The second 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 April to June 2023. The announcement of the demise of a Daesh leader is deemed significant for the Daesh network in Syria and abroad. At the same time, the deaths of their key leaders would be able to suspend any terrorist activity in Syria, the Middle East and Europe after an aggressive attack conducted by the US and SDF. Meanwhile, the turmoil in Afghanistan allows terrorist groups to use it as a hub for training and a safe haven location as countries such as China and Pakistan intensify operations against terrorist groups. In addition, the success of the Somalian Armed Forces, together with other countries under the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), has had a positive impact on countering terrorism.
In Southeast Asia, sanctions and enforcement of anti-terror laws have nearly crippled terrorist groups in Indonesia. However, the spread of terrorist narratives and ideologies in the cyber space are still prevalent in Indonesia, indicating that there is an effort to revive JI in Indonesia. Meanwhile, The Philippine security forces continue its effort to combat terrorism in the Southern Philippines which led to several new arrests. The effectiveness of PCVE program has shown successful in counter terrorism effort.
Malaysian government has developed a dedicated website to provide information on the Sulu case which also published in five languages including Tagalog, French and Spanish with the aim of providing accurate information to the public and the international community.
In conclusion, the second quarter of 2023 sees an increase in the global and regional threat that terrorism poses. 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.
There have already been significant events in a number of countries around the world during the second quarter of 2023. The threat of terrorism at the global and regional levels has shown a significant increase since the opening of borders, in addition to the latest trends in European countries. The detection of trends in the use of online gaming platforms as in the previous report shows that the online platform and social media applications are still one of Daesh’s modus operandi for spreading propaganda that focuses on teenagers. Respective agencies such as Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and Royal Malaysian Police (RMP) need to carry out periodic monitoring of social media content as well as video applications such as YouTube that are capable of threatening national security and can be blocked from being accessed by Malaysians if necessary.
The following are the highlights of terrorism-related occurrences around the world:
On 1 May 23, President Turkiye issued a statement saying that his intelligence agency succeeded in killing the leader of Daesh, known as Abu Hussein al-Qurashi, in a raid on 30 Apr 23 in Maska, North of Jindires. The Daesh leader reportedly blew himself up and he was also the fourth Caliph of Daesh, who joined the group in 2013.
The demise of the Daesh leader is deemed significant for the group’s network in Syria and abroad. However, the Turkish government has not provided further confirmation regarding the death of the leader involved. Turkiye had previously made an announcement regarding the arrest of Daesh leader, Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, but the United States (US) denied the claim when it succeeded in killing the leader in a separate incident. Even so, news of the death is believed to affect Daesh’s operations at this point. The killing of the Daesh leader is also seen to force Daesh to continue its agenda in a decentralized manner without direction from a recognized “Caliph”.
On 4 Apr 23, the US military issued a statement that it had killed a senior leader of Daesh in Syria. The US Central Command (CENTCOM), identified the man as Khalid Aydd Ahmad al-Jabouri who was responsible for planning Daesh attacks in Europe and has been developing a leadership structure for the militant group in Turkey. Jabouri had been under close surveillance for several months as he moved between the Syrian cities of Hasakah, Raqqa, Jarablus and al-Bab before settling in Idlib province where he was killed.
The US and the SDF have been carrying out a series of aggressive actions against Daesh in recent weeks which led to the death of Daesh’s key leaders. They were Khalid Aydd Ahmad al-Jabouri and Abd-al-Hadi Mahmud al-Haji Ali, who were responsible for planning Daesh attacks in Europe and Hamza al-Homsi. The death of Daesh’s senior leaders would be able to suspend any terrorist operation in Syria, the Middle East and Europe. The death of its leader is seen as significant because Daesh is still actively spreading propaganda on their planning to launch attacks in the Middle East and Europe. The US military’s efforts give an indicator that the US is still active in countering terrorism even though its presence in the Middle East and South Asia has decreased.
