The first quarter of Terrorism Watch 2023 explores the most recent events and developments pertaining to terror-related incidents in Southeast Asia and significant incidents worldwide from January to March 2023. The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) targeting of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs showcases ISKP’s attempts to stop countries from establishing relations with a Taliban-run country. Besides, the targeted killing of Daesh’s leader in Somalia and the terrorist attack on police quarters in Peshawar, Pakistan, are among the highlights of this quarter.
In Southeast Asia, the efforts of the Philippine Armed Forces to contain terrorism in the Southern Philippines continue to bear fruit. More members of terrorist organisations are surrendering and accepting the government’s consolation. In addition, Daesh’s media outlet in Southeast Asia alters its name to attract supporters in the region. In Indonesia, DENSUS 88 continues its search for Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network’s and attempts to thwart its revival.
The emergence of a media outlet named Al Malaka Media Centre that circulated a poster depicting a threat to Malaysia caught media attention in the country. However, the perception, magnitude, and nature of the threat may diverge from reality due to the direction of the public debate, which may be influenced by vested interests and political influence.
In summary, the global and regional threat posed by terrorism intensifies in the first quarter of 2023. The threat perception has shifted to incorporate the dissemination of narratives in cyberspace, particularly on social media. Countries, particularly in this region, must take drastic measures to mitigate the issue.
In a number of nations around the world, the first quarter of 2023 has already been marked by significant events. The most anticipated assessments of the reopening of international borders have revealed that terrorists have awaited this moment. However, the vast majority of these incidents occurred in nations that have been fighting terrorism on a continuous basis. Regionally, there are persistent indications of efforts to resurrect Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), whereas, in the Philippines, hybrid actions are proving successful. Online radicalization is once again exploiting the young minds of Singaporeans, and there are significant attempts to influence the moderate minds of Malaysians via online propaganda.
The following are the highlights of terrorism-related occurrences around the world:
The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) carried out a suicide bombing attack on 11 Jan 23 that left 13 people dead and numerous others injured. The attack took place at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s compound in Kabul, Afghanistan. The site is also close to a number of international embassies and Afghan government buildings.
On 26 January 23, the United States (US) army was successful in eliminating Bilal al-Sudani, the leader of Daesh in Somalia, in a mountainous region of northern Somalia. Besides, he is a facilitator for Daesh’s international network and a financier of the Daesh network in Somalia. Ten faithful supporters of Bilal al-Sudani were also killed in the unexpected attack.
The Al-Shabaab group attacked a residential area in Abdias, Mogadishu, on 22 Feb 23, killing nearly ten people. The assault began with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) explosion and was followed by random gunfire. Somali security forces were able to eliminate four members of the Al-Shabaab group and regain control of the situation at the incident site. The target of the assault was the residence of senior officers of the government-aligned Somali army and militia.
The Pakistani police force was startled by a suicide attack at a police quarters mosque on 31 January 23. The incident resulted in over 100 fatalities and 150 injuries. The attack that occurred in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was perpetrated by a person dressed as a completely uniformed police officer. The assault was claimed by factions of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) organisation, namely Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP). Omar Mukaram Khurasani, the leader of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the incident to avenge the murder of his brother, Omar Khalid Khorasani, the group’s founder. The police are still investigating the actual perpetrator.
Terrorism Trends in Southeast Asia
The terrorism-related issue involving the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) is as follows:
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) of the Kagui Karialan faction surrendered to Philippine security forces in Barangay Pigcalagan, Maguidanao Norte, on 22 February 2023 with firearms and explosives. The surrendered BIFF members were operating in Maguindanao del Sur, Maguindanao del Norte, and North Cotabato. Eleven from the surrendered members are reportedly experts in the fabrication of explosives that can be remotely detonated using mobile phones.
The terrorism-related issue involving Al Faris Media Centre is as follows:
East Asia Knight (EAK) is a Daesh-affiliated media entity that promotes Islamic State East Asia Province (ISEAP). It began as a group using the name “EAK” on a variety of online communication channels, including blogs, social media, and forums. EAK’s purpose is to publicise all ISEAP activities in Southeast Asia for Daesh in the same manner as Al-Naba Media Centre. On 7 January 2023, EAK altered its name to the Al Faris Media Centre.
