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Asian Editors Circle

Home-grown militants easy recruits for ISIS

While the Middle-Eastern battlefields of Iraq and Syria may have seen the worst atrocities committed by the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, countries far beyond this region have felt the shockwaves of terrorist violence.

The spillover of the Iraqi/Syrian conflict has been felt in Europe, as the recent atrocity in Nice, the March Brussels attacks, and last November's incidents in Paris show. Here, many home-grown European extremist Muslims have dedicated the violence they have perpetrated to ISIS.

However, the broader Asian region - beyond the Middle East proper - is also not immune to mass-casualty terrorism carried out in the name of ISIS. For example, last month's bombing targeting Afghan Shia Hazaras in Kabul; the Dhaka cafe attack, also carried out last month; as well as the attacks in Jakarta in January of this year have all been carried out by fighters pledging allegiance to ISIS.

This begs the question: How is a militant organisation based in the Syrian town of Raqqa - being attacked by a number of powerful opponents, including the Syrian state, the United States and Russia - able to coordinate violence on such a spectacular global scale?

Perhaps the answer to this query lies in the fact that Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed ISIS "caliph", does not have to spend time, money or resources in physically activating cells in lands far and wide. Instead, technology and social media are largely doing the job for him, as extremist groups and individuals already present in various states provide willing recruits for the ISIS cause, abandoning or altering their previous affiliations to accommodate the ISIS "brand".

Take the example of Pakistan. Since the 1980s, militant Islamist groups have grown exponentially - due to the initial benign or otherwise patronage of military dictator General Zia ul -Haq, and the unfolding of the anti-Soviet, Saudi- and US-backed Afghan "Jihad" in the region.


A makeshift memorial in Nice last month, set up as a tribute to victims of the seaside promenade attack in France which killed 84 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for this attack. Many home-grown European extremists have dedicated the violence they have perpetrated to ISIS. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Many of the militias that were formed in Pakistan during this period, which drew recruits from Afghanistan as well as from Pakistan and across the Muslim world, spawned "jihadi"successors after the Afghan campaign itself was over. Some of these were anti-India and Kashmir-centric, while others were virulently sectarian, taking aim at Pakistan's sizeable Shia Muslim minority. The vast majority of the groups adhered to the Salafi/Wahhabi or Deobandi creeds.

During the 1990s and beyond, these militant groups proliferated as the state chose not to act, indulging in horrific acts of violence. Post-Sept 11, the Pakistani establishment did act, shutting down some (but not all) militant groups. In the aftermath of 2007's Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation in the heart of Islamabad, the country witnessed an explosion of militant Islamist violence. This violence was only significantly controlled when the military went into the north-western tribal regions in June 2014 to flush out the militants based there.

The reason for giving this lengthy background is to explain that now, with the rise of ISIS - a militant group that has grand territorial ambitions - there are many willing recruits for the ISIS cause in Pakistan, thanks to over three decades of active militancy.

Unfortunately, many in the top tiers of government have dismissed the possibility that ISIS may be making inroads in Pakistan through these militant actors. For example, Pakistan's federal Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan has said ISIS has no presence in the country. Yet, there are frequent news reports stating that militants have been arrested from various Pakistani cities, whom police claim are linked to ISIS/Daesh. In fact, in the aftermath of the recent Kabul Hazara bombing, a top US general stated that most ISIS fighters in Afghanistan were formerly associated with the Tehreek-i- Taleban Pakistan militant group before switching sides. Some Afghan Taleban fighters were also reportedly aligning with ISIS.

The Pakistani Interior Minister has said other "terrorist groups" use the Daesh name. This, it seems, is merely a matter of semantics, as the local militants are self-identi- fying as ISIS fighters. Then why should the government insist on denials? Yet, despite the wavering at the top, some officials are willing to call a spade a spade. For example, the head of Pakistan's Intelligence Bureau, a top civilian intelligence agency, has said on record that ISIS is an emerging threat in Pakistan; he named Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, two anti-Shia sectarian militant groups, as likely to be allied with ISIS.

The Pakistani example - home-grown militants and extremists pledging allegiance to the ISIS cause - can be applied to other Asian states as well.

Like Pakistan, the Bangladesh government had also initially denied the presence of ISIS in the country, despite several claims made by the outfit. In fact, it has blamed mainstream opposition parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami and Bangladesh Nationalist Party for the violence. But as some observers noted, those involved in the violence in Bangladesh and claiming to fight for ISIS were linked to the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, a long-active militant group.

According to the United Nations, over 30 groups worldwide have pledged allegiance to ISIS. South-east Asia is among the regions on the militant group's radar, and in this region, too, established militant networks are being used to further the ISIS cause, as the report Radicalisation in South-east Asia, focusing on Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, published by the Malaysian government and supported by the European Union and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, points out in great detail.

In fact, fighters from South-east Asia have been active in the Middle East, and many have returned home. Moreover, in May last year, the Singapore Prime Minister had said South-east Asia had turned into a key "recruitment centre" for ISIS; experts said Mindanao in the Philippines was particularly vulnerable, where the establishment of a possible province of ISIS was concerned.

Groups, such as Ansar al-Shariah, Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiah and others that have long been active in the region, have been linked to ISIS. The Syrian conflict has played a key role in raising ISIS' profile in Indonesia and Malaysia. Groups and individuals attracted to ISIS Takfiri and sectarian creed form the base of Asian support for Daesh. Actual transfer of funds has been reported from Raqqa and Australia to Indonesia.

Over 100 Indonesian fighters have been reported to be in Syria and Iraq as per official figures; unofficial figures say the number may be as high as 800. Also, in 2014, Katiba Nusantara, the Daesh "unit" fighting in the Middle East and consisting of Malay-speaking militants, was formed.

In the Philippines, the official position is also that ISIS has no real presence in the country, even though members of Abu Sayyaf have pledged allegiance to the group and there has been ISIS recruitment in Mindanao. Some officials have declared a difference between "Daesh-directed"and "Daesh-inspired"; again, this difference may be purely academic.

The fact is that denying the presence of ISIS in their countries will not help governments deal with the problem. While it is true that fighters may not be hopping on planes out of Syria and Iraq to form cells or "provinces" abroad - though the return home of fighters from these countries is a problem - all militants need is a good Internet connection and enough propaganda material to "inspire" would-be extremists sitting in far-off lands. Hence, perhaps Asian governments need to take a long, hard look within, at the militant and extremist movements that already exist, to stem further acts of terrorist violence.

•The writer is a senior editor at Dawn and a scholar of religious militancy. This is the sixth article in a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'Home-grown militants easy recruits for ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe