A new decade has brought some familiar problems. Efforts to contain and eliminate Islamist terror in Southeast Asia face the perennial challenge of vast, porous borders and now the prospect of hardened fighters returning home from the Middle East. 

The problem is illustrated in common, almost banal, incidents of banditry, such as when six masked gunmen boarded a boat with eight Indonesian men onboard off the coast of Sabah, Malaysia, and headed toward Philippine waters on Jan. 16. 

The prime suspects are the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf, based around Jolo and Basilan islands off the coast of Mindanao, with a long record of kidnappings in which Malaysian and Indonesian sailors and fishermen have been taken hostage in order to extort ransom payments. 

A new report by a Singapore-based think tank notes that Mindanao will remain “a desired destination for aspiring foreign fighters from Southeast Asia and beyond,” with eastern Malaysia’s Sabah state used by militants as a transit route to the nearby southern Philippines.

The International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) based its new year’s outlook, “Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses,” on trends over the last 12 months in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

The report notes the emergence of a new local IS emir to succeed Isnilon Hapilon who was killed near the end of the Marawi siege in 2017, localised suicide attacks, recruitment of foreign fighters and the use of fake news.

“Islamic groups in Mindanao have a track record of releasing false information as part of opportunistic attempts to gain attention and financing. BIFF [Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters] is known to routinely issue warnings of imminent attacks and bombings… in order to instil fear,” it said.

Some analysts believe that with the lifting of martial law on Jan. 1, terrorism-related violence will plague the newly autonomous Bangsamoro region in Mindanao, created as part of the 2014 peace deal reached between the government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). 

Even before that date, three low-grade explosions hit villages on the island on Dec. 22 on the eve of a visit by President Rodrigo Duterte for the first ceremonial distribution of Bangsamoro land titles to former MILF fighters as part of the peace accord.

Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, notes that the Abu Sayyaf and BIFF, another ISIS-aligned group, are both known to be recruiting in the region and remain adamantly hostile to the peace deal.

“Doing it on the eve of Duterte’s visit was conveying a message of continuing defiance against his leadership and against the new political entity in Muslim Mindanao,” Banlaoi told Asia Times.

Elsewhere, the ICPVTR report warns Malaysia and Indonesia that they face threats from self-radicalised IS-linked militants and from locals returning from Syria and Iraq who could carry out attacks on their home soil.

“Going forward, the threat landscape for Malaysia remains very much linked to Islamist terrorist developments globally,” it said. “Further, the foreign militant influence needs to be addressed holistically, so that Malaysia does not remain a transit point of choice, as it currently is.”

Meanwhile, Indonesia suffered eight terrorist attacks in 2019 while 10 were prevented, compared with 15 attacks and a dozen foiled plots in 2018. “The involvement of family networks, particularly wives, in militant activities continues to be a feature in Indonesia,” the report said.

Jakarta still has not taken a firm decision on whether to repatriate about 30 Indonesian fighters and more than 150 of their family members who have languished in Syrian camps since Islamic State’s last bastion fell, while the total number of foreign terrorist fighters and their families is believed to be around 600. 

“[They are] in different countries and we must talk about how to repatriate, or whether doing so would pose a danger,” said Mahfud MD, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs on Jan. 10.

In Thailand, the number of attacks targeting civilians in the predominately Malay-Muslim “deep south” declined in 2019. However, attacks outside the region including coordinated bombings in and around Bangkok in August “suggest insurgent groups have retained the capacity to launch attacks beyond the conflict area,” the ICPVTR report said.

The Thai and Indonesian army chiefs have signed an intelligence-sharing deal that aims to contain cross-border movements of fugitives and militants, including from Thailand’s deep south. 

Some analysts believe the new deal is targeted at Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the largest and most powerful of the southern Thai rebel groups, a conspicuous absentee from Malaysia-sponsored peace talks and which is believed to have members hiding in Indonesia.