The terrorism-related issues involving Dawlah Islamiya (DI) are as follows:
Seven Daulah Islamiyah (DI) members who were also fragments of the Abu Sayyaf Group (KAS) were slain in an ambush conducted by the Philippine National Police (PNP) in the village of Kapuk Pungol, Parang, Sulu, on 5 February 23. The assault was intended to capture Alganer Dahim and Juko Dahim, who were suspected of involvement in the attack that killed a senior police officer on 7 May 2009. However, Juko Dahim was killed and Alganer Dahim managed to flee the shooting incident. Additionally, the police were able to confiscate multiple firearms and explosives belonging to the DI members.
Almoben Sibud, the subleader of the Maguindanao DI group, and 30 armed followers were responsible for the bombings in the region. They were pursued by Philippine security forces on the border of the Maguindanao Sur and North Cotabato provinces on 23 March 23. Three individuals were killed and four others were injured during the military operation. Samsudin Miro, Kamid Sindatu, and Mohaimen Salik were identified as the three victims, who were believed to be adherents of Aloben Sibud. Security forces also apprehended Mohammed Agbas, a second member of the DI, and seized a pistol and .45-caliber ammunition.
Six Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist suspects were caught by the DENSUS 88 anti-terrorism squad in various parts of Indonesia on 8 February 2023. All the arrested terrorist suspects are members of JI and they are also on the List of Wanted Persons (DPO) for the offence of “criminal acts of terrorism” or being involved in defending or harbouring criminal fugitives.
On 16 March 23, the DENSUS 88 anti-terrorism squad arrested five suspected members of terrorist groups during raids in the cities of Palu and Sigi, Central Sulawesi. Four suspects arrested in Palu were identified with code names AF @ AZ (41 years old), KB (52 years old), MA (42 years old), and ZA alias E (42 years old), and one suspect, RA @ R (46 years old), who was arrested in Pidi, are all believed to be members of the JI network in Central Sulawesi. DENSUS 88 also confiscated several documents, knives, telescopes, mobile phones, arrows, and pellet guns from them.
On 28 March 23, three locations in Kabupaten Sigi and in Donggala, Sulawesi, were searched by the DENSUS 88. The three locations that were raided in Sigi were the Khairu Ummah Foundation office, a school belonging to the Khairu Ummah Foundation, and the Sahabat Keadilan Foundation (SAHLAN) office. A location that was raided in Donggala was a house. As a result of the raid on the four locations, DENSUS 88 has confiscated documents, books, laptops, and arrows believed to be related to the JI group.
On 1 Feb 23, the Internal Security Department (ISD) issued a statement regarding the arrest of 18-year-old Muhammad Irfan Danyal Mohamad Nor for planning to launch an attack in Singapore. The arrest was made in December 2022, and the ISD has conducted further investigation on the teenager. The teenager was arrested for planning to kill individuals considered thogut, attack the Amoy Quee Camp and blow up a mosque for perceived un-Islamic practise. In addition, the teenager was also reported to have planned to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Coney Island and pledged allegiance to the leader of Daesh.
The Internal Security Department (ISD) announced the arrest of two adolescents, ages 15 and 16, on 21 February 2023, for being influenced by Daesh propaganda. Between December 2022 and January 2023, both of them were detained. The 15-year-old was discovered to be influenced by terrorist narratives after gaining access to radical lectures. He also supports the atrocities of Daesh and is rumoured to be planning to murder both non-Muslim communities and Muslims who are considered thogut. The 16-year-old was allegedly influenced by Daesh propaganda and shared Daesh-related videos on social media. Reportedly, these adolescents are also utilising Roblox, an online gaming platform, to communicate and establish a virtual Islamic Caliphate within the realm of video games.
