Southeast Asia: A potential new hub for so-called IS?

The so-called Islamic State may be slowly facing defeat in the Middle East but they have already set their sights on building a new base in Southeast Asia. Where are they likely to find the most traction and how can the ASEAN countries work together to overcome them?

By Argee Abadines, edited by John Pennington

The so-called Islamic State (IS) or Daesh, as it is known in Arabic, is pivoting to Southeast Asia after losing substantial territory in Iraq and Syria to the coalition forces. Southeast Asia, with its unfortunate history of terrorism, offers fertile ground for them because of a long history of jihadists and terrorist groups. In particular, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia are key ASEAN countries that could play a big role in the rebirth of IS when and if they are defeated in the Middle East. These countries also have significant Muslim populations and they share huge boundaries in the Sulu and Sulawesi seas.

The other ASEAN countries are less likely to be as heavily involved in the resurgence of IS but they should remain vigilant and cooperate with all anti-terror initiatives within the region. There is a big risk of IS fighters returning from Syria and Iraq to Southeast Asia transferring their terrorist knowledge and skills to new recruits.

The Philippines could become IS’s central hub in Southeast Asia

Its weak anti-terrorist infrastructure makes Mindanao a likely central hub for IS in Southeast Asia given the Abu Sayaff’s entrenched position there. Notorious for kidnapping foreigners and asking for obscene ransoms, over the years, they have become more violent and extreme, beheading hostages when ransoms are not paid. In 2016, they formalised their allegiance to IS. Given that Mindanao has never found real peace and development, IS will look to solidify their stronghold thereby uniting Islamic radicals under their umbrella.

Another extremist group in Mindanao that has pledged allegiance to IS is the Maute group (they also call themselves Daulah Islamiyah). They orchestrated the Davao bombing that killed 15 people and wounded 70. Pictures of the Maute group beheading two of six sawmill workers they kidnapped were posted on Facebook, the beheadings mirroring IS’s public executions by using the familiar orange jumpsuits. They also gained more prominence by staging a mass jailbreak in the Mindanao town of Butig, managing to free 23 criminals, which included eight of their comrades who were arrested the week before. Another less well known pro-IS terror group is the Ansar al-Khalifa or Ansar Khalifa Philippines which is also based in Southern Mindanao. Earlier this year, Philippine counter-terrorism forces killed their leader, Mohammad Jaafar Maguid, in the Sarangani province. They also have ties with terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

President Duterte has already been forced to respond to the actions of these groups

These events have prompted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to declare a state of lawlessness in Mindanao. The worst-case scenario is that the amount of terror-related activities happening in Mindanao could lead it to become a de facto ‘wilayat’ or in other words a province of IS. A wilayat is a refuge and transit point for Southeast Asian jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria.

Duterte has one standing order to the Philippine Armed Forces: destroy the Abu Sayaff. It is a tall order and will need the help of neighbouring countries to patrol the waters and crush these pirates. After the war on drugs, terrorism will be his next focus. In a recent speech, he said, “We are now of the opinion in the Cabinet that the IS ideology is here to stay. They are competing for recognition. They are outdoing each other in brutality. The more brutal you are in raising the ideology, the more credentials you may have for [a] recognition.” Duterte has already committed a huge number of soldiers to fight the Abu Sayaff and as he strives for peace and order, channelling more resources into anti-terrorism efforts is likely already happening.

Indonesia’s huge Muslim population is ideal for IS

The second most likely hotbed for IS-related activities in Southeast Asia is Indonesia because it has the biggest population of Muslims in the region. There are already pro-IS groups operating in Poso, on the island of Sulawesi. In Syria, there is a so-called “ISIS Indonesia” and their self-proclaimed leader is Bahrumsyah. According to reports, they attempted to purchase guns from Ansah Khalifah Philippines militants to be delivered to pro-IS groups based in Poso. In 2010, a training camp of Jihadi groups was found in Aceh by Indonesian forces. In that raid, dozens of suspected militants were killed and more than 100 others arrested.

