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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

ISIS must not succeed in destroying core values of diversity and tolerance

The extremist group seeks to usher in a new era of terror in southeast Asia

An Indonesian police officer stands guard near a bombed church in Surabaya, Indonesia. Robert Rizky / EPA
An Indonesian police officer stands guard near a bombed church in Surabaya, Indonesia. Robert Rizky / EPA

When ISIS was overpowered in Iraq and Syria last year, its few remaining fighters killed or driven from their land, onlookers feared the group would re-emerge elsewhere. And as ISIS changes and adapts today, it appears to be shifting focus to other regions, including southeast Asia.

On Sunday suicide bombers attacked three churches in Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya, killing at least 11 and injuring 40. ISIS have claimed the attack, the country's deadliest since 2005.

While every fatal terror attack is a tragedy, the targeting of innocents in the act of worship is particularly callous. One attacker was reportedly a mother, who entered a church with two children before detonating a bomb, killing herself, both children and worshippers. It bears the hallmark of the heartless extremist group, who seek to target, disrupt and destroy core values of diversity and tolerance, celebrated both in Indonesia and globally. They will not succeed.

Indonesia contains the world’s largest Muslim population, who live peaceably alongside large groups of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. A tourist haven blessed with stunning beaches and landscapes, it attracted more than 14 million visitors last year.

Nevertheless, the country has battled extremism since former president Muhammad Suharto’s brutal rule ended in 1998. Few will forget the heinous 2002 Bali attack, which killed more than 200 people, among them western tourists.

The recent wave of extremism in Indonesia has coincided with ISIS’s territorial decline in the Middle East. In 2016 alone, a toddler was killed when a church was attacked with Molotov cocktails, a teenager struck a church with pipe bombs and four civilians were killed in a shopping district in downtown Jakarta.

Hundreds of Indonesians are said to have travelled to fight alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Many will return home, where they are unlikely to rehabilitate. Tackling extremism in Indonesia will involve combating both latent extremist groups and “lone wolves” searching for an ideology to justify their violence.

Yet the problem is regional. Last month at an Asean summit, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned of the very real threat posed by ISIS – following the group being driven out of the Middle East – to southeast Asia and its 650 million citizens.

So many fighters flocked to join ISIS from the region that the group established Katibah Nusantara, a Malay-speaking fighting unit. Today the Philippines is a regional hub of ISIS activity; last year the city of Marawi was overrun by fighters loyal to the group, triggering a months-long battle that left hundreds dead.

These pages have consistently warned about the rebirth of ISIS, which has spilled blood in the Middle East, Africa and Europe in recent months.

In southeast Asia, its capacity to inspire pre-existing extremists and lone wolf attackers could usher in a new era of terror. It requires a strong, coordinated response.

But today, as the dust settles on another tragedy, we should pause to commemorate the appalling loss of innocent life and those left dealing with the aftermath.

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