The risk of lone wolf terror attacks is rising in Southeast Asia, with followers of Islamic State being encouraged to launch attacks in their home countries, security experts have warned.
The key factor in the heightened risk is that Islamic State (IS) is losing ground in Syria and Iraq, which is resulting in some Southeast Asian fighters returning to their home countries. At the same time, extremists in this region tempted to travel to the Middle East to go and fight for IS are finding it harder to do so, forcing them to look closer to home to carry out attacks.
“It is very difficult now for IS followers to go to Syria. We are now seeing more and more lone wolf attacks as IS has called for its followers to launch attacks in their home countries if they cannot make it to Syria,” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of counter-terrorism for Malaysia’s Special Branch, told Channel NewsAsia.
There has been a spate of high profile lone wolf attacks in Europe and the US. Most recently, four people were killed in London when Khalid Masood, who had previously been investigated by security services, rammed a car into passersby on Westminster Bridge before stabbing and killing a police officer outside the Houses of Parliament. On Friday, four people were killed in Stockholm when a man known to the security services drove a truck into crowds walking along a shopping street.
While these incidents have grabbed the global headlines, there have also been attacks in Southeast Asia.
In Indonesia, an unemployed 21-year-old man attacked two officers at a police post in Tangerang with knives and pipe bombs in October last year. In August 2016, a pastor in a church in Medan on Sumatra island was stabbed by a man during mass.
In July 2016, a lone suicide bomber detonated explosives outside a police post in Solo, Central Java. The bomber was killed while a police officer was slightly injured. All three attacks were classified as “lone wolf” attacks by Indonesian police.
The incidence of similar attacks is expected to rise in Southeast Asia, according to Ayob, who pointed out that Malaysia has foiled three lone wolf attacks since 2013, where knives would have been used as weapons.
In 2014, IS’ spokesman, the late Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, called for attacks against the West and non-believers using knives, vehicles, poison and others.
There are currently 57 Malaysians in Syria, of which 17 are children, said Ayob. To date, 294 IS suspects have been arrested since 2013 out of which 15 are soldiers and another four are policemen. Of that figure, 132 have been charged in court.
“IS followers view the Malaysian government as an infidel state as its constitution is not based on shariah laws so they want to attack it (Malaysia),” Ayob added.
“They (IS followers) are also encouraged by the success of lone wolves attacks in other countries.”
The challenge for regional security services to prevent lone wolves from striking is that such attacks can be spontaneous with little planning, according to counter-terrorism expert Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, who heads policy studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“Lone wolf terrorists generate a lower signature for law enforcement agencies to pick up as so few individuals are involved,” said Prof Kumar.
“Organized cells have to coordinate and communicate amongst several individuals and move people and materials around, and at any point, intelligence agencies could spot them,” said Prof Kumar.
“Lone wolf attacks are very difficult to detect, so potentially any country which has an issue with violent Islamist problem are vulnerable, he added.
A further issue for security services is the continued recruitment drive by its Southeast Asia battalion, Katibah Nusantara, which is still actively trying to recruit young people even as the group suffers setbacks in the Middle East.
“Katibah Nusantara approached people aged 18-25 years who have a tendency to follow orders without question,” said Ahmad El-Muhammady, an advisor to the Royal Malaysian Police Rehabilitation programme for terrorist detainees.
Ahmad is also worried that local groups are becoming more bold, spurred on by IS’ first attack in Malaysia at the Movida café on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, which injured eight people.
“The local groups are brazen and motivated…they talk about doing it (attacks) even though they do not reach the execution stage. In counter-terrorism, we can’t wait until that happens. We have to take action before it happens,” said Ahmad, who has interviewed more than 50 detainees.
As detection of lone wolves is difficult, the key is to prevent an individual from becoming sufficiently radicalised to commit acts of violence.
“Ultimately… preventing a vulnerable individual from radicalising into a lone wolf through early detection and intervention is more effective than trying to stop him afterward. It may be too late by then as low-tech lone wolf attacks can happen anytime and anywhere. It is a genuine challenge for law enforcement agencies anywhere in the world,” said Prof Kumar.
SIGNS THAT SOUTHEAST ASIA MILITANTS ARE RETURNING
While Indonesian and Malaysian IS militants have mostly remained in Syria as they want to die a martyr’s death, according to Indonesian and Malaysian police, there are signs some are returning.
Nia Kurniati, the wife of Indonesian militant Bahrun Naim, a prominent Asean IS figure in Syria, was deported back to the country by Turkey earlier this year.
“This means that members of IS are no longer capable of protecting their families and wives over there (in Syria),” said Nasir Abas, former leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the group behind the devastating 2002 Bali bombings.
“Her return is a sign that IS members are gradually returning to their home countries,” added Abas, who currently works for the Research Center for Police Science and Terrorism at the University of Indonesia.
Nasir warned that IS returnees will try to carry out attacks when they return.
“IS has called for its followers to carry out attacks everywhere in the world. This will include their home countries after they return home,” said Nasir.
Indonesian national police spokesman, Inspector-General Boy Rafli Amar, acknowledged that the potential for lone wolf attacks is increasing. With an estimated 600-800 Indonesians in Syria, he said that intelligence gathering has been stepped up to detect terrorist activities.
Similar efforts are taking place in Malaysia.
“As far as I know, the (police) counter-terrorism division works round the clock to monitor closely developments related to terrorism and militant activities in this country. So far, they have demonstrated remarkable performance in disrupting terrorist attacks in the country,” said Malaysian police adviser Ahmad.