The Islamic State extremist group has lost significant territory in the Middle East but the group continues to make headlines in Southeast Asia. How does it operate in the region and what impact is it having on local militant groups?
By Umair Jamal
The Islamic State (IS) extremist group is reportedly stepping up recruitment in several Southeast Asian countries amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have become the transnational militant organization’s latest recruiting grounds.
It is possible that with these countries’ governments focusing on the looming health and food security crisis, the group is taking the opportunity to operate more effectively, making use of already existing militant infrastructure in the region to make new inroads in Southeast Asia.
Essentially, the extremist group is relying on its links with local terrorist groups to ramp up its profile and outreach in the region. However, it is not necessarily making much headway in Southeast Asia as militant groups based in the region do not share its ideology. These militant groups are instead using their association with IS to boost their own operations and profile.
Arrests in Indonesia and Malaysia evidence how IS recruits and operates
There is growing evidence to suggest that the group is attempting to increase its operations globally, including within Southeast Asia. Christopher Miller, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, said that the group “continues to prioritize the expansion and reinforcement of its global enterprise, which now encompasses some 20 branches and networks.”
Since the start of the year, Indonesia’s security agencies have arrested more than 50 militants with ties to groups that operate under the IS banner. The majority of them are associated with Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a militant group known for its ties with IS.
In Malaysia, there is no clear evidence to suggest that IS has increased its presence during the coronavirus pandemic. However, there are reasons to believe that the group is attempting to recruit lone-wolf attackers and other self-radicalized individuals. For instance, last month, an e-hailing driver was sentenced to three years in prison for possessing IS videos and propaganda material.
According to Deputy Public Prosecutor Mohd Firdaus Abu Hanipah, “Some of the videos also urge Malaysians to wage war against the Royal Malaysia Police and the Malaysian government. As such, I request for a heavy punishment as a lesson to the accused and the public.”
This case indicates that the group is relying on the internet and social media for recruitment purposes where it cannot forge an association with a local group. Explaining IS’s recruitment strategy in Malaysia, Ahmed El Muhammady, a counterterrorism specialist at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, told BenarNews that “There may be no increase in the terror threat but the attempt to recruit by spreading propaganda on social media during the COVID-19 lockdown is happening.”
“The absence of overt activities and arrests do not mean the IS recruitment drive has stopped. Low-profile recruitment in Malaysia remains a big headache for our police,” he added.
In the Philippines, the group is using the same methods
It is a similar story in the Philippines, where IS has used both the internet and direct links with local militant groups to boost its operations in the country. IS wants to win the support of local militant groups as well as reach out directly to people via different online mediums.
It may already have a more active presence in the Philippines than Indonesia and Malaysia. For instance, earlier this year, a militant attack by an IS-affiliated terrorist group in the Philippines killed at least 14 people. A recent Pentagon report warned that the United States’ efforts to work with the Philippines government to dislodge IS from the south of the country appear to be doing little to remove the group’s presence.
“In general, efforts to reduce extremism in the Philippines do not appear to have made a substantial difference,” wrote U.S. Defense Department Acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell in the report assessing the success of Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines.
Why are Southeast Asia’s militant groups associating with IS?
The majority of IS’s operations in Southeast Asia rely on militant groups that operate locally in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. There are two main reasons why militant groups based in the region may be willing to operate under IS’s banner.
The first is that associating with a globally recognized militant organization with significant outreach offers them more legitimacy. Like IS, Southeast Asia-based militant groups see COVID-19 as an opportunity and an effective propaganda tool to gain more recruits.
Observing the nature of IS’s threat amid COVID-19 in Indonesia, Sidney Jones, director at the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said: “The arrival of the virus gave the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia (MIT) a new hope that victory was near, and buoyed by the addition of new recruits, it began a series of attacks.”
The second reason, and one already being adopted by local militant groups, is to align themselves with IS propaganda mechanisms to unite its ranks and launch more brutal attacks. For instance, the increasing use of female suicide bombers and family networks by Southeast Asia’s militant groups comes straight out of the IS playbook.
It is probable that Islamist militant groups based in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines view IS recruitment tactics as an effective way of boosting their ranks and broadening their appeal. Furthermore, the use of family networks and female bombers by IS set a precedent for Southeast Asia militant groups. Hence, they are now willing to employ similar methods to expand their own networks.
Southeast Asia’s militant groups arguably see their association with IS as marriages of convenience where both sides stand to gain more than if they go it alone. These associations are certainly not glued together by any ideological bond. Both groups’ interests are better served by cooperating with each other at different levels. Therefore, the notion of IS making inroads in Southeast Asia may be little more than overblown rhetoric.