The Memo: 15 Apr—21 Apr 2024

The Memo from Apr 15—21, 2024: Indonesia arrests seven JI-linked militants; Philippines freezes assets of terror-linked groups and an individual. Sydney teen's attack on a bishop sparks a riot. Iran activates defenses, downs drones amid escalating Israel tensions. Global crime surge.

The Memo: 15 Apr—21 Apr 2024

In brief:

  • Indonesia arrests seven Jemaah Islamiyah-linked militants, seizes tech.
  • Philippines freezes assets of eight groups, one individual.
  • Sydney teen attacks bishop, sparks riot; over 500 involved.
  • Iran activates defenses, downs drones amid Israel tensions.
  • Global surge in criminal activity underscores urgent need for intervention.
  • Sahel emerging as major drug trafficking corridor.

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1. Geopolitical security updates and incidents

i. Indonesia

Indonesia's elite counterterrorism police arrested seven suspected militants from a suspected new cell linked to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Central Sulawesi. During operations in Palu, Sigi, and Poso, the police reportedly seized laptops and mobile phones. These arrests are connected to the information gathered from 59 militants detained last October. The suspects are believed to have participated in military training and fundraising for terrorist activities.

Why it matters: JI remains one of Indonesia's longest-standing and most persistent threats. The group is known for its agility in shifting strategies, adjusting operational priorities, and maintaining discipline to remain resilient. JI reportedly even attempted to infiltrate democratic processes. Despite setbacks that disrupted its operations and weakened its structure, it appears that JI actively continues to demonstrate resilience by generating funding to revive itself.

ii. The Philippines

The Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) of the Philippines has issued orders to freeze the assets of eight groups and one individual identified as terrorists by the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC). The freeze orders are issued against groups including the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA), Islamic State of East Asia (ISEA), Abu Sayyaf, and others. The orders also target Elizabeth Pineda Principe (who has many aliases including Bining/Caroline/Lola/Rochel/Uying), a senior member of the CPP-NPA. These actions aim to control the finances related to these entities and prevent terrorism financing as mandated by law, which also requires various governmental bodies to enforce these freeze orders and report relevant details to the AMLC.

Why it matters: Although the rebels are already weakened, Manila is signaling its capacity to tackle the terrorism and insurgency problem by transforming conditions through freeze orders aimed at snuffing out new manifestations and limiting their capacity. However, a whole-of-government offensive may not be sufficient to address the grievances with compliance and should balance its counter-insurgency efforts with meaningful dialogues and community engagement.

iii. Australia

On April 15, a 16-year-old who was not previously on any terror watchlists assaulted two people, including a bishop, at an Assyrian Christian church in Sydney. The bishop sustained severe injuries but is reportedly improving. According to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the suspect, who acted alone, was subdued by congregants and arrested. This incident sparked a violent riot outside the church, involving over 500 people who attempted to lynch the youth, leading to injuries and damage to police vehicles and local property.

Why it matters: The attack was described as religiously motivated, targeting religious figures in a sacred space during a service with the intent to intimidate, which may align with common definitions of terrorism. Yet, this latest incident underscores the enduring security challenges associated with the designation of terrorism. Such a designation can influence how law enforcement conducts investigations and allocates resources. Categorising a violent act as terrorism can also impact intercommunity dynamics, particularly when motivated by religious or ideological extremism. If not managed carefully, it can exacerbate tensions between communities.

iv. Iran-Israel tensions

On April 19, Iran activated air defenses across multiple provinces, including near Isfahan airport, in response to explosions amidst escalating tensions with Israel. State media reported that Iranian forces downed three drones over Isfahan and also activated defenses in Tabriz. Simultaneously, explosions in Iraq and Syria coincided with Israeli missile strikes on military sites, causing material damage according to Syrian state media. This upsurge in hostilities follows Iran’s retaliatory launch of over 300 missiles at Israel, a response to suspected Israeli attack on Iranian embassy compound in Damascus earlier this month.

Why it matters: Iran’s downplaying of Israel's apparent calibrated attacks suggests a core strategy aimed at deterring engagement in a conventional, full-scale conflict that could risk extending to the wider Arab world. Nevertheless, this scenario underscores the volatile conflict between Iran and Israel. Given their history of reciprocal attacks and deep-seated animosity, any military engagement between these two nations can quickly escalate. The potential for a broader conflict carries global repercussions, with the capacity to significantly influence international diplomacy and security strategies.

2. Organised crime watch

i. Malaysia

In 2023, scam calls targeting Malaysian users surged by over 100%, with Gogolook reporting 1.63 million incidents, a significant increase from 812,000 in 2022, marking Malaysia as the second most affected among seven Asian countries analyzed. Despite governmental efforts, including blocking 2.6 billion suspected scam calls, and partnerships with organisations like the Royal Malaysian Police to combat fraud, 10.4% of users still engaged with these calls. Emerging trends include AI-based scams manipulating news footage to create seemingly trustworthy investment opportunities, leading to substantial financial losses, with RM65.8 million lost in just the first two months of 2024.

