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New ISIS threats: Scenarios for South-east Asia

The self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is coming under increasing pressure as Western-led coalitions drive it out of territories in two Arab states, such as through the recapture of Fallujah near Baghdad. However, there may be little to cheer as the more pressure is piled on ISIS, the more dangerous it will become.

While ISIS' power is shrinking physically, the consequences of a weakened and defeated ISIS may be more horrendous, as the suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad on Sunday demonstrate. This attack in the holy month of Ramadan, in which 150 people were killed, and the recent attacks in Brussels, Paris, Baghdad, Istanbul, Puchong (Malaysia) and Solo (Indonesia) were led or inspired by ISIS.