On 7 May 23, the Foreign Ministries of Pakistan, China and Afghanistan have agreed to participate in the Fifth China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue in Islamabad aiming at combating terrorism and increasing cooperation in political engagement, trade and investment. Separately, Afghanistan and Pakistan also held in-depth discussions on key issues of mutual interest such as security and border control.
The China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Trilateral Foreign Minister’s Dialogue is seen as an effort taken by the three countries in dealing with the threat of terrorism in their respective countries. The turmoil in Afghanistan allows terrorist groups to use it as a hub for training and a safe haven location as countries such as China and Pakistan intensify operations against terrorist groups. The cooperation is also seen to help the Taliban to improve its image which has always been associated with terrorist groups in Afghanistan. While for China, this initiative is to prevent the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) group from obtaining funds and training in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, this understanding is very important to deal with the threat of Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) which is increasingly active in Pakistan.
On 3 June 23, the Nigerian security forces attacked in Sector 1, Operation Hadin Kai succeeded in arresting 73 ISWAP terrorists including their family members in Borno. All of them surrended in the villages of Bula Bello, Zaramari, Garno, Ngauri, Siraja, Nbellana, Bula Ashe, Guraba and Nemaila.
The Nigerian security force attacked Boko Haram via Operation HADIN KAI in the North East zone between 4 to 18 May 2023. It includes land and air operations which was favouring the Nigerian security force. The success is also supported by the fact that the Boko Haram group is getting weaker due to its defeat with ISWAP in Borno. This series of attacks succeeded in restraining Boko Haram from carrying out counter-attacks while also showing many of its members surrendering. Meanwhile, the Desert-Lake-Mountain II operation that was implemented on 27 Apr 23, in the Sambisa-Timbuktu Triangle axis and the shores of Lake Chad conducted by the Nigerian security force succeeded in weakening the ISWAP terrorist group and the Hadin Kai Operation continued to be implemented to not give space to this terrorist group organize an attack. This success shows the determination of the Nigerian government to eliminate terrorist activities in restoring the people’s trust in the government. The consistency of the operation is able to curb any terrorist activities carried out by these two terrorist groups.
On 19 May 23, 511 members of the Boko Haram group and their families surrendered, consisting of 99 men, 161 women and 251 children following an attack by the Nigerian security force in North East Nigeria. The forces also rescued a Chibok schoolgirl who was kidnapped by the Boko Haram group.
Terrorism Trends in Southeast Asia
On 4 Apr 23, DENSUS 88 revealed the arrest of four Uzbek citizens suspected of being members of Katibah Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ). They are Bakhromjon Azizov @ BA, Olimjon Makhmudovomm @ OMM, BKA and Murodjon Rakhimov @ MR involved in terror-related activities including spreading propaganda on social media and being part of a terrorist organization that remain active in the Middle East, especially Syria. They traveled to Indonesia on 29 Jan 23 via Istanbul – Abu Dhabi and entered Malaysia on 30 Jan 23. They later entered Indonesia on 6 and 27 Feb 23 separately. On 11 Apr 23, three of them tried to escape from the prison but two of them were arrested again while Bakhromjon Azizov, was found drowned in the river.
KTJ (formerly known as Jannat Oshiklari) is a terrorist organization that operates under the international terrorist organization Jabhat Al-Nusrah (now known as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham – HTS), the branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria. The group is under close monitoring by the US authorities because it has been listed in the Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) category. Sharing of intelligence information has led to their arrest by DENSUS 88. The travel records of these KTJ members shown that Malaysia has been used as a transit but their presence did not show any threat. Their presence in Indonesia is believed to be related to expanding international networks as well as terrorist financing because on 14 Feb 23, South Korean security forces has arrested two KTJ members related to terrorism-financing.