Why it matters: The National Scam Response Centre handled over five times the number of scam-related calls in 2023 compared to the previous year, highlighting the escalating challenge of online financial scams in Malaysia. This surge in scam activities is alarming as it not only leads to significant financial losses for individuals but also undermines trust in communication technologies and financial systems, demanding more robust preventive measures and public awareness initiatives.

ii. Hong Kong

Scammers, posing as the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA), are exploiting Hongkongers by tricking them into paying fictitious fees, despite recent efforts by the HKMA to raise awareness about financial scams. The authority alerted the police after people reported receiving fraudulent messages via WhatsApp, demanding money transfers to cover supposed taxes or fees to release frozen assets or reverse fraudulent transactions. These messages often led victims to fake websites or urged them to download malicious apps that steal personal information.

Why it matters: The significance of these incidents lies in the broader impact on public trust and the integrity of financial communications. The scams not only cause direct financial harm to individuals but also undermine confidence in the financial system, highlighting the critical need for continual advancements in cybersecurity and public awareness campaigns to safeguard personal information and assets.

iii. Japan

Japanese police are intensifying efforts to combat investment scams on social media, where scammers impersonate prominent businesspeople to trick victims into transferring substantial sums. In 2023, these scams resulted in losses of about ¥27.79 billion ($147 million) across 2,271 cases, predominantly targeting middle-aged and older adults. The majority of these frauds involved the messaging app Line. A notable case involved a Tokyo man in his 70s who lost ¥140 million to a scammer using a fake app to show phony investment returns. Meta has responded, stating that they invest heavily in safety, enhance cultural understanding and enforce strict advertising policies, including the removal of deceptive ads and collaboration with authorities to address online fraud.

Why it matters: This recent development likely indicates an increasing sophistication and prevalence of online financial scams that exploit the trust and inexperience of vulnerable populations, posing serious threats to personal financial security and the reliability of digital platforms. Meta's response suggests the critical importance of incorporating cultural awareness and sensitivity into its policies when operating internationally, emphasizing the ongoing need for enhancements in digital security measures and public awareness to safeguard individuals against such deceptive practices.

iv. United Kingdom

Police have dismantled a gang operating LabHost, a technology service that facilitated large-scale phishing scams, leading to the arrest of 37 individuals globally and the seizure of substantial criminal assets. This service enabled scammers, lacking technical skills, to send fraudulent messages and direct victims to counterfeit websites, mimicking legitimate payment and shopping platforms. The gang's activities, unearthed by the Cyber Defence Alliance, involved stealing personal data including 480,000 card numbers and 64,000 PIN codes, with LabHost earning nearly £1 million ($1.25 million) in profits. The two-year multinational investigation involved multiple law enforcement bodies across 17 countries and resulted in 70 property searches, with 24 arrests in the UK alone. Police have now taken control of LabHost, redirecting its users to a warning page and implementing strategies to undermine criminals’ confidence in the security of such scam services.

Why it matters: The success of this operation has likely dealt a significant blow to the organization behind LabHost, highlighting the effectiveness of international cooperation in combating cybercrime. The involvement of law enforcement from various countries which resulted in the arrest of suspects and the seizure of substantial assets underscores the global reach and impact of criminal networks.

v. Sahel

The West African Sahel is increasingly becoming a significant corridor for drug trafficking, as highlighted by a United Nations report which noted a dramatic rise in drug seizures in the region. In 2022, authorities in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Niger confiscated 1,466kg of cocaine, a stark increase from the annual average of 13kg recorded between 2013 and 2020. Cocaine, following cannabis resin, is the most seized drug, underscoring the Sahel's role as a key transit route for South American cocaine headed to Europe. The UN report warns that the burgeoning drug trade not only funds armed groups, exacerbating regional conflict and instability, but also penetrates various state layers, enabling traffickers to evade prosecution. The involvement of political elites and community leaders in facilitating this trade calls for urgent, comprehensive international action to dismantle the trafficking networks and address the broader challenges of regional instability and governance.

Why it matters: The escalating drug trafficking in the Sahel is of significant concern because it feeds into and exacerbates existing regional conflicts and instability, undermining efforts towards peace and development. The drug trade provides substantial funding to armed groups, perpetuating violence and insecurity. The complicity of political elites and community leaders in these activities corrodes the integrity of state institutions, eroding public trust and hindering effective governance. This situation underscores the necessity for an international response not only to curb the drug trade but also to strengthen state structures and support regional stability and security.


i. TikTok ban

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 360 to 58 to advance a bill that could lead to shutting down TikTok, marking the first potential use of legislation to close an entire social media platform in the U.S. The Senate will consider the bill next week, with President Joe Biden indicating he will sign it. The bill extends the divestment period for TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, from six months to a year. Critics argue TikTok could pose a data security risk and be used by China for propaganda, while TikTok insists it operates independently and protects U.S. user data.

Why it matters: The bill's advancement has sparked significant debate about data privacy and the implications for free speech and surveillance within the U.S. One potential scenarios is that if TikTok were required to sever ties with its parent company ByteDance and be acquired by an American company, it could potentially normalise its business structure and oversight. However, if this were to happen, this would also raise questions on how its content moderation policies may change.

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