Malaysia and Singapore have been identified by supporters of the Islamic State (IS) terror group as part of its “East Asia wilayah” or state, a move that analysts say could embolden foreign fighters to carry out attacks in the region.
They are among the countries or territories singled out on social media as part of the wilayah – a development flagged by senior analyst Jasminder Singh in a paper published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies last week.
The others are Indonesia, the Philippines, southern Thailand, Myanmar and Japan.
“For foreign fighters coming into the region, this gives them an idea of what they will be in for, and what the targets are,” Singh told The Straits Times on Wednesday.
He had noticed “chatter on social media” this month singling out specific countries as part of the wilayah, which could be the first time this has been done.
Other security analysts say this could embolden self-radicalised individuals to carry out attacks here, if they are unable to travel to the Middle East to fight.
The development comes as the terrorism threat facing Singapore is at the highest level in recent years, and the country sees a steady trickle of self-radicalised individuals.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced that two Singaporean auxiliary police officers were arrested for terrorism-related offences under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
One of them, Muhammad Khairul Mohamed, 24, was detained for planning to travel to Syria to fight against the Syrian government.
Last week, MHA also announced that infant care assistant Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, 22, was planning to travel to Syria with her child to become a “martyr’s widow”, fighting for IS.
Experts had warned last year that IS would want to create a wilayah, or state, in South-East Asia as it loses territory in the Middle East.
Dr Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, noted that the exact territorial boundaries of the wilayah in East Asia are unconfirmed, as IS has not made an official declaration.
But he added that it would probably include parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Dr Gunaratna said: “The growth of the IS threat in Singapore’s immediate neighbourhood presents a threat to security and stability here.”
In his paper, Singh had discussed the security implications of the ongoing Marawi City siege in Mindanao, where Philippine forces are fighting to retake the city from IS-affiliated militants.
The attacks there could “motivate other groups” in the region to carry out similar strikes in the region, he wrote.
Remy Mahzam, associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said an indication of the boundaries of a future wilayah could prompt self- radicalised individuals who face difficulty in travelling to Syria to carry out attacks in the region instead.
This danger is especially relevant in the light of the recent ISA arrests of individuals planning to travel to Syria to fight, he said.
Associate Professor Antonio Rappa, who heads the Singapore University of Social Sciences’ management and security studies programme, said Singapore should be more worried about attacks by “lone wolves and small groups of terrorists”, who could enter the country from Malaysia or Indonesia.
He pointed out that developments in the region that catch media attention – such as the attacks in Marawi – would “increase the confidence level” of would-be terrorists.
An MHA spokesman told The Straits Times that security agencies are closely watching the situation in Marawi, as developments there could have “serious ramifications” for Singapore’s safety and security.
She added that agencies are on the lookout for attempts by militants to use Singapore as a point of transit to go to Marawi and join the insurgency there.
“We will also deal firmly with any Singaporean who attempts to make his or her way to the conflict zones to join in the armed violence,” said the spokesman. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network
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