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Thitinan Pongsudhirak: When global terror goes retail

The recent terrorist incidents in Australia and Canada may be more significant -- and disturbing -- than they may at first seem. No longer a top-down and organized international network of Jihadist cells with a command and control hierarchy, global terrorism of the kind the world has seen in Ottawa and Melbourne has spawned lone-wolf extremists as foot soldiers of Islamist expansionism, inspired and radicalized by the militant rhetoric of the Islamic State group.

     The urgent challenge for governments in Asia and elsewhere is to find a balance between tougher counter-terrorist vigilance that will inevitably infringe on civil liberties and more moderate responses that encourage mutual accommodation of Islam and modernity.

     What is particularly alarming in the Australian and Canadian cases is the audacity and indigenous nature of the attacks. On Oct. 22 in Ottawa, 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau launched a daylight shooting attack on Canada's parliament and nearby War Memorial, killing one soldier. Two days earlier, another suspected Jihadist ran down two soldiers, killing one in a hit-and-run car attack, after authorities prevented him from traveling to the Middle East. And on Sept. 23, police in Melbourne shot and killed a young Australian man of Afghan background, who stabbed two police officers after his Australian passport was cancelled by authorities who suspected he was planning to join Islamic State in Syria or Iraq.

     To be sure, these isolated acts of terrorism appear to have been triggered by frustration and fury over official restrictions that may have curtailed plans to join Islamic State's campaign. But the potential for such attacks to spread regionally cannot be ignored.

     These extremists are homegrown nationals or grew up in their adopted countries; they are not imported or incubated cells as was the case with al-Qaeda in the earlier phase of global terror. Misfits at home suffering from economic deprivation and social alienation can discover a voice, purpose and clarity with the totality of what the Islamic State group offers. It is a powerful coupling of the Islamist appeal in a faraway land and personal disenchantment at home.

     Yet, allowing these aspiring fighters to leave to join Jihadist movements abroad is not a prudent option -- even for governments seeking to curb the threat within. In the previous generation of global terrorism, returning veterans of "holy wars" in Islamist insurgencies, from the Middle East to North Africa, posed daunting security risks. Southeast Asia in the 2000s, for example, had to grapple with returnees from Jihadist insurgencies against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and from studying and networking in other hubs of Islamic radicalization -- particularly the madrassas, or religious schools of the ultra-conservative Wahabi brand of Islam.

     In Muslim insurgencies in Southeast Asia, the main grievances have been ethno-nationalist rather than Islamist in nature. It is not global Islamism but historical rights to traditional livelihoods, religious freedom and administrative autonomy that is demanded. State accommodation and limited autonomy have resulted in relative peace in Mindanao and Aceh but not in southern Thailand.

     Even so, countries such as Australia and Canada now face a stark dilemma: allowing local, aspiring Jihadists to travel freely to swell the ranks of Islamic State poses the risk of their eventual return and consequent importation of extremism. But confining them to the home front can lead to spontaneous and "do-it-yourself" acts of terrorism. If these unilateral acts become more frequent, as the recent attacks in Australia and Canada suggest, they could present a new global threat in which Islamist radicalization and action could be "indigenized," sprouting individual offshoots with member who may or may not have spent time as Jihadists abroad.

Era of the 'lone wolf'?

The bottom line is that we will see this challenge again -- fighters coming home from Syria, Iraq and other Islamic State-contested zones to Southeast Asia. The new element here is the lone-wolf Jihadi syndrome.

     Local governments hold the key to reintegrating and even watching over radicalized returnees. Indonesia has a commendable record with the Aceh peace agreement and wide-ranging decentralization measures, and the Philippines is getting there with a comparable accord in the Bangsmoro Framework Agreement. However, Thailand's Malay-Muslim insurgency in the country's deep south rages on as one of the world's deadliest internal conflicts, with poor prospects for accommodation as long as military dominance of national politics continues.

     A systematic germination between Islamist ideology and regional Muslim radicals is unlikely but there could be limited interaction and penetration of fighters from Islamic State in regional Muslim insurgencies.

     This risk is most acute in southern Thailand, even as the prospect grows of further repression in Muslim-dominated Rakhine state in western Myanmar. In this respect Indonesia and the Philippines, despite their much larger Muslim populations, are less of a concern than Thailand and Myanmar.

     As in the individual acts of terror in Melbourne and Ottawa, random and individual offshoots of Islamic extremism in the region merit close scrutiny. Go-it-alone extremists or even loose cells of Islamist expansionism should occupy a prominent place on the security radars of regional governments.

     Down the road, a greater spotlight is needed on moderate Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia that have promoted modern models of Islam that sit comfortably with democracy, market economy, and capitalist development, notwithstanding periodic tensions and setbacks. The international community should call out state sponsors of Islamist extremism such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which is more viable now in view of the shale gas revolution. Oil power in the 21st century is not what it used to be.

     The need for action highlights what in some senses is a race against time. Lone-wolf religious extremism is growing, as Islamism takes on what one might call "retail" and "DIY" features. Australia and Canada are just recent examples. As a result, state-society relations are likely to suffer as civil liberties are increasingly curtailed amid the imperative for greater state vigilance.

     However, democratic governments must be mindful not to end up as repressive states that undermine their core identities, and systems based on inalienable rights and freedoms of religion, speech and movement, among many others.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. 

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