The Rise of ISIS in South-East Asia

By Zofia Reych

“With His permission and His assistance, we will come to you with a military force that you cannot overcome. This is Allah’s promise to us,” declared a jihadist fighter in the latest video released by the ISIS.

The militant, with a group of uniform clad child soldiers surrounding him, throws his Malaysian passport on the ground. The pile is then set ablaze by a young boy uttering bismillah.

The clip is believed to have been recorded in an ISIS controlled territory of Syria or Iraq, and is a clear declaration of war on Malaysia, Indonesia and possibly other countries in the region. It was released only days after an ISIS linked grenade attack on a nightclub in Punchong, Malaysia, and around the same time that a suicide bomber wounded a police officer in the Indonesian city of Solo.

Home to a quarter of the world’s Muslim population, South-East Asia is likely to become a strategic outpost for the so called Islamic State. It’s recognised as one of ISIS’s main recruitment pools and the recent attacks confirm the militants’ desire to expand territorially.

Although it might seem that the liberal brand of Islam practiced in most Muslim countries in the region is not prone to extremism, these hopes are most likely futile according to Kumar Rumakrishna from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore that. Small extremist groups are already active in various hotspots across the region, and Abu Bakhr Baghdadi is hard at work to turn them into ISIS operational outposts. Even if their agenda might not be aligned with the extreme faction of Sunni Islam practiced by ISIS (and, in fact, they might never have had a Koran in their hands at all), alliance with the powerful Caliphate is seen as an asset by guerilla thugs trying to make a living on violence.

It is estimated that in Malaysia alone there are over 50,000 ISIS sympathisers, stemming mostly from marginalised ethnic groups. The majority, however, is rather liberal in their practices of Islam and therefore a thorn in the eye of Abu Bakhr Baghdadi.

Region wide, it is difficult to outline universal reasons for radicalisation, but Professor Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman points to popular sentiments against Shiite Muslims as a factor.

A generation of militants

ISIS is known for frequently featuring children in their propaganda materials. They’re “creating many classrooms worth of heavily indoctrinated, heavily committed children who are being brought up only understanding the world through Islamic State’s binary view of jihad,” said Charlie Winter, an expert on ISIS propaganda.

But kids in khakis is not only propaganda. It’s the reality in which 89 minors were killed as ISIS suicide operatives in the last year alone. Many of them were born in South-East Asia.

For now, social media remain the main avenue of ISIS indoctrination and recruitment in the region. The strategy seems effective as there’s already a Malay-speaking jihadist military unit established within the Caliphate-controlled territory.

In camps set up to breed a generation of ISIS raised children, regular exposure to violence is part of the indoctrination. Youngsters are socialised to see death as a commonplace occurrence, both in terms of executing “the infidels” and giving life in suicide attacks.

It is estimated that so far 500 Indonesians have joined the ISIS forces in Syria. Very often young children are taken along with adults. Teenagers, prone to online indoctrination, embark on the journey to the Caliphate on their own. To date, 17 Malaysians have died fighting in the ranks of ISIS, most of them as suicide attackers. In January this year, 30 people were killed in Syria and Iraq in two separate incidents involving Malaysian suicide bombers.

Yet training new recruits to send them outside of the Caliphate controlled territory is a logistical and financial burden. As a part of the fear-instilling strategy, it is much cheaper for ISIS to radicalise locals across the world and inspire one-off attacks, such as the recent bombing in Solo.

Although such incidents are seen as a ‘spillover of conflicts in the Middle East’, last year’s words of Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong ring true. “The threat is no longer over there; it is over here.”

To counteract, governments of South-East Asia must work on two levels. The physical threats need to be minimised by increasing regional cooperation and expanding antiterrorist intelligence networks. Even more importantly, grassroots initiatives targeting children, teenagers and marginalised groups have to be set up to prevent the rise of extremism and nip violence in the bud. These activities have to be carried out both online and offline.

Speaking of the necessary strategies, Professor Ramakrishna evoked the words of Sir Gerald Templer: nothing new is needed, but to fight the threat of Islamist extremism in Southeast Asia, the existing methods have to be applied faster and more effectively.