ISIS' plans for South-east Asia in global fight

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The setting up of a Malay-based combat unit has serious consequences for regional security.

WHILE the presence of South-east Asian fighters in the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is well-known, what is less noticed is the rising importance of ISIS' strategy of waging a global "jihad". While the Malay-speaking militants who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s formed the backbone of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) in the 1990s and the first decade of 2000, ISIS seems to have more grandiose plans for its Malay Archipelago fighters.

This is evident from ISIS' establishment of the Katibah Nusantara, a Malay-based combat unit, with serious consequences for South-east Asian security. The Katibah Nusantara is a dedicated fighting force. Its capability was most evident early last month when the unit scored its first major combat success by capturing five Kurd-held territories in Syria. This battlefield success was highlighted in the jihadi and ISIS' social media, especially in the Indonesian and Malay languages, partly to entice new recruits to join the cause.

Katibah Nusantara has also been expanding its recruitment drive for fighters and supporters through videos and printed press in the Malay language. While Bahrumshah, a former charismatic JI member in Indonesia, has been active, this has reached new proportions with the use of young Malay and Indonesian children to propagate the cause, especially in the social media.

Katibah Nusantara is likely to gain importance in ISIS' strategic goal of establishing a worldwide caliphate; the combat returnees could be mobilised to undertake attacks in South-east Asia. Unlike JI, which had members who were returnees from the Afghan war, this time, the region would be confronted with a far stronger force in terms of numbers, ideology and military training and combat experience.

Katibah Nusantara has also been playing a part in connecting the local extremist networks, leading to the "glocalisation" of ISIS' danger through nexus with local groups in the region. It also gives hope and support to the local outfits in the region by legitimising their causes, which have suffered from security operations since the 2002 Bali bombings. The downward slide of jihadist appeal and success (of security operations) in Indonesia and even Malaysia since 2009 have been reversed by Katibah Nusantara's success in Iraq and Syria.

The growing reach of Katibah Nusantara could lead to its expanding influence in ISIS' decision-making process, in turn leading ISIS to give greater priority to South-east Asia as its war zone. Already, there are indications, with ISIS suggesting Poso in Indonesia as its training ground and the possible declaration of South-east Asia as part of its "wilayah" or province within the Islamic caliphate.

In addition to the arrest of more than 100 ISIS supporters in Malaysia and a smaller number in Indonesia, the foiling of planned attacks in Malaysia by ISIS supporters is indicative of the danger Katibah Nusantara poses to the region.

A recent ISIS posting on social media also identified Singapore as a possible target for attack, with new groups in the Philippines pledging allegiance to ISIS.

While Malay-speaking fighters, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, constitute a small proportion of the more than 30,000 foreign fighters from over 90 countries currently fighting in Iraq and Syria, more significant is the growing importance of the South-east Asian group.

With more than 700 and 200 fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia respectively, and a smaller number from the Philippines and even Singapore, the Malay-speaking fighters are being organised for a number of reasons, including the fact that they emanate from South-east Asia where a sizeable number of the world's Sunni Muslims reside. About 30 groups in South-east Asia have already pledged allegiance to ISIS.

On Sept 26 last year, the Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiah or the Malay Archipelago Unit for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was formally launched, headquartered in Al-Shadadi, in the Syrian province of Hasaka. This is reminiscent of the Jemaah Islamiah's Al-Ghuraba cell that was based in Karachi, Pakistan, which formed the hub for Malay-speaking militants fighting in Afghanistan.

The Katibah Nusantara is headed by an Amir, officially identified as Abu Ibrahim al-Indunisiy. Most of the leaders appear to be Indonesians, even though many Malaysians are part of it. The unit is subdivided into various departments, including those handling combat fighters, snipers, heavy weapons, tactics and strategy, and military management.

The primary objective of the combat unit is to assist ISIS to achieve its "jihad" goal of establishing an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as part of the wider caliphate.

Ideology is a major factor binding these fighters. The Malay unit facilitates communication among its members and directs their combat tasks.

It facilitates the day-to-day challenges confronting Malay-speaking militants as they are operating in a largely Arabic-speaking environment and face difficulties communicating with other foreign militants.

The unit assists families in Indonesia and Malaysia whose husbands or children are in Iraq and Syria, including those who have perished in combat. The unit motivates the fighters through religious classes to continue their struggle, and prevents disillusionment or retreat from the combat zone, especially in the face of Western coalition attacks. It also performs the task of recruiting new fighters by providing a more conducive environment of fellowship, providing the pull factor for those intent on supporting ISIS.

While ISIS has surfaced as a major threat worldwide, this has become even more compelling for South-east Asia with the establishment of Katibah Nusantara. The formation of a combat unit for the Malay Archipelago requires in response a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach with strong international support. Failure to counter it could have severe security ramifications for the region, similar to what Boko Haram and Al-Shabab are perpetrating in Africa.

The writer is a research analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.