Dhaka siege highlights terror’s threat to Asia’s pluralism

JAKARTA — Asian nations were on heightened alert for terrorist plots even before last week’s attack in Bangladesh, aiming to avert the kind of violence that could tear rifts in some of the region’s pluralistic societies.

Singapore began checking foreigners’ fingerprints at airport immigration and border controls in April as a precaution against false passports. Authorities say this measure already has thwarted several attempts at illegal entry. Thailand has increased surveillance cameras on city streets and taken other steps to bolster security since last August’s bombing in Bangkok.

Indonesian counterterrorism units are engaged in an ongoing campaign on Sulawesi, a reputed base for radical Islamic groups. President Joko Widodo has picked a counterterrorism expert to head the nation’s police force.

In southern Philippines, the jihadist group Abu Sayyaf has perpetrated kidnappings for ransom, among other crimes. Tough-talking new President Rodrigo Duterte has warned the militants that “there will be a reckoning.”

All these countries worry about infiltration by radical elements from the Middle East and other hotbeds of terrorism. Authorities are particularly alarmed by the Islamic State group’s call for acts of terror during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which is now drawing to a close.

Indonesian police detained three people in June suspected of a bomb plot in Surabaya, a city in eastern Java. Suicide belts packed with explosives were found on the premises, and authorities allege one suspect confessed to intending attacks like those seen in Jakarta in January.

Singaporean authorities arrested 27 Bangladeshi nationals late last year, including individuals suspected of planning to join radical Islamic groups in the Middle East. In India, five people suspected of being Islamic State operatives have been arrested.

None of these countries has managed to root out terrorism. A suicide bombing outside a Pakistani polio immunization clinic in January provides just one example of an attack that authorities failed to prevent.

Travel between the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia has long thrived, creating pathways for radical ideas to spread eastward. The internet has become a tool for radicalization. Asian nations must contend with the frightening prospect of homegrown terrorist networks and radicalized lone wolves.

Economic disparities contribute to the spread of terrorist ideology. In the Philippines, Christians make up around 90% of a population of 100 million while Islam is confined mostly to the southern island of Mindanao in areas that are separated from Manila by a wide gap in prosperity. This creates fertile ground for resentment among Muslims.

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