ISIS is on the rise in Southeast Asia
The US-bases research organization RAND has issued an in-depth analysis about ISIS’ growing operations in Southeast Asia following its defeat in Iraq and Syria.
Six months later, ISIS is still reeling from the shock. ISIS militants initially sheltered underground in enclaves throughout the Levant. They began a sustained campaign of assassinations and ambushes against political power brokers and security forces, particularly in Iraq.
Southeast Asia, in particular, has assumed a greater role in the terrorist group's global strategy. The number of ISIS fighters, suicide bombers, organized training programs, and propaganda videos originating from the region has grown steadily in recent years.
RAND, which is a not-for-profit organization for helping policymakers make decisions that are based on its research and studies, noted that Southeast Asia may be the newest breeding ground for militant Islam. Deeply interconnected but hard to rule, the island-studded region lends itself to unconventional warfare.
And since at least 2018, when it became increasingly difficult to travel to Iraq and Syria, foreign fighters from the region and farther abroad have flocked to the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia because of these countries’ growing reputation as emerging fronts for global jihad. The violence perpetrated by pro-ISIS groups in this region has been episodic and uncoordinated, but the underlying trend is clear—ISIS has shifted away from its initial concern with sovereignty over land and people, moving, in the process, toward a decentralized, global insurgency model.
ISIS first gained a foothold in Southeast Asia in 2014. As the group swept across Iraq and Syria that year, existing Southeast Asian jihadi organizations pledged their loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a dizzying rate. Among them were Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic terrorist group with longtime ties to al Qaeda; the Maute Group, an ISIS-linked terror group that played a pivotal role in a bloody 2017 siege of the Philippine city of Marawi; and the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), another affiliate based out of Indonesia.
At first, these pledges of loyalty went largely unrecognized by ISIS leaders in the Middle East. Even so, by late 2014, roughly 1,000 Southeast Asians had joined ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. More than 300 of them belonged to a single military unit—the Katibah Nusantara—which demonstrated impressive military capabilities against the Kurds on the battlefield in Syria.
Gradually, ISIS’ central leadership began to take note. The group’s media and propaganda arm increasingly featured Southeast Asians, including them in its seemingly ubiquitous beheading videos. In 2016, ISIS started publishing a weekly newspaper in the Bahasa language—the official language spoken throughout Indonesia—and it created hundreds of social media channels in Bahasa to promote ISIS ideology. That same year, Baghdadi declared the Philippine leader of Abu Sayyaf, Isnilon Hapilon, an emir of ISIS in East Asia. Baghdadi also designated several smaller Philippine-based groups that had pledged loyalty to ISIS as official “brigades.”
Although it named a single emir for all of East Asia, ISIS doesn’t treat the region as a monolith. Instead, the organization tailors both its recruitment techniques and its military tactics to local sensibilities. In Indonesia, for instance, the group recruits mainly by cultivating personal relationships in a handful of mosques and madrasahs, whereas in Malaysia—where the state controls the mosques—it focuses on radicalizing people online. Malaysian recruits have come from across the socioeconomic spectrum. By contrast, in the Philippines, ISIS has mainly found willing recruits among the poor.
ISIS’ military tactics are similarly varied, ranging from straightforward territorial warfare in the Philippines to ambushes against police and security forces in Indonesia. But across Southeast Asia, the group has left its signature calling card: the suicide bombing. While the tactic wasn’t new to Indonesia—the Jemaah Islamiyah, an al Qaeda affiliate, launched suicide bombings in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2009—it was rare in Malaysia prior to ISIS’ rise and unprecedented in the Philippines.
In many ways, the Philippines has emerged as ISIS’ greatest hope for a revival of its caliphate. In May 2017, ISIS militants seized control of Marawi, a city of 200,000 on the island of Mindanao, in the restive southern Philippines. For five months the fighters held off the U.S.-trained Philippine military, before being routed through a combination of airstrikes, artillery bombardment, and direct raids. Many of the top ISIS leaders and over 500 militants died in the operation.
Southeast Asia remains geographically remote and far from the ISIS core in the Levant. It is also culturally distant from the Islamic world’s traditional heartlands on the Arabian Peninsula. In the end, local militants probably care more about ISIS than ISIS cares about them.