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A Sri Lankan soldier guards St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, a week after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka in 2019. Photo: AFP

Far right vs Islamists: a vicious circle of extremism in Southeast Asia?

  • Arrest of a boy in Singapore who allegedly plotted machete attacks at mosques raises threat of far-right extremism spreading to the region
  • Experts warn of a vicious circle of ‘reciprocal radicalisation’, in which Islamist and far-right groups launch tit-for-tat revenge attacks
The detention of a Protestant Christian teenage boy in Singapore who allegedly plotted terror attacks at two mosques has raised concerns of the danger of Western-style far-right extremism in Southeast Asia, where previously, attention had largely been focused on radicalisation affecting its Muslim communities.
The 16-year-old, who is of Indian ethnicity, was arrested in December. He was said by authorities last week to have been inspired by the 2019 shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, during which the white supremacist Brenton Tarrant killed 51 people. The boy is thought to have hatched his own plot to attack worshippers with a machete following an attack by an Islamist extremist in Nice, France, in which a woman was beheaded in a church and two others killed.

Experts say the significance of the boy’s arrest is about more than this single case; they say it raises the spectre of “reciprocal radicalisation”, a vicious circle in which extremist groups become increasingly violent as they launch tit-for-tat revenge attacks in response to each other’s activities.

They warn the case of the boy in Singapore has already been seized upon by radical Islamist groups who are using it to propagate a narrative of Muslims being under attack by non-Muslims.
“The rise of the far right these days can be called ‘reciprocal radicalisation’, in which two sides – the Islamists and the far right – feed off each other,” said Noor Huda Ismail, a documentary filmmaker on terrorism and visiting fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Noor Huda Ismail, a documentary film-maker on terrorism and visiting fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Photo: Handout

“The Singapore incident has been used as a powerful narrative for recruitment by radical groups who say, ‘See, it is not true that Christians are not up to something against us, the Muslims’,” said Huda, an Indonesian who founded his country’s first private deradicalisation organisation, the Institute for International Peace Building.

Some warn this vicious circle may already have begun. Following the March 2019 attacks in Christchurch that are said to have inspired the boy in Singapore, Islamic State (Isis) called for revenge. A month later, Islamist militants bombed three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, killing more than 265 people. While not all experts agree the two attacks were explicitly linked, Ruwan Wijewardene – Sri Lanka’s defence minister at the time – said the bombings were direct retaliation for the Christchurch shootings.
A soldier guards the Grand Mosque in Negombo, Sri Lanka, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels in 2019. Photo: Reuters
Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at the School of Religion, Queen’s University, Ontario, said “the evidence is still out” on whether the bombings in Sri Lanka were direct retaliation for Christchurch, but is was likely that they had been encouraged by Isis in some form.

Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, associate dean and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the circle of attacks went even further back. He noted that the Christchurch attacker had himself been motivated at least in part by the desire to strike back against what he perceived as Islamist extremist aggression against Europeans.


Christchurch mosque attack survivor speaks about encounter with gunman

Christchurch mosque attack survivor speaks about encounter with gunman

Ironically, said Zachary Abuza, professor of Southeast Asia studies at the National War College in Washington, right-wing extremists had much in common with jihadist groups.

“Both define in and out groups, dehumanise their adversary, believe their religion and culture are under attack and need to be defended [using this to] justify and even glorify violence.
“Like Isis, right-wing extremist groups are very horizontally organised, and rely a lot on ‘lone wolf’ actors. The goal of these attacks is to cause greater civilisational conflicts,” said Abuza, who specialises in terrorism.

Professor Greg Barton, chair in Global Islamic Politics of Deakin University, said that for both groups radicalisation often occurred through grooming and recruitment on social media.


“It tends to be social and involve the forming of new friendships that offer a sense of acceptance and personal affirmation, combined with a romantic notion of participating in revolutionary change,” said Barton.

Indonesian terrorists planned to attack shops in areas with Chinese communities


To what extent the case of the Singaporean boy could be seen as a “one-off” is a more divisive issue.


The country’s Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said he was concerned about right-wing extremist views creeping into Singapore and fighting this would be a “long battle” for Singapore and the world.

Amarnath cautioned against overstating the threat, saying the number of cases of far-right extremism in Southeast Asia was “still quite small”.

But Kumar was not so sure. “If one youth went down this path, why not others? We see the same phenomenon on the Islamist extremist side as well,” Kumar said. “This case is a wake-up call that policy attention should not just be focused on self-radicalised Islamist extremists.”


Kumar said that Southeast Asian countries with significant Christian minorities that perceived themselves as being on the receiving end of strident Islamist activism or violence might be vulnerable.

He gave the example of the Surabaya church bombings of May 2018 in Indonesia that killed 28 people including the bombers.

“Certain middle class, educated Christians in those countries who buy into the Trumpist, anti-Muslim inclinations of some white Christian evangelicals in the United States for instance, may more readily absorb far-right extremist ideas online,” said Kumar.
Kumar Ramakrishna, Associate Dean and Head of International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Photo: Handout
He said a similar demographic in the Philippines, where there was a decades-long history of Christian-Muslim violence, might also be vulnerable to the appeal of far-right extremism. The middle class, he said, had more access to the sort of online conspiracy theories that had inspired the Christchurch shooter.
Meanwhile, Barton thought the likelihood of right-wing extremism affecting mainstream politics in the region was highest in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia.
In Muslim-majority Indonesia, the largest member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( Asean) with 270 million people, has a recent history of fighting between Muslims and Christians in the far flung islands of Poso in central Sulawesi and the eastern spice islands of Maluku. Conflicts from 1999-2002 in these areas, driven by local issues, claimed thousands of lives.

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Mohamad Adhe Bhakti, executive director of the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies, said it was “highly possible” that right-wing extremism would emerge in Indonesia.

He also warned that a Hindu-based group in Bali and a Christian-based group in North Sulawesi – both of which refer to themselves as “armies” despite being mostly non-violent, at least until now – have the potential to turn radical if they feel threatened.

The Bali Army is involved in countering jihadist movements on the island, which has suffered two deadly bombings – an attack on the tourist district of Kuta in 2002 that killed 202 people and a series of suicide bombs in 2005 that killed 20 – that devastated its tourism reliant economy.

An Australian police officer stands near the ruins of the Sari Club, which was flattened by a bomb attack in Kuta, Bali, in 2002. Photo: AP

In North Sulawesi, the Christian-based Maguni Army is involved in promoting an economically independent society based on traditions and moral values.

“If Islamists and jihadist groups are active in their areas [North Sulawesi and Bali], these groups could become radical,” said Adhe.

Adhe said there were also extremist groups in Christian-majority Papua province, that while small had the potential to turn violent if they felt threatened by the presence of outsiders, namely transmigrants from Java island. He said the Save Indonesia Coalition, a self-proclaimed social movement which was against President Joko Widodo and displayed anti-Chinese sentiment, also fell into the definition of a far-right group.

In October 2020, Indonesian police said a group of Save Indonesia Coalition radicals in Medan, north Sumatra, were planning to incite riots and loot Chinese shops in a similar fashion to the violence that swept the country amid the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. Four people were arrested in connection with the plot.

However, Adhe said right-wing extremism was likely to remain small in scale because the government was strong and moderate groups were in such a majority that extremists would “not be able to draw much sympathy and support”.