Meanwhile, the US State Department has placed Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), another Indonesian terrorist group, on their counter-terrorism watchlist, explaining, “JAD is a terrorist group based in Indonesia that was formed in 2015 and is composed of almost two dozen Indonesian extremist groups that pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

Last year, Indonesian forces killed Santoso (also known as Abu Wardah) who was known as the “symbolic heart” of the Indonesian Jihadi movement. It is possible that his fighters will join other terrorist groups like the Abu Sayaff. The attackers in the recent Jakarta IS-inspired bombing were fortunately foiled but the propaganda of IS continues to spread throughout Southeast Asia. As it does so, we are likely to see such attacks increase as more and more self-proclaimed followers of IS head to urban areas to kill and injure as many as they can in the hope of gaining fame and respect from IS headquarters in the Middle East.

Malaysia is also a major hub for IS

In 2016, two men threw a bomb into a nightclub in Puchong which injured eight people. This was the first successful IS-inspired bombing in Malaysia. There are an estimated 100 Malaysians fighting alongside IS in the Middle East, according to Security Intelligence firm The Soufan Group.

An important factor that will determine whether Malaysia will be a significant outpost for IS in the region is their political climate. If Islam becomes even more politicised and people become more intolerant of other religions and races, it will be a fertile ground for radical Islam to take root.

Another concern for Malaysia is the proliferation of Malay-language radical websites and chat groups that are very much pro-IS, attracting Malaysians to IS propaganda. The biggest risk to Malaysia is likely to be the “lone wolf” terrorists as they are seldom monitored by security forces as established terrorist groups in the Philippines and Indonesia are. The Malaysian government must therefore keep a close tab on these platforms to prevent further radicalization.

Katibah Nusantara is a new threat to the region

Katibah Nusantara, an IS subunit formed by Malay and Indonesian fighters in Syria, has been operating since 2014 and according to terrorism expert Ridlwan Habib from the University of Indonesia, is tasked with bridging the communication gap between IS with its followers in Southeast Asia using the Malay Language. Habib said, “They serve the translation, publication and public relations in Malay.”

According to Jasminder Singh, a terrorism expert from the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Nanyang University in Singapore, Katibah was formed in September 2014. He observes, “Katibah archipelago seems increasingly important for IS strategic objectives of creating a caliphate throughout the world. The combatants who return can mobilise attacks in Southeast Asia.” In addition, they also open pathways for citizens of Indonesia or Malaysia who want to Syria to join IS.

Al-Fatihin, IS’s first Malay language newspaper, is a worrying development

Perhaps the most troubling development in the region is Al-Fatihin, IS’s first Malay-language newspaper which was launched in June 2016. It is written in Bahasa, Indonesia but it is comprehensible to Malays in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines. Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq Jani, terrorism analysts at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, write, “Al-Fatihin buttresses messages calling on militant groups in Indonesia and the Philippines to unite and pledge their allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Al-Fatihin’s tagline drives the point that no matter the differences and nuances in language, identity and origins, Southeast Asian jihadists have [a] common logos and as such, all Malay-speaking jihadists should act as one.”

Designed to be a powerful recruitment tool for IS in the region, if it gains traction, it could summon a new army of radicalized Muslims ready to inflict damage on the region. The propaganda objective of this newspaper is to unite all Malay-speaking Southeast Asians to pledge allegiance to IS and start fighting as a fully united force.

It is critical that the ASEAN region works together to combat IS and other terror threats

The ASEAN region needs to work together to tackle terrorism threats in the region. They need to understand how IS operates and look to destroy their propaganda and radicalization tools such as their newsletters as well as their activities on social networks. A lot of the Southeast Asian IS recruits that went to Syria were radicalised on social media platforms.

Fortunately, there is currently a general lack of sympathy or support for IS from mainstream communities in Southeast Asia and this will be a major factor in controlling their rise in the region. One reason for this lack of sympathy or support is because of their brutality, which true Muslims do not accept. As such, they have basically alienated the majority of the Muslim community in the region.

Nevertheless, the threat of IS launching a terror base in the region is a very real and unpleasant proposition. And as Southeast Asian nations like the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar are experiencing rapid economic growth, failing to do all they can to stop it happening will halt the growth of this promising region.