ASEAN governments fear a return of ISIS fighters

Islamic state fighters hold up the ISIS flagPhoto: Vimeo

Former ISIS fighters from Southeast Asia are opting to stay in the Middle East, but regional governments must remain vigilant.

By Zachary Frye

On October 29, 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a US military operation in Syria. He was the leader of the terrorist organisation since 2013.

His death will have consequences for ISIS’s command systems, and potentially its global structure. ISIS wants to create a far-reaching Islamic caliphate, ideally spanning continents. While the group lost most of its territory over the past several years, it has galvanized a substantial base of foreign fighters.

ISIS was effective at recruiting fighters from Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. Although most of these countries’ citizens want nothing to do with ISIS, a small minority went abroad to fight for the caliphate. Should these fighters return home in substantial numbers, they could complicate regional efforts to maintain peace and stability.

Foreign ISIS fighters by region

Some government officials fear the death of al-Baghdadi could lead to an increase of foreign fighters looking to expand operations in their home countries. For Malaysia’s Home Affair’s Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, there is a concern that the region could become a new target.

“After losing much of its territory in Syria and Iraq, Daesh (ISIS) is looking for a new base. Malaysia does not rule out the possibility of Daesh shifting its operations to the Southeast Asia region,” he said.

The region is attracting extremist activity, but it’s not widespread

After al-Baghdadi’s death, Nathan Sales, a US counter-terrorism expert said that Southeast Asia isn’t seeing a huge influx in returning fighters. Instead, many are opting to stay in the Middle East.

With that said, the region clearly isn’t immune to the threats of extremism. In 2017, terrorists attacked the Filipino city of Marawi, leading to a three-day siege that displaced some 350,000 families.

According to Brian Harding, Deputy Director and Fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the situation in Marawi “demonstrated that ISIS has the potential to draw on a network of support in Southeast Asia.”

Speaking with ASEAN Today, he noted “that Marawi became a magnet for individuals near and far looking for an opportunity to fight in Southeast Asia, including those who could not make it to the Middle East.”

More broadly, however, it’s likely that Marawi represents a worst-case scenario for the region. Such a serious terrorist threat in an ASEAN city should give pause to regional security teams, but that doesn’t mean there is a legitimate threat of a caliphate across the bloc.

Regardless, it does demonstrate the willingness of some regional citizens to take up the extremist cause.

“Ever since ISIS began to retreat in Syria and Iraq, Southeast Asian governments have been bracing for the return of fighters. In the meantime, the region has seen attacks by individuals drawn to the cause but who never actually made it to the Middle East,” added Mr Harding.

Graffiti of the ISIS flag sprawled on a shipping container
ISIS graffiti sprawled on a shipping container.
Photo: Thierry Ehrmann

Terrorism will likely persist Southeast Asia, but the threat shouldn’t be overblown

The ASEAN bloc is diverse in many ways. It is a region of many religions, languages and peoples. While sectarian divides aren’t generally as fierce in Southeast Asia as parts of the Middle East and Africa, the region faces serious cases of inter-religious violence.

The threat of terrorism remains an issue in the region, but there is little evidence to suggest that Southeast Asia will become the next hub of ISIS activity. However, small-scale attacks by disorganized bands of fighters, lone-wolf attacks, and extremist recruitment efforts in the region will continue to threaten safety across the bloc, especially in more decentralised areas.

For Mr Harding, although terrorists will likely continue to view Southeast Asia as a potential base of operations, the lack of extremist sentiment in the region should stymie cases of large-scale violence.

“Among the hundreds of millions of Muslims in maritime Southeast Asia, there is a small minority view that the region should be a caliphate.”

“So long as the region is comprised of nation states committed to multiculturalism and democracy, the threat of Islamist extremist violence will persist. ISIS-inspired attacks are but the latest in a long history of such violence and over decades these societies have proven resilient in the face of extremist violence and propaganda,” he said.

ASEAN countries should be proud of their diversity. They should also find strength in their historical reluctance to view this diversity as a liability. ISIS and other terrorist organisations pose a concern to regional security and harmony. Regional governments would do well to remain vigilant, but they need to pursue the issue without exaggerating the threat.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.