On 5 March 23, a Malay-language Daesh propaganda media called Al Malaka Media Centre was reported to be threatening Malaysia’s security. The Nordic Counter-Terrorism Network’s (NCTN) Cyber Counter-Terrorism Division reports that Al Malaka Media Centre has released a graphic depicting the Petronas Twin Towers emblazoned with the Daesh flag and a plane crashing into an adjacent building. In addition, on the poster there is also a text reading “The Day of Conquest is Coming” and a translation of the Quran, Surah an-Nur, verse 55 in Malay. According to NCTN, Al Malaka Media Centre has links with Daesh media in Indonesia and the Philippines and has enlisted the help of political parties to overthrow the government of Dato’ Seri Anwar bin Ibrahim.
What Can Be Expected
The transition from EAK to Al Faris Media Centre is interpreted as Daesh Indonesia’s attempt to give its propaganda media an Islamic image. Faris is the Arabic word for “knight,” “horseman,” and “cavalry.” It is believed that the moniker “EAK” has no impact on Southeast Asian Muslims. Therefore, this moniker change is essential for ISEAP to aid in the propagation of Daesh’s narrative. On various social media platforms and blogs, such as TechHaven, Rocketchat, Telegram, and WordPress, groups or threads titled Al Faris Media Centre are created. Using social media platforms, Daesh is believed to continue attempting to remain prominent.
The fact that the BIFF members surrendered demonstrates conclusively that the Philippine security forces’ strategy for preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE), which brought the BIFF members to the negotiating table, was successful. As a consolation for giving up, the BIFF members likely received money to assist them in beginning a new life. More than 200 BIFF members have surrendered to Philippine security forces since November 2021, and 11 of them are said to be experts in the production of improvised explosive devices (IED). This occurrence is viewed as limiting the BIFF’s capacity to initiate large-scale attacks. In addition, it is believed that this matter will encourage additional BIFF members to surrender.
Following the death of a member of the Faharudin Hadji Satar @ Abu Zacaria-led Sulu DI cell, the DI now consists of fewer than 20 individuals. It is anticipated that continued pressure on this group will eliminate the overall threat posed by the DI group in Sulu Province. As for the DI in Maguindanao, since Salahuddin Hassan was slain in the battle, the DI in Maguindanao has split from the Turaife, Bongus, and Karialan factions and joined the BIFF group. The attack by security forces on the group has also caused discord within the group.
In 2019, arrests of JI members began following the enforcement of anti-terrorism laws in Indonesia. This most recent arrest is believed to involve JI members who are prominent in the JI Shura Council, the organization’s treasurer, and its intelligence section. After the suicide attack at the Astana Anyar Police Station in Bandung, Indonesia, on 7 December 22, it is believed that the number of arrests of JI members increased during this time period.
Multiple foundations in Sulawesi were raided, revealing that JI used non-governmental organisations for funding and recruitment purposes. Sulawesi is also a good location for JI to hide from the authorities, as Jakarta and Aceh are deemed too dangerous for JI to operate covertly. In addition, the apprehension of JI members has intensified because there are signs that the organization’s senior leaders are attempting to revive the terrorist group. The anti-terrorism unit’s actions are significant especially after the reopening of national borders and the removal of restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. After remaining dormant since 2020, the network of terrorist organisations is anticipated to resume their operations.
As a consequence of their sharing on social media platforms, the adolescents have been successfully tracked. They were apprehended prior to carrying out the intended attack. Five adolescents have been detained under the Internal Security Act since the year 2020. (ISA). The only thing these adolescents have in common is that they have been influenced by the online dissemination of propaganda. Further investigation revealed that Muhammad Irfan Danyal Mohammad Nor was influenced by extremist speakers such as Zakir Naik and Ahmed Deedat.
The arrests of the 15- and 16-year-olds occurred in December 2022, following the apprehension of Muhammad Irfan Danyal Mohammad Nor. According to reports, these three individuals used the Roblox platform to establish an Islamic Caliphate in cyberspace and employed animated world characters to initiate attacks. Daesh’s modus operandi has previously included the manipulation of online gaming platforms. This development demonstrates that Daesh continues to exploit platforms that are popular among adolescents. Although the three of them will go through a deradicalization programme run by the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), if no controls or censorship are imposed on this type of platform, more teens are likely to become involved. It is believed that the ISD’s disclosure of these three adolescents will assist other nations in monitoring game platforms that can be exploited by terrorists.
