“It is far easier to kill a terrorist than to slay an ideology.” Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
“The fragmentation of humanity and its agony grow from the false supposition that all human beings have to fight for their right to be appreciated and loved. This ‘false supposition’ seems to make the news daily.” Henri Nouwen
Happy New Year!
This week marks the third part of my series on ISIS 2.0. In part one, we looked at how ISIS 2.0 is experiencing a resurgence in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq, with the drawdown of the presence of the U.S. and its allies in the region.
In part two, I addressed the emergence of ISIS 2.0 in Africa, especially with the birth of The Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), which is an amalgamation of local terrorist groups allying themselves under the leadership and goals of ISIS. We determined that one thing remains clear: the creation of a caliphate under the leadership of an Allah- appointed caliph or a sovereign Islamic leader, is still the primary driving force behind all that ISIS does, even in Africa. The franchises of ISIS 2.0 in Africa are intended to be provincial outposts of the caliphate, ruled by an amir, who receives his directions from the caliph.
This week, in the final part of this series, we will look at how ISIS 2.0 is gaining traction in South East Asia. Little is being said about ISIS in this region. We will primarily focus on the South Eastern Asian countries of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Together they make up a constituent population of just over 700 million souls. That is roughly similar to the populations of the United States and Europe combined.
Though not much is being discussed about this emergence, it is no small endeavor. As ISIS continues to look for new places to call home, South East Asia holds some promising possibilities, with its thousands of islands and significant pockets of hardcore anti-government Islamist groups who have been in business for decades. As in Africa, they are finding nice franchising possibilities for a unique South East Asian ISIS 2.0 franchising model. There is an immensity of ways that these situations are unfolding under the radar, and as always, there is far more than meets the eye.
The spread of Islamist terrorism, around the world, is a major concern for U.S. Homeland Security. Addressing this threat requires steadfast monitoring and proactive actions in every corner where ISIS and al-Qaeda ideology is spreading. There were indications of ISIS and Islamist ideology spreading throughout parts of Southeast Asia that are reminiscent of this violent ideologist expansion in Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, and elsewhere in Africa.
Southeast Asia is an attractive target for ISIS ambitions due to large Muslim populations, history of terrorist activities, and a long-standing desire by groups who are there to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate. There is a precedent for this… Darul Islam was an Islamic insurgent movement that grew during World War II in opposition to Dutch rule. Following the Declaration of Independence in 1949, it found itself at odds with the new Indonesian government, and used the political instability and at times, weak governance, to grow in influence.
ISIS’s appeal has been sporadic, but not without its impact. ISIS has been targeting Southeast Asia aggressively with media messaging for some time, and with local language that has been styled to appeal to the populations. For some segments of the population, this has been a clarion call. A number of groups, including South East Asia’s most deadly organization, Abu Sayaf Group (ASG) have sworn allegiance to ISIS and its self-proclaimed caliph. There have been thousands who have declared their support at public rallies. There are approximately 3,000 pro-ISIS websites in Southeast Asia with more than 70 percent coming from Indonesia.
What are the reasons for ISIS’s appeal? How heavy is the ISIS footprint in Southeast Asia? Has the ISIS threat thus far, consisted mainly of the use of websites and social media to recruit followers? Or, is there also evidence that ISIS has deployed operatives to Southeast Asia and elsewhere in Asia, for the purposes of recruiting foot soldiers? To what extent have local groups and individuals appropriated the ISIS narrative for their own purposes? Has ISIS won adherents and recruits elsewhere in the wider Indo-Pacific region? These are all questions that are being unpacked these days by Intelligence analysts and Academics around the world.
As it turns out, the ISIS appeal is limited but proactive. South East Asia is home to hundreds of millions of Muslims but to only a few thousand Islamist extremists. ISIS is not making easy inroads into countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia because these countries are experiencing a modicum of economic prosperity, as well as development in areas such as infrastructure, especially in education, science, agriculture, fishing, and transportation.
ISIS brutality has been a significant cause for mainstream anti-ISIS opinion. Globally, ISIS has been successful in attracting recruits from areas and populations that face either economic hardship, weak political governments, authoritative leaders, and/or persecuted minorities, or a combination thereof. In Southeast Asia, these conditions are no longer readily apparent.
Southeast Asian populations live in generally stable, well-governed, and prosperous nations, and are not as oppressed or politically disempowered as Muslim populations in other parts of the world. While some still struggle with poverty, economic opportunity, corruption, and adequate infrastructure, the region is broadly prosperous. Most people are experiencing improving economic conditions from year to year.
There are still reasons for concern:
According to John T. Watts, Non-resident Senior Fellow, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council, there are nonetheless a number of reasons that the prospect of an emergent ISIS cell in SE Asia is of concern.
