Australian foreign policy and ISIS in the region

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Australian foreign policy should be just that, Australian — not American, Chinese or European. 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten need to do a bit of lateral and original thinking.

They need to consider which part of the world they live in and the dynamics of what is unfolding on our doorstep. They should seek to embrace the region more fully. They should show and undertake leadership.

At the end of May, foreign IS fighters joined with local militants in besieging the southern Philippines city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao. Eyewitnesses said a number of the IS fighters had pale skin and long noses. A media report said they included men from Saudi Arabia, Chechen, Yemen, Malaysia and Indonesia. President Duterte has placed Mindanao under martial law.

The Philippines army and police continue to try to break the siege, in which IS fighters, soldiers and a number of civilians have so far been killed. The IS fighters have gratuitously and viciously murdered a number of Christian men; women and children have been killed in the fighting.   

The only way IS militants can get to the Philippines is by boat. I argued in an earlier article that Australia should be conducting joint patrols with regional navies to interdict these terrorists. Joint naval patrols should also seek to prevent local Abu Sayyaf rebels raising funds by on-water kidnappings.

IS militants and other radical Islamists are on the move between Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines; they are also moving arms and money.

The Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar have separatist Muslim movements. In the former, these are being taken over by radical extremists. However, it is their infiltration and possible control by IS that is of concern. Minimising their influence, if not eradicating them, should be a foreign policy objective of regional governments, including the Australian Government.

The separatist movements have a legitimate basis, much as the Tamils in Sri Lanka do — through religious belief, the absence of educational opportunities and poverty. Addressing the latter might take some of the appeal away for the strident proponents of separatism. Increasing militancy within these separatists' movements will cause the displacement of people, the creation of refugees and will undermine economic activity — causing further poverty and lack of opportunity.

The Rohingya of Rakhine State in Myanmar are not radicalised, but with ongoing repression from the state, it is only a matter of time. In the southern Thailand provinces of Satun, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, a separatist insurgency has been waged for some time. Hardline Jihadis who are funded from overseas have marginalised the moderates. These Jihadis, like their counterparts in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are influenced by hardline Sunni Wahhabi teaching which emanates from Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis actively push Wahhabism through the funding of Mosques and Madrassas religious schools. Schools funded by the Saudis teach within a Wahabi framework. Paradoxically, the Saudis are funding radical Islam. Many of the IS proponents of direct action or terrorism appear mentally unstable, charged with the same motivation as mercenaries, soldiers of fortune and the French Foreign Legion. They are often social outcasts and misfits, seeking fortune and fame, and enjoy killing and cruelty as part of the package.

Around 500 IS fighters are from Indonesia and between 200-250 from Malaysia, which has a population of 31 million (eight times smaller than Indonesia with 263 million) perhaps indicating a greater radicalisation of Muslims in Malaysia than was previously thought. Radicalisation has been aided by the powerful Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) and the National Civics Bureau (BTN) which fall under the Prime Minister’s office.  

The United States is drifting, with a seriously troubled president at the helm, it cannot be relied on to address the regional issue of IS and the growing radicalisation of separatist movements. Whatever focus the U.S. has remains on China and North Korea. In any case, President Duterte will not have a bar of Donald Trump and wants no U.S. help in handling his local insurgency. Indonesia is co-operating with the CIA, FBI and AFP in uncovering radical activists, but clearly more needs to be done in light of the IS siege of Marawi, which included Indonesian terrorists.

Following an attack on a casino in Manilla, which has the hallmarks of a revenge-fuelled undertaking rather than a terror attack, President Duterte looks set to impose martial law over the whole of the Philippines. It was probably the excuse he was looking for.

Australia, through its sound diplomatic representation in the region, should begin a process of bringing together states most affected by the activities of separatist extremists, like Abu Sayyaf and returning IS fighters. It should take a lead, perhaps institutionalising an approach looking at not only containing violence, but also at the appeal of radical Islam. It might examine poverty and the paucity of educational opportunity as a motivator in separatist sentiment that has played a part in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. It might rethink its regional aid policy. Guns alone will not stop the emotional and intellectual adherence to a cause.

Australia might also give thought to the radicalisation its refugee "policies" may encourage among those affected by brutality on Manus Island and Nauru, and those left to rot in Indonesia. A little thought and compassion might save many lives.

Chasing Asylum (2016) – Trailer

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceHaigh2.

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