapons expert.
Said Mr Idznursham: "They have the experts, they have the resources, so the use of these unconventional weapons is something we'll have to keep an eye on."
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