Rise of Islamic State in Southeast Asia: What it means for the region

islamic-southeast2The arrest of four former members of the Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesia terror network affiliated to Al Qaeda and proclaiming allegiance to ISIS, has put the spotlight on the threat of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia.

The region has been affected by certain forms of indigenous Islamic militancy for several decades. In the 1990s, these largely local militant groups were exposed to global strains of Islamic terrorism owing to the confluence of several factors, including an adverse reaction to globalization, increased contact between some of these groups, desire to create a pan-Islamic Southeast Asia, frustration with repression by secularist governments and the return of terrorist veterans who had fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

With the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its decentralised mode of terror, the region and its leaders are faced with a new surge in radicalism and extremist violence whose impetus is being provided by an organisation beyond the reach and jurisdiction of most countries affected by it.

The threat the ISIS poses to Southeast Asia has often been highlighted by the leaders of the nations in the region, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warning Singaporeans in November 2015, to be “psychologically prepared” for an attack like the one in Paris as “We (Singaporeans) are in the middle of a region (where) ISIS is active” .

Nature of the Threat

The degree of threat posed by ISIS in the region can be gauged through the following parameters:

The number of nationals recruited and their activities overseas: There is a high possibility of radicalized individuals coming back and waging war against the state equipped with new skill sets gained while overseas, as witnessed earlier in the 1990s. The Soufan Group provides a figure of 900 Southeast Asians fighting in Iraq and Syria, including 200 Indonesians and 200 Filipinos. These fighters are actively recruiting back home via jihadist videos disseminated over the Internet, such as “Join the Ranks”. Highlighting the gravity of the situation, Malaysian transport minister Liow Tiong Lai revealed that an estimated 50,000 Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sympathisers were active in Malaysia alone. Further, Malaysia’s inclusion in the anti-terror coalition announced by Saudi Arabia may have retaliatory effects in the near future if the coalition decides to specifically target the ISIS.

Violent activity in this context can range from ‘Lone Wolf’ attacks (as seen in San Bernardino) and coordinated assaults (Paris).

Judging by the type of attacks in the past year, the sites of such probable attacks are most certainly densely populated urban areas like city centres, ports and cultural centres, that are likely to get prominent media attention and achieve the IS objective of highlighting their ability to wage global jihad.

Apart from explicit violent activity, there is growing concern that the IS propaganda is leading to a build up of latent tensions between communities that have existing fissures between them: for e.g. the Buddhists and Muslims in southern Thailand.

Closeness of association with local militant groups: Till date nearly 30 terrorist outfits in the region have pledged ‘Baya’ (allegiance) to the ISIS, mimicking a trend set off by Tehreek-e-Khilafat, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and others. Some of the top pledges include those of Indonesian terror outfits such as Al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) founder Abu Bakar Bashir, founder of the JI splinter group Jemmah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), MIT leader Santoso and leaders of the Filipino militant group Abu Sayyaf.

Furthermore, Tanzim Al-Qaeda Malaysia, or Al-Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago, Darul Islam Sabah (linked to Abu Sayyaf) and the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, have been reported to attempt a formalisation of a pro-ISIS coalition in Southeast Asia, together with the groups in Indonesia and the Philippines.

How successful IS will be in Southeast Asia?

islamic-southeastDespite the fears that Southeast Asia remains a ‘blind spot’ for countering the Islamic States’ operations, there are several constraints on the ISIS activity in the region.

First, the number of Southeast Asian nationals fighting overseas is low in comparison to the figures from Tunisia (6,000), Saudi Arabia (2,500), Russia (2,400) and Turkey (2,100) which constitute a sizeable chunk of the 27,000-31,000 recruits from 86 countries (Soufan Group Intel Brief)

Second, while pledges convey a sense of alliance and common objective, the reality is more complicated. For instance, supporters of JI founder Bashir claim that he pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and not Baghdadi’s ISIS. This is plausible if seen in the context of Al Qaeda’s ongoing rivalries and efforts to win back influence fro ISIS and turn global attention back on to Al Qaeda (efforts like the announcement of the Al Qaeda wing in South Asia).

Third, groups like the Abu Sayyaf have appeared moved away from the goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate and developed a more commercial focus, as seen by a series of cross-border kidnappings for ransom money to buy arms.

Fourth, experts believe there is a reluctance amongst some of these groups to associate themselves explicitly with the global jihadist movement, fearing that their local support base would perceive them as ignoring local concerns. Assessments by RAND and ICG have highlighted the nature of certain insurgent movements in the region (for instance, the insurgency in Thailand’s ‘Deep South’) as being essentially ethno-nationalist and ‘asserting ethnic identity rather than religion per se’.

Fifth, regional security experts like Ahmed Hashmi and Rohan Gunaratne believe that these groups do not have the structural capabilities to establish a functioning caliphate and that the threat level posed by these groups is restricted to their immediate local area of operations. This is perhaps because of the rampant factionalisation seen within many major groups including JI, JAT and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

However, while there is a strong case for reassessing the analysis of this situation coming out from the West, it must be pointed out that it is possible that it may be these very constraints on these groups that might force them to support and showcase loyalty to the ISIS in whichever way they can. Just as Osama Bin Ladin’s “seed funding” of several million dollars enabled Abu Sayyaf and JI to launch their first operations in the 1990s, funds from the Islamic State may lead to a cementing of the relationship between the ISIS and militant groups in the region and in the event of this happening it would enhance Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s legitimacy among the global jihadist community and strengthen ISIS further.

What’s the way out?

In any case what is beyond dispute is that a new wave of radicalisation is affecting the region. Besides its disruptive potential, it brings with it an impetus to the call for establishing a supranational caliphate covering Indonesia, Malaysia, Southern Thailand and southern Philippines.

It must be recognised by security agencies in the region that to counter the ISIS threat they must look for broader trends in extremism and observe the spikes in violent activity that appear to be communally related including burning of churches, attacks on monasteries and even so-called ‘dens of vice’ like casinos and so on. This point serves to reiterate the fact that the foundation of Islamic extremism in the region was laid by the politicization of Islam as a tool to redress ethnic and cultural grievances. Therefore, the remedy must focus on addressing the root impetus of radicalization while simultaneously working out short term security solutions, that includes strengthening ground intelligence gathering, monitoring recruitment ‘hotbeds’, monitoring social media accounts, done in collaboration with international counter terrorism efforts.







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