Terror attacks began increasing in Asia in the early 2000s. According to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), South Asia was more affected than anywhere else in the world between 2008 and 2013.
In 2016, South and Southeast Asia accounted for one third of terror attacks and one fourth of fatalities globally. Of the five Islamic State (ISIL) affiliated groups that scaled up their attacks significantly last year, three were in Asia; ISIL Bangladesh, the Maute Group in the Philippines and the Islamic State of Khorasan Province in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Donors in Asia want to prevent radicalisation through countering violent extremism (CVE) but it is not obvious where to start. How should they analyse violent extremism in Asia? What should they consider when allocating their CVE budgets? This essay proceeds in three parts. First, it suggests disaggregating violent extremism to better understand it. Second, it proposes four priorities for CVE in Asia. Third, it lists several principles for smart CVE investments.
The GTD records suicide bombings in Pakistan, assaults by insurgents in Thailand and assassinations in the Philippines. In this sense, the data is more useful for understanding violent extremism than terrorism, which is more narrowly defined. Violent extremism is a broader concept that captures most forms of ideologically motivated political violence.
Extremist violence varies widely across Asia. The GTD shows that most attacks and fatalities are in Afghanistan and Pakistan where incidents are on average deadlier and more indiscriminate than other countries in Asia. In contrast, attacks in India, Thailand and the Philippines, which all have ranked in the top ten of the Global Terrorism Index in recent years, are less deadly and more discriminate.
What explains this? Is it possible to generalise about violent extremism in Asia if there are such stark differences? There are patterns. But it is easier to see them by disaggregating by form (insurgency vs sectarian violence), actor (nationalist, religious, separatist or communist) and tactics (bombings in civilian areas vs targeted killings).
Take India and the Philippines, which both have active communist insurgencies. The Naxal movement in India began in the 1960s but violence escalated in 2004. The New People’s Army (NPA) in the Philippines has been around for just as long with its armed strength waxing and waning over several decades. The Naxalites and the NPA wage guerilla war against the state and primarily target security forces and government officials as they perceive them as legitimate targets. They would dispute that their attacks constitute ‘terrorism,’ as recorded in the GTD.30 Whether one agrees or not with this categorisation, it is revealing that two communist insurgencies, despite operating in different political contexts, use violence in remarkably similar ways.
Next, consider suicide attacks. The GTD recorded 153 incidents in South and Southeast Asia in 2016. Unsurprisingly, 93 per cent were in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, when suicide attacks occurred in countries that less frequently experience attacks, groups with links to ISIL were often responsible.
In Indonesia in January 2016, ISIL affiliated group, Jamaah Anshar Khilafah exploded a suicide bomb in a Starbucks and simultaneously attacked a nearby police post in central Jakarta. The attack killed five including four of the perpetrators. In Bangladesh in July, ISIL claimed responsibility for the Holey Artisan Bakery incident in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter, which killed 27, including two police and the five attackers. In the Philippines in September, the first joint operation by ISILaligned local radical groups interestingly did not use a suicide attacker in their bombing of Davao’s night market, which killed 15.31 These incidents make up a tiny share of the violence in the GTD but illuminate the tactics used by ISIL-linked groups across Asia.
Disaggregating by form, actor and tactic leads to a clearer understanding of violent extremism. This is especially true when analysing quantitative data like the GTD. But it is an equally valid approach for qualitative research. Strong analysis of violent extremism in turn leads to more effective evidence-based CVE interventions that are tailored to a local context.
This is an edited extracted from an essay that appeared in the Global Terrorism Index 2017.