Transnational Terrorism in Southeast Asia: Impact on India

 By Shivangi Dikshit


In May 2017, Marawi City in the Mindanao Island of the Philippines became witnesses to the struggle between the Armed Forces of the Philippines against militants affiliated to the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS). The militants included the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf group who kicked off the ‘Reign of Terror’ in Marawi for the next five months. By the end of the battle 920 militants, 165 soldiers and 47 civilians were killed in the fighting, and 1,780 hostages were rescued from the IS-linked militants[1]. The bloodshed included both homegrown and foreign fighters, mostly coming from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Even though the official ceasefire was declared on 23 October 2017, there has been an influx of foreign militants in Mindanao from neighbouring nations like Indonesia and Malaysia, and also from states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco, Spain, France, Tunisia, Iraq, Somalia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China[2].

The militants entering the Philippines also include people who returned from Syria and regional fighters associated with Jemaah Islamiyah who have learnt fighting skills from Al Qaeda and fought in Afghanistan. These trained fighters possess a militant past and can train the inexperienced militants for future actions.

Transnational Terrorism in Southeast Asia

The Battle of Marawi brought back the attention of the world that terrorism still exists in the land and water of Southeast Asia. Struggle in the Philippines was not a domestic trouble but a concern for the region and the world. The terror that dwells in the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia has moved beyond borders and is impacting the regional harmony and is a potential threat to global peace and order.

The groups operating in Southeast Asia do not share the same objectives but they cooperate across national boundaries and create an economy of scale for logistics, training, and safe heavens like the Jemaah Islamiyah and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which have trained with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in camps in southern Philippines[3].

Though the IS has been defeated in Iran and Syria, but their ideology still exists, and Southeast Asia can become the base for the reemergence of the group. The region has both the geography and demography which can aid in the revival of IS as well as AL Qaeda who have lost their former bases. The defeat of ISIS has evoked the issue of returning fighters in the region thought they are few in numbers, but they can play a leadership role in their homeland by engaging with the pro-ISIS groups operating in Southeast Asia[4].

This region has a larger population of 655 million where the IS and the regional groups can easily attract sympathisers[5]. Population in Southeast Asia is in poverty which makes it easy for the extremist groups to lure the people in exchange for financial gains. Events like the persecution of Malay Muslims in Thailand is a way for groups like ISIL to exploit the situation and gain sympathisers in the region[6]. Minorities in this region have suffered discriminations over decades and these people can easily fall prey to brainwashing and become recruits for the terrorist groups[7].

Many islands in Southeast Asia are inhabited and gives the extremist a safe ground to operate. The nations in the regions have border issues with each other and lack coordination in security domain while the extremist groups operating in the region are well-coordinated, especially the groups operating in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines[8].

Maritime terrorism is also a security concern for Southeast Asian nations. The Sulu and Celebs Sea face violence at sea by Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) which has links with the IS. The ongoing South China Sea dispute discourages the states to work together to combat maritime terrorism. Groups like ASG take advantage of this situation and work on expanding regional links, procuring weapons and ammunition from the black market and using ransom money to buy local officials[9].

These terrorist groups are even aligned with pirates operating in the waters of Southeast Asia. The terrorism-piracy nexus has blurred the line between the two violations and made maritime security complicated in the region

In 2007, ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism (ACCT) and the subsequent ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter-Terrorism in 2009 were introduced by the ASEAN members to create a platform for dialogue among member states to resolve the issue of terrorism[10]. ASEAN has taken measures to answer the concern of terrorism, but these initiatives are still in their initial stages. Also, the domestic concern of each state and disputes among themselves preside over the problem of terrorism in the region and slows down the process of collective effort.

American interests in the region give a stage to racial groups to avenge their defeat in the Middle East. In the past, Al Qaeda had urged the Jihadists in Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and India to support and aid the Rohingya in Myanmar. These extremist factions are using domestic upheavals to gain more support which makes internal and external security more complex.

Conditions of economic deprivation with loose political control and porous borders are always favourable for radical groups to thrive and this makes Southeast Asia a potential epicenter for future global terrorism which will impact not only the region but also the international system.

This scenario brings terrorism close to the eastern borders of India which makes it important for India to take part in countering terrorism present and emerging in Southeast Asia.

Impact on India

India has cordial relations with the countries in Southeast Asia. The India-ASEAN relations lay the foundation of the Act East Policy of the Government of India (GOI).

One of the main objectives of this policy is to promote development in the North East of India. The government is trying to initiate plans to increase connectivity of the North East with the ASEAN states through trade, culture, people-to-people contacts and physical infrastructure (road, airport, telecommunication, power)[11].

