ASEAN and ASEAN Member States must embrace the elements of change and continuity in the terrorism landscape as part of the “new normal” imperatives.

By Farlina Said and Muhammad Sinatra

At the 11th ASEAN-United Nations (UN) Summit, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin highlighted that the COVID-19 has not been successful in flattening the curve of terrorism. He made a reference to the horrendous attacks that occurred in Europe in the past few weeks with emphasis on the need for mutual respect and opposing prejudices or hate speech.

This sentiment is echoed in the Chairman’s Statement of the 37th ASEAN Summit which mentions the countries’ continued commitment to fight terrorism amidst the threat of COVID-19, thus signalling that terrorism has yet to abate during the pandemic.

It seems that the incidents in France propelled the terrorism threat back into public consciousness after a year-long preoccupation on COVID-19. 

The case of France actually represents the pre-COVID-19 terrorist attacks that carry the genetics of previous instances of extremism in the country. In short, the attacks were responses to France’s practice of free speech, which operates under the French principle of “laicite” (secularism). The principle has allowed media such as Charlie Hebdo to publish tasteless satirisation of Islamic symbols, while also facilitating right-wing individuals including Marine Le Pen to voice out anti-Islamic messages. Meanwhile, the influx of refugees from conflicted Syria and Iraq, in addition to France’s biased development approaches, complicates France’s effort at nation-building, laying out a fertile ground for xenophobia to take root. When the attacks took place in the past few weeks, it became clear that violence borne out of extremist views which flourish in a society continues to be a threat amidst the health crisis.

But we should not ignore the fact that the “new normal” also affects the terrorism landscape. Some of the findings previously outlined in our policy brief show that even during the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorist groups in certain areas remain active, with some having harnessed the pandemic momentum to propel their agenda. Below are examples of such findings.

Firstly, groups may continue or amplify their terrorism. The Boko Haram group in West Africa is notable for intensifying their violent activities despite the threat of COVID-19 to themselves. The recent Kabul University incident was also the latest in Afghanistan’s tumultuous year notwithstanding attempts at a peace talk. Closer to home, authorities in Indonesia have made multiple arrests of individuals linked to Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) and Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) throughout the year. A state’s preoccupation with managing the health and economic hardship may impair its capacity to address the challenges these groups pose.

Secondly, the pandemic instigates a shift in narrative. For example, COVID-19 has been labelled by the group Islamic State as the following: 1) “God’s little soldier” sent to punish the unbelievers; 2) a revenge for the group’s defeat in Iraq; 3) and a tribulation that precedes an end-of-time catastrophe. These transformations of narrative could strengthen the group’s claim among the people during the pandemic, many of which increase their internet consumption during the lockdown period.

Thirdly, the groups have also exploited the pandemic’s momentum to justify their position and portray a benevolent image. In Afghanistan, Taliban encourages citizens to observe the health protocol, cancels mass gatherings and offers essential assistance. Meanwhile, some humanitarian fundraising activities linked to the pandemic were observed in Indonesia, such as one carried out by Jamaah Ansharul Khilafah (JAK).

Fourthly, the pandemic could force the groups to adapt their modus operandi. Groups based in Tunisia and Pakistan have hatched plans to modify their terrorism by spreading the virus, instead of through firearms and bombs.

These “new normal” in the terrorism landscape thus necessitates not only ASEAN but also ASEAN Member States to adapt their responses to this ever-changing threat.

To be fair, ASEAN’s strides in countering the threat have been more than notable in the past five years. Since 2015, a number of mechanisms have been rolled out to facilitate this objective, many if not all of which contain comprehensive aspects of the process.

The priorities, objectives and modes of cooperation in counter-terrorism and counter violent extremism (CT/CVE) are extensively explored in such instruments as the ASEAN Political and Security Blueprint (2015-2025), the 2017 Manila Declaration, and the ASEAN Plan of Action to Prevent and Counter the Rise of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism (ASEAN PoA PCRVE).

These instruments address the multiple facets of the endeavour to fight terrorism in the region, encompassing cross-sectoral cooperation including with international organisation and civil societies, deradicalisation measures, respect for people of different cultures and religions, and anti-terrorism financing, among others.

Two mechanisms are particularly special to Malaysia. The 2015 Langkawi Declaration on the Global Movement of Moderates was notable for its adoption in Langkawi, apart from its thrust to introduce the narrative of “moderation” into ASEAN’s CT/CVE cooperation. Additionally, the first Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Rise of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism, which was initiated by Malaysia, may have mounted additional push for countries to calibrate their anti-terrorism laws at a time when Islamic State was changing the rules of the game.

Still, some gaps are difficult to cross. An ASEAN-wide extradition treaty, which could facilitate the repatriation of terror suspects, made significant progress in 2018 but news on this has since fallen quiet. Furthermore, slow process, inconsistent priorities and the absence of a monitoring mechanism made it difficult to raise ASEAN’s profile as a conducive player to combat the threat. Moreover, as argued by Marguerite Borelli, domestic priorities may still reign over regional CT imperatives, as exemplified when Indonesia denied the presence of JI in the early 2000s

The imperative in this contemporary time is to acknowledge the challenges posed by incidents in France and the COVID-19 pandemic. Although terrorist groups in the region have been relatively on a quiet keel since the beginning of the year, the development in France could easily serve as a trigger that could be exploited to relaunch their agenda in the region. The widespread anti-France demonstration including in Indonesia already suggests that the issue resonates with a large number of Muslims worldwide, thus offering confidence to terrorist groups to move forward. As this development resembles the pre-COVID-19 terrorism trend, countries in ASEAN are likely equipped enough to respond to this challenge.

But the pandemic-instigated changes in terrorism landscape as suggested above require the countries to raise a political will to acknowledge them, especially since these constitute shifts from the usual CT/CVE paradigm. The implication may likely be significant as it necessitates the inclusion of health consideration into the conversation. At ASEAN level, this may translate into a more proactive role of ASEAN’s Health sector in the organisation’s CT/CVE platforms.

At the end of the day, these two challenges constitute the elements of change and continuity in the terrorism landscape. ASEAN and ASEAN Member States have poured time as well as energy to maximise effort in the fight against terrorism, which will remain in place as long as its roots are not pulled out. At the same time, the pandemic and the “new normal” paradigm may have changed our lives in ways beyond our imagination. If these could alter the terrorism landscape, then ASEAN and the countries must be flexible enough to respond. 

This article was first appeared in Malay Mail on 17 November 2020.

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