The recent appearance of numerous pro-ISIS propaganda media outlets in Indonesia and the Philippines makes the recent discovery of pro-ISIS propaganda media very significant. However, it is believed that NCTN’s report on the threat posed by Al Malaka Media Centre lacked credible data. This type of propaganda is considered as deliberate by the pro-Daesh group because the severity of the terrorist threat has declined since 2020, making it appear as if Daesh is no longer a concern in Southeast Asia. It is also believed that this type of propaganda is used to gain support from sympathisers in Malaysia. The E8 Special Branch has not confirmed any rumours linking the media to political parties, which are without substance. In addition, it is believed that such unsubstantiated reports can generate an atmosphere of insecurity in Malaysia and have a negative effect on the country’s economy and society. The current political climate makes it easy to associate these traits with particular political parties. As a result of political uncertainty, it is believed that Daesh can exploit the current circumstance.
Terrorism on a global and regional scale has started to rise in the first three months of 2023. The post-pandemic COVID-19 provides an opportunity for terrorist activity to return to “normalcy.” On a global scale, it is evident that terrorist organisations are becoming significantly more active. After the collapse of the Daesh Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, countries such as Afghanistan continue to be a focus, as they provide additional ingredients that make it a caliphate destination for Daesh versions. The country is perpetually threatened by the ISKP group due to the instability of its government and its inability to establish international relations with foreign nations. In the context of Afghanistan, Daesh has adopted a strategic approach by tarnishing the image of the Taliban on the international stage by highlighting the Taliban’s inability to maintain the country’s security. As a result of the role of Pakistani police forces in mitigating the threat of terrorism on the Pakistan-Afghan border, assaults against Pakistani security forces are not unprecedented and will continue. In addition to focusing on South Asia, the imminent elimination of terrorist group commanders in multiple countries is likely to have an impact on the group’s strategic and tactical level.
Next, the evolution of the terrorist threat in Southeast Asia is distinct from the global trend. Earlier efforts to resurrect the JI organisation are believed to have been thwarted by anti-terrorist forces in Indonesia. In the Philippines, the Focused Military Operation (FMO) is continuing, and the offensive action has prompted more terrorists to surrender. The Philippines’ hybrid action, which combines a kinetic approach with PCVE, is currently having a positive effect because the number of terrorists who support the government’s efforts is increasing. In spite of this, it is believed that Daesh loyalists will continue to exploit social media and the internet in the region. Cyberspace media such as Al Faris Media Centre and the use of video game platforms like Roblox require attention in Singapore. Given that they utilise the internet more frequently than the working group does, this action is perceived as being directed at young groups. The apprehension of three individuals in Singapore is significant and should aid other nations in monitoring similar activity in their own countries.
Compared to other regional nations, Malaysia has not encountered any terrorism-related challenges since 2020. This plainly demonstrates that Daesh failed to influence the people of Malaysia. Several Malay and Indonesian-language Daesh media entities appear to be propagating propaganda. This includes the Al Malaka Media Centre, which made a startling appearance and distributed a similar poster to create an unsafe environment in Malaysia. What’s more worrying is that there are analysts who take the opportunity to promote themselves by making unfounded comments ahead of a police investigation. The maturity and moderation of Malaysians have rendered Al Malaka Media Centre’s propaganda ineffective in the country. However, it is believed that stakeholders will continue to attempt to contaminate harmony by disseminating such propaganda materials.
In general, the global and regional threat posed by terrorism is beginning to intensify. However, the drastic actions taken by the involved countries have mitigated this increase. The threat perception has shifted to include the spreading of propaganda in cyberspace, such as on social media. There should be continuous monitoring and restrictions placed on such postings that pose a threat to national security before it starts to influence Daesh supporters in Malaysia. The issue of terrorism on a global and regional scale has no effect on national security at this time. National security and the threat of terrorism should not be treated lightly. The potential threat of terrorism in the nation remains at a moderate level and a terrorist attack remains possible.