The Government of India is putting in its resources to increase its presence in the region, but the emerging threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia can impact India’s ambitions in the region.  These projects are of strategic importance and will benefit both India and the Southeast Asian states. The radical groups, operating in the region can target these projects to cause harm to both the beneficiaries to make themselves heard and create a greater impact around the world.

Insurgent groups operating in the Northeast of India have smuggled weapons into India from Thailand and Cambodia through the sea route and overland through the India-Myanmar border with the help of Chin and Arakanese insurgents[12]. The rising terrorist threat in these nations may influence the insurgent activities in the Northeast of India causing a great internal security threat.

Another major threat to India is religious radicalization, most of the terrorist groups operating in Southeast Asia are based on religious ideologies and aim to gain sympathisers on the grounds of religious suppression by the ruling authorities. The spread of these ideologies in the region can be a major threat to the internal security of India.

India shares strong trade ties with Southeast Asian nations. In 2018, its trade with ASEAN stands at US$ 81.33 billion, which is approximately 10.6% of India’s overall trade whereas India’s export to ASEAN stands at 11.28% of our total exports[13]. In states like Indonesia, there is an outrage among the radicals over the exploitation of local resources by foreign nations. Such grievances among the radical groups can be used by the terrorist groups to influence the local population which can affect India’s trade relations in the region[14].

The waters of Southeast Asia have high deposits of natural resources and major sea routes pass through it. As maritime terrorism and piracy are prevalent in the region, it is necessary to protect these resources and routes from militants, as their control over these resources and presence in the sea routes will slow down the global economy.

This maritime terrorism and piracy nexus can be a threat to the inhabited islands of the Andaman and Nicobar which can be misused by militants to build a base for their activities and bring them close to the Indian side of the Indian Ocean.

Jemaah Islamiyah has trained its members in Pakistan, in LeT camps, which is one of the major groups fighting for the independence of Kashmir from India and even has a presence in southern Thailand[15]. These transnational links between the terrorist groups are a long-term threat to Indian security and require greater attention. Therefore, the defense relations of India and Southeast Asian nations can facilitate in countering the terrorism in the region.

Security and Defense Cooperation holds a pivotal position in India’s relation with the Southeast Asian states. The GOI has both bilateral and multilateral defence relations in the region with countries like Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and CLMV nations. India as a member of ADMM+ and ARF participates in joint initiatives to counter traditional and non-traditional security threats in the region. On the 25th Anniversary of India-ASEAN relations, both the parties issued the Delhi Declaration which highlighted the mutual commitment to counter-terrorism in all forms and cooperation in maritime security, cybersecurity and transnational crimes.

India has recognised the rising threat of transitional terrorism in Southeast Asia and is participating in combating this threat. It is crucial for India to play an active role in fighting terrorism in the region through joint training, intelligence sharing, joint operations and confidence building measures between the countries to combat the threat that looms over the region.


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[1] “Philippines: ‘Battle of Marawi’ Leaves Trail of Death and Destruction.” Amnesty International, November 17, 2017.

[2]“Philippines: 100 foreign fighters joined ISIS in Mindanao since the Marawi battle.” The Defense Post, October 5, 2018.

[3] Dillon, D. (2020). Southeast Asia and the Brotherhood of Terrorism. [online] The Heritage Foundation. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jan. 2020].

[4] Ackman, M. (2020). Emerging areas of terrorism in Southeast Asia | The Strategist. [online] The Strategist. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jan. 2020].

[5]“South-Eastern Population.” Worldometers, January2, 2020.

[7] Amin, E. (2017). Southeast Asia: The New Terrorist Destination. [online] Asharq Al-Avast. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jan. 2020].

[8] Amin, E. (2017). Southeast Asia: The New Terrorist Destination. [online] Asharq Al-Avast. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jan. 2020].

[9]Singh, A. (2019). Maritime terrorism in Asia: An assessment | ORF. [online] ORF. Available at: [Accessed 3 Jan. 2020].

[10]Borelli, Marguerite. ASEAN Counter-Terrorism Weaknesses. International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Sept. 2017,

[11] (2020). Act East Policy. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jan. 2020].

[12] South Asia @ LSE. (2019). Security challenges along the India-Myanmar border. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jan. 2020].

[13] “India-ASEAN Relation.” Ministry of External Affairs, August 2018.

[14]Acharya, A. (2006). India and Southeast Asia in the Age of Terror: Building Partnerships for Peace. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 28(2), pp.297-321.

[15] Acharya, A. (2006). India and Southeast Asia in the Age of Terror: Building Partnerships for Peace. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 28(2), pp.297-3