Juni Kriswanto / AFP
MEDAN, Indonesia — When Nasir Abas left Indonesia and flew to Afghanistan in 1987, it was to join the illustrious ranks of the Afghanistan Mujahideen Military Academy as one of its newest students.
Abas, a reformed former member of the Indonesian Islamist extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), would end up spending the next six years of his life in Afghanistan, where he trained in armed combat and warfare with other members of JI including Bali Bomber Ali Imron and its former military commander, Hambali, now heading to trial in Guantanamo Bay and once a close confidante of al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
Yet Abas’ dream of training in Afghanistan started to crumble as the 1990s dawned. A bloody civil war gripped the country from 1992 to 1996 involving different Mujahideen or Islamic guerrilla groups in the area—including the Taliban which was formed in 1994—who had conflicting ideas about the future of the country.
“I left Afghanistan in 1993 precisely because I was so disappointed,” Abas told VICE World News. “We should all have been grateful but instead we spent our time fighting with each other. I didn’t want to be involved in any of that, of Muslims killing Muslims, so I came home.”
Now that the Taliban has once again seized control of Afghanistan, Abas fears the developments could have a poisonous influence in his native Southeast Asia, which is home to a swathe of Islamist extremist groups including Indonesia-based JI, ISIS-affiliated Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), and the Philippines–based Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Abas, who served a year in prison for an immigration violation but was spared further jail time after agreeing to cooperate with authorities, has since worked with the Indonesian police on a series of deradicalisation programmes. He said that the public should not be fearful of imminent attacks in the region, but rather the way that events in Afghanistan will embolden hard-line movements. A similar phenomenon is already on display in the United States, where far-right groups have cheered the Taliban’s victory.
“People think that the effect is going to be action, but it will be recruitment. Groups in Indonesia and the region will use the Taliban issue as a way to get more members,” Abas told VICE World News.
“The Taliban struggle is the Taliban struggle, not Islam’s struggle, even though they do it in the name of Islam, but it was the same when ISIS declared the Caliphate in Syria in 2014. It kicked off a sense of euphoria which translated to recruitment.”
“People think that the effect is going to be action, but it will be recruitment. Groups in Indonesia and the region will use the Taliban issue as a way to get more members.”
According to Ian Wilson, a senior lecturer in politics and security studies at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan is likely to generate a number of divergent impacts among Islamists in the region, some of whom will be galvanised by the Taliban’s victory and others for whom it will produce tensions and fissures.
“The Taliban’s desire to gain a modicum of international legitimacy, including its negotiations with the United States, has already seen it branded as ‘apostates’ who have succumbed to compromise by ISIS-K,” he said, referring to the group accused of bombing the airport in Kabul that killed nearly 200 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members, days before America’s withdrawal.
“In the region, this is likely to be reflected in debates, divisions and also confusion over whom Islamists should support: the new triumphant Taliban regime or the ongoing ‘struggle’ of extremists such as ISIS,” Wilson added.
Southeast Asia is populated by different Islamist groups jostling for power and influence and, historically, the region has seen patterns of violence that have mirrored happenings in South Asia and the Middle East. The Bali bombing in Indonesia in 2002, for example, which was claimed by JI and left over 200 people dead, was planned as direct retribution for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, according to the testimony of the men who carried it out. As such, the most recent events in Afghanistan have also prompted questions and fears about similar ripple effects.
“Pro-JI is thrilled with the Taliban’s victory. It boosts their morale and will inspire and strengthen their spirit,” said Noor Huda Ismail, a former member of the hard-line group Darul Islam who is now based in Singapore and founded the Institute for International Peace Building. “The victory of the Taliban is a real example of that persistence. They will learn from the Taliban how to win people’s hearts and support to achieve their political goals.”
But he added that “people should not be overly anxious and unduly alarmed” about the possibility of a large-scale imminent attack in Southeast Asia.
“Pro-JI is thrilled with the Taliban’s victory. It boosts their morale and will inspire and strengthen their spirit.”
Even if extremist groups in Southeast Asia do try and plan deadly operations similar to others such as the Bali bombing in 2002 and the JW Marriott Hotel attack in Jakarta in 2003, Ismail said that the local authorities across the region are far more savvy about pre-empting terrorist threats than in previous times.
In the last few weeks alone in Indonesia, authorities arrested more than 50 suspected terrorists from both JI and the pro-ISIS group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). According to reports, some of the JI members claimed they had been planning attacks on Indonesia’s Independence Day on August 17.
“In contrast to 20 years ago, the regional governments and certainly the Singapore government have more experience now in dealing with the threat so that is a plus factor,” Ismail said.
Rommel Banlaoi, a security analyst and international relations professor, warned that Philippine security forces should still remain vigilant.
“If the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will behave like a sovereign state, that will not pose a threat,” Banlaoi told VICE World News. “If it will behave like say Syria or Iran or other countries that are accused of sponsoring international terrorism, then that will pose a threat to the Philippines because Islamic insurgencies in the Philippines are just looking for any willing international support.”
Banlaoi said that these groups are seeking donors to mount more attacks, which they successfully did during the months-long Marawi Siege in 2017 that claimed the lives of as many as 1,200 people.
“Threats are real rather than imaginary considering that there are some personalities now in the Philippines that have violent extremist thinking,” he added.
Other outcomes could include groups looking to Afghanistan to see the kind of state that is to be created, but armed backlash may be swift if they feel that the Taliban has sold out its political ideals and wish to make a statement, with civilians likely bearing the brunt of any fresh conflict.
“A sustainable political outcome of any kind entails degrees of compromise, but what if the Taliban stitches up trade deals with China, for example? Practical politics, but for committed ideologues a big no-no,” said Murdoch University’s Wilson. “‘Extremists’ are by definition, zero sum actors.”
Reporting contributed by Anthony Esguerra
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Update: This article was updated to reflect the fact that the Taliban was officially formed in 1994.