ISIS In Southeast Asia: A Last-Ditch Effort

Mar 22, 2019 | Asia, GOV, Indonesia, Malaysia, NEWS, Philippines

ISIS linked Activity in Southeast Asia – 2016 | Institute For Study of War

Ideas live on and oftentimes, it will outlive the very people or group that created them.

A Shell of Its Former Self

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), once an off-shoot of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, took the world by storm when it swept through Syria and Iraq in 2014. The so-called “outlaws of Islam” had once managed to conquer a territory the size of Belgium.

Their methods of war were shocking, to say the least, and they were deemed too violent even in Al-Qaeda’s standards.

But since 2014, the so-called Islamic State has been on a steady decline. Thanks to the concerted military efforts of Iraq and Syria, and the backing of US-led coalition forces, the militant group lost control of its territorial empire. And in 2017, Raqqa, the group’s last stronghold in Syria, has fallen.

With its forces going awry, its army in tatters, and with no land for them to even set their foot in, ISIS is just but today, a shadow of its former self in the Middle East.

According to Brett McGurk, the US presidential representative for coalition forces fighting ISIS, what was once a force to reckon with, is now nothing but “pathetic and a lost cause.” Or is it?
Experts on these matters know too well to think that the terror group is completely down and reduced to ashes because in reality, ISIS is far from getting out of business.

Ideas Are Hard to Kill

The famous novelist Neil Gaiman once said, “Ideas are more difficult to kill than people…” ISIS, to many, is just but an embodiment of an ideology that seeks to restore the caliphate of early Islam. This proto-Islamic state closely follows the hard-line ideology of Sunni Islam – a major puritan Islamic faction.

Under this caliphate, the state and religion are viewed as one single entity, whereby governance of the state and decisions made by the political bodies should strictly adhere to the Sharia law.

Apart from this, ISIS was quite successful in propagating the idea of a world coming to an end.

This doomsday narrative further brings legitimacy to the group’s hyper-violent causes. A lot of foreign fighters and supporters of ISIS, which were mostly young Muslims from impoverished places in Southeast Asia, were influenced by the prophecies describing the apocalyptic battle between forces of good and evil, with them being on the former’s side.

This ideology viewed the West (and everything that it represents) as well as the “apostate” Arab regimes as enemies of Islam, and thus therefore should be eliminated.

The above-mentioned are just but the tip of a much larger ideological issue that drove hundreds, if not, thousands of people from around the world to come and take up the group’s cause.

Returning Forces

Perhaps one of the reasons that many remained sceptical about the complete eradication of ISIS in Syria and Iraq is the fear that the group may once again resurface in other places. In Southeast Asia for example, new bases of operation are feared to have already been established.

It did once tried to set roots in Indonesia but the Indonesian military was quick enough to quell its growth. The Philippines also had a run-in with local insurgent forces that pledged allegiance to the black flag. But under the steely determination of the Duterte government, Marawi City, a significant Islamic city located in the southernmost region of the country, was liberated from the group’s influence.

However, it has been known that at the heights of its power, ISIS was able to amass thousands upon thousands of Muslim supporters from the region. Individuals and families left their respective homelands to live in the caliphate. This also meant for them to serve in the armed struggle.

The huge influx of these foreign jihadists prompted ISIS to establish the Katibah Nusantara and had it run under the leadership of Bahrumsyah.

Despite the crippling defeat incurred by the central Islamic State, these Southeast Asian ISIS fighters and supporters remained loyal and ready to die for the cause. It is believed that these groups of people have already migrated to other areas of operation such as in North Africa particularly in conflict-ridden countries like Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Nigeria.

In Asia, it is thought that Indonesia and Philippines remained attuned to the calls of ISIS. One report even stated that a throng of foreign Islamic State fighters have been arriving in the Philippines to recruit new members and to establish a new base of operation, more specifically in the southernmost region of Mindanao.

Indonesia also have their own share of regional ISIS returnees which, according to reports, have numbered around 400 plus.

A Fertile Ground

Turning Southeast Asia into the next terrorism hot spot is perhaps one of the most viable options for ISIS to take if it wishes to continue its plan of world domination.

This region literally has everything the terror group needs to become its next front. For one, SEA is not necessarily known for having a strong enforcement measures against these kinds of threats. There’s also the fact that the region is home to some of the marginalized Muslim sectors. As we all know, poverty and marginalization are two of the most sure-fire ingredients to incite insurgency.

With that in mind, it would be easy for ISIS to find sympathizers who will carry out its violent causes in the region and even beyond its borders. Compensations could either come in cash or the reaffirmation of faith.

Speaking of borders, SEA, being a region made up of archipelagos, has porous borders. This makes it easy for undesirable people (terrorists and extremists) and goods (including guns, bombs, and drugs) to enter the borders unchecked.

A Unified Move To Counter The Threats

In all fairness, Southeast Asian nations are far from being complacent to these damning situations. Governments of countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia, including Australia and New Zealand, have pledged cooperation to tackle down the threats of ISIS in the region.

In a joint communiqué released by these concerned nations, they called for “enhanced information sharing” and “cooperation on border control.”

They also put significance in the use of law to counter radical Islamist activities which include using the internet and social media to propagate ISIS ideologies.

Closing Thoughts

ISIS may no longer be strong enough to even bite the heels of its enemies, but its dream and aspirations continue to live in the hearts of its believers scattered throughout the globe.

To put it simply, ideologies sometimes outlast the very people that created and propagated them. The terrorist group may already have been crushed to a pulp in Syria and Iraq but their influence continues to spread. If not responded with appropriate actions, sooner or later, ISIS will rise back up again to strike even harder.

According to political experts, the challenge now is to put down the growth of this ideology through deradicalization, rather than putting too much focus on military approaches.