On 15 Apr 23, two men were believed to be linked with Al-Qaeda network were killed and four others were arrested in a raid by DENSUS 88. All of them were arrested in an operation launched in two locations in Sumatra, Indonesia. The dead suspects, identified as NG and ZK, were killed after exchanging fires and injuring a police officer. NG has been on the wanted list of Indonesian police since 2016 for allegedly hiding suspects including Zulkarnaen, a senior JI leader who was arrested in 2020 after nearly 18 years of successfully evading from being arrested.
Sanctions and enforcement of anti-terror laws have almost paralyzed terrorist groups in Indonesia. However, the spread of terrorist narratives and ideologies are still prevalent in Indonesia, giving an indication that there are efforts to revive JI in Indonesia. These actions managed to bring Indonesia in the path of success because there was no major incident occured in Indonesia since January 2023.
The terrorism-related issues involving Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Dawlah Islamiyah (DI) are as follows:
On 6 May 23, an explosives expert of ASG was arrested in an operation in Sulu. The suspect, Ras Abdulla also known as Elhan Bahjin Abuhassan, aged 48, was detained in Kampung Bus-Bus, Jolo, Sulu and was a follower of Marzan Ajijul and Jomar Mohammad who is based in Zamboanga. These men are still at large and are being hunted by the authorities.
On 7 June 23, two ASG terrorists were killed in Sumisip, Basilan. The slain terrorist identified as “Dodong” was a follower of Mudzrimar Sawadjaan, a KAS leader based in Sulu while another with the nickname “Boy” was a follower of a ASG leader based in Basilan.
On 28 May 23, Philippines security forces arrested a leader and three followers of Dawlah Islamiyah (DI) and also confiscated firearms and explosives in Kampung Pabrika, Marugong, Lanao del Sur. All members of the DI group were teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18. A teenager named Abu Rasas, 18 years old, is one of the main DI leaders under the leadership of Fajarudin Pumbaya Pangalian
The arrest of a terrorist-suspect by the Philippine security forces has showcased the Philippine Government’s determination to curb terror-related activities in the South of the Philippines. In addition, the arrest has reduced the morale of other members of the ASG and DI terrorist groups because most of the senior leaders have been killed or arrested by the Philippine forces. The arrest of young DI leader also revealed that the group now relies on teenage members for their operations. Since 2020, the Southern of Philippine has shown drastic improvement from the security perspectives. This is clearly because of Philippines’ holistic approach to combat terrorism and to provide livelihood to its people in the south. In addition, the demise of Abu Zacharia on 14 June 23 has led Daesh under ISEAP to reshape the group’s direction and targets in the future. Therefore, the appointment of Abu Turaife as a new leader of DI has shown that they still require a charismatic leader who possesses great knowledge in Islam as well as radical movement.
On 11 Apr 23, Malaysia declared one of the ‘heirs’ of the Sultanate of Sulu has been classified as a terrorist effective 6 Apr 23, under Section 66 of the Anti-Money Laundering, Anti-Terrorist Financing and Proceeds of Illegal Activities Act 2001. The decision was made by the Ministry of Home Affairs against Fuad A. Kiram regarding his role in the Lahad Datu incident in Sabah 10 years ago. Fuad is also one of the eight individuals who claimed to be heirs to the Sultanate of Sulu, who was involved in an international legal dispute with Putrajaya over their claim for US$14.92 billion from Malaysia.
This shows that Malaysia has begun to take decisive actions on the demands of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu in order to safeguard its sovereignty. According to the Federal Gazette regarding the classification of Fuad as a terrorist, Muhammad Fuad Abdullah Kiram, has “participated and facilitated the commission of terrorist acts”. Meanwhile, the government has also prepared a special website dedicated to provide information on the Sulu case published in five languages including Tagalog, French and Spanish with the aim of providing accurate information to the public and the international community. The act of classifying the individual involved as a terrorist is important because it will facilitate the actions of the security forces if the individual and his group carry out any activity in Malaysia. The classification is also to prevent Muhammad Fuad from taking unexpected actions.