While the spate of Jakarta attacks in 2017 and 2018 were amateurish and ineffective, ISIS has shown itself to be a learning organization that can adapt and improve over time. ISIS had previously experienced several failures, ie. the devastating attacks in Paris and Belgium, from which they learned and improved. While the Indonesian police arrested a dozen people following the January 2017 attack, it is likely that there is a still larger network that could learn from the experience and improve in the future. As foreign fighters return from Iraq and Syria, they may bring know-how and
experience with them.
While SE Asian law enforcement agencies are broadly effective, the Jakarta attacks and the August 2015 bombing in Thailand at the Erawan Shrine, which killed 20 people, are reminders that terrorism can still strike across the region. No police force can stop every attack. Considering the long history of terrorism in the region, any signs of a reemerging trend is cause for concern. It remains to be seen whether these incidents were outliers, or indicate deeper failures within the respective forces. One of the reasons why groups such as ASG thrive in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) is the physical terrain, which is made up of challenging land and waterscapes that favor terrorists during naval chases. This gives the terrorist groups an advantage over the security forces.
As noted earlier, with a few exceptions, SE Asian nations are relatively prosperous, politically stable with tolerant and moderate societies. As such, the potential for ISIS to apply the approaches that have worked for them in the Middle East is unlikely to work in SE Asia. They are not likely to be able to effectively infiltrate government agencies en masse, attract large sections of the population, or sufficiently destabilize governments to create political vacuums.
The threat of large pieces of territory falling to ISIS is very low. There are, however, still remote areas, including some with sympathetic local populations, which could be used to create bases and training camps that would pose a significant threat to regional security. The likelihood of an insurgency reemerging is far lower than in the past, but local outbreaks of violence are possible. Moreover, while the groups that have sworn allegiance to ISIS do not currently have the capability, or possibly even the intent, to band together and strike on a national level, an influx of resources could quickly change that threat scenario.
Groups like Ansharud Daulad Islamiyah (ADI), which have a presence across several provinces in Indonesia, and the Ahlus Shura Council in the Philippines, see themselves as the beginning of a SE Asian Islamic State, even if they do not yet control any territory. Many of the armed groups in the region are motivated primarily by specific political goals or for financial gain. There are various other insurgent and secessionist groups throughout the region of various ethnic and religious composition.
The region comprises numerous different ethnolinguistic groupings and many grievances of individual groups directly related to their specific circumstances and political grievances. Nonetheless, there are sufficient numbers of groups that could align with ISIS’ ideology and in any case, we have seen that ISIS can be highly pragmatic in creating alliances. It is plausible that they could reach a mutually beneficial arrangement with unaffiliated groups that do not share their ideology in order to achieve mutually beneficial objectives, should the need arise.
South East Asia is in the back-yard of both the Western Hemisphere, as well as Europe. The city of Bandeh Aceh in Indonesia is called the “front porch of Mecca,” because of its position as the staging city for South East Asians to participate in the Hajj.
The prospect, as pointed out by Watts, of South East Asia becoming as entangled in ISIS 2.0 as is Africa, or a re-emerging Middle East, remains a significant threat. The area known as the Tri-Border Area (TBA), comprising of Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah, Philippines, and Indonesia in the Sulu and Celebes Seas, has witnessed rampant activities of terrorism, kidnappings, armed robbery, smuggling, and other illegal maritime activities. Between 2018 and 2020, there were 40 kidnapping attempts, off the waters of Sabah.
The TBA has long been a hotspot for militant groups, including Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). The TBA remains an active zone for human smuggling and kidnapping activities. An Interpol-led operation codenamed, ‘Maharlika III’ carried out in the TBA region from February to March 2020, during the pandemic, resulted in the arrest of more than 180 individuals, (including an ASG member) for various offenses.
The TBA is a Western gunslinging-style frontier on the sea, with pirates, bandits, radicalized Islamists, and criminals of all sorts. It is as lawless as any area on the earth. ISIS 2.0 appears to have the vision to establish itself there with training camps and a launching base into more populated cities, where it can influence many, with its pseudo-form of Islam. Westerners, both travelers as well as expatriates, ought to have a grave concern over the presence of ISIS 2.0 fighters taking an interest in this region.
Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, China, and Vietnam should take more seriously the threat to their population centers for this emerging danger. There has been a long-festering animosity between all these nations in the Tri-Border Area. They need to look past their differences and consider the growing peril they will be facing soon if there is no order brought to this region.
As of right now, few are taking this threat seriously. The U.S. didn’t take it seriously in Iraq or with President Obama calling the ISIS Junior League: terrorists. Iraq didn’t take it seriously and lost a third of its country before taking it back at great costs, with the help of the U.S. and allies. Syria lost a third of its real estate before it was able to regain control, at great cost to the Kurds and the U.S. military. ISIS is not a force to be ignored. Governments need to take them more seriously and deal with them thoroughly.
The weapons embargo on Iran is coming to an end… https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2020/10/13/the-weapons-embargo-on-iran-is-coming-to-an-end
Tigray: Hundreds of civilians reported killed in artillery strikes, warns UN rights chief …https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/12/1080622
For your comments or questions about any of our digests, please feel free to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org