Jakarta outrage cannot go unheeded

Military armoured personnel carriers are seen near the site of an attack in central Jakarta January 14, 2016. F
PHOTO: Reuters

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations can wait no longer to raise a wall of unity against terrorism

Yesterday's bomb attacks in Jakarta set alarm bells ringing across Southeast Asia and underscored the need for ASEAN to forge a united front against the growing menace of terrorism. The region is no stranger to terrorist activity, but fresh ideas and actions are now needed to combat the shocking escalation in violence witnessed yesterday.

Suicide bombers struck the Indonesian capital with a series of explosions and gunfire that tore through a coffee shop and rocked an embassy district in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country.

As of press time last night, no one had claimed responsibility for the attacks, though the style of the bombing has raised suspicions of involvement by Islamic State.

President Joko Widodo condemned the multiple blasts as "acts of terror". "Our nation and our people should not be afraid. We will not be defeated by these acts of terror. I hope the public stays calm," he said in a televised address. "We all are grieving for the fallen victims of this incident, but we also condemn the act that has disturbed the security and peace and spread terror among our people."

The Muslim militant known as Islamic State and ISIS issued a cryptic warning before the blasts, but the Indonesian intelligence service was exercising caution as to its relevance to yesterday's outrage.

Indonesia suffered several major bomb attacks by Islamic militants between 2000 and 2009, the most serious being the 2002 explosion on the resort island of Bali that killed 202 people. Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand have also suffered significant casualties from terrorist acts over the past two decades.

Analysts estimate that 500 to 700 Indonesians and hundreds of Malaysians have travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State's campaign of terror in Iraq and Syria. Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Indonesia, said many have taken their families with them.

The pattern contrasts starkly with the previous generation of Southeast Asian militants who travelled to Afghanistan in the

1990s to gain knowledge they could use in their campaigns at home. Among them were members of the Jemaah Islamiah terror network responsible for the Bali atrocity. "Most of the people going to ISIS don't have the intention of returning," said Jones, noting that half of the 500 Indonesians reported to have travelled to Syria are women and children.

Around 200 Indonesians have been sent back from the war-torn country, 60 per cent of them women and children who Jones says are the "single biggest group that needs attention right now".

Other analysts point out that the Islamic State has declared a desire to turn our region into a province of its "caliphate".

Kumar Ramakrishna, a counter-terrorism analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, points to another concern: the threat of Southeast Asian fighters radicalised in Iraq or Syria returning home to wage jihad here. Meanwhile security forces must contend with the possibility of self-radicalised lone wolves appearing on the scene.

Leaders of Southeast Asian countries have sent condolences to Indonesia and said they were willing to join hands with Jakarta to fight against terrorists. They have said as much every time this region has faced such tragedies. Countless meetings and workshops have been organised on counter-terrorism, but the ASEAN trading bloc must from now on be more serious and have a clearer focus on this particular issue.

Cooperation on anti-terrorism in this region has to be translated into real action. ASEAN needs to be proactive - to be on alert all the time - to prevent, not just to contain, terrorism in this region. Malaysia has done a good job so far, initiating a "Moderate Malaysia" campaign to cope with the rise of extremism there. ASEAN as a group should try to explore similar ideas for shielding the region from violence and conflict.