On 11 May 23, the Deputy Prime Minister informed that Malaysia recorded the best achievement in dealing with terrorism when it was ranked 75th through the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) last year, compared to 68th in 2021. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is at the top rank in the GTI list. The trend of terror-related activities in Malaysia has decreased with only two cases of arrest last year compared to seven in 2021 due to several preventive and enforcement actions by the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP) and the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) as well as several measures taken by the National Security Council (NSC).
Malaysia should not be too complacent with the latest achievement because the benchmark for the index is only incidents and arrests of suspects compared to the current trends of terrorism The latest trend still highlights jihadists activities on social media to attract sympathy for the sufferings of Muslims who are oppressed especially in Syria and the ideology of establishing a Caliphate. In addition, the re-opening of national borders after travel restrictions during the spread of COVID-19 is also seen to change the position of the countries on the list. Thus, to maintain or improve this position, political stability and law enforcement are the significant elements. In addition, those elements need to be assisted with preventive measures through the Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (PCVE) strategies to deal with the threat of terrorism in the country.
Terrorism incidents at the global and regional level still show a significant increase for the period of the Second Quarter of 2023 in line with the opening of the international borders. At the global level, countries such as Afghanistan, Cameroon, Iraq, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Serbia, Somalia, Syria and Turkey continue to receive threats of terrorism due to on-going conflicts while there are new countries that have similar indicators such as Italy and Canada. However, there are countries that proactive in combating terrorism and they are the likes of Nigeria and Somalia. Somalia together with the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) carried out a series of raids on Al-Shabaab’s strongholds to achieve the goal of eliminating the threat while the Nigerian government has succeeded in countering up to 80% of the Boko Haram and ISWAP terrorist groups. Despite increased efforts to combat terrorism, terrorists on the African continent still play the narrative of establishing an Islamic state to their advantage. The China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Trilateral Foreign Minister’s Dialogue held in Islamabad is seen as an effort taken by the three countries in dealing with the threat of terrorism in their respective countries. The turmoil in Afghanistan allows terrorist groups such as ETIM and TeT to make it as a hub for training and a safe haven. Countries such as China and Pakistan have intensified operations against terrorist groups. While the statement of the President of Turkey regarding the success of killing the leader of Daesh, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi continues to be a question mark. This would allow Daesh to continue their agenda in a decentralized manner as a “Khalifah” needs to declared soon.
On the other hand, the development of the threat of terrorism in the Southeast Asian region shows most countries continue to implement proactive measures to prevent the threat of terrorism. A series of recent arrests also indicate that security threats in Indonesia are beginning to increase and for that, security controls in few hot spots need to be improved. The hybrid action of the Philippines which is the combination of kinetic approach (hard approach) and PCVE (soft approach) continues to have a positive impact at this time until it succeeds in putting great pressure on terrorists such as ASG especially in Sulu until these terrorists have to seek refuge in Basilan. KTJ, a terrorist organization operating under Jabhat Al-Nusrah, is believed to be linked in expanding international networks and funding terrorism in Indonesia because South Korean security forces also has arrested two members of KTJ in connection with terrorist financing activities.
The Malaysian government began to take decisive action on the claim of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu by classifying Muhammad Fuad Abdullah Kiram as a terrorist entity in addition to providing a special website dedicated to posting information on the Sulu case with the aim of providing accurate information to the public and the international communities. The act of classifying the individual involved as a terrorist is important because it will facilitate the actions of the security forces if the individual and his group carry out any activities in Malaysia. While Malaysia’s latest achievement in ranking 75th in the GTI still does not show the real situation because the latest trend of jihadists is trying to attract sympathy for the suffering of oppressed Muslims and the ideology of establishing a Caliphate through the spread of narratives on social media. Those elements need to be supported with preventive measures through the PCVE strategy in combating terrorism in the country.
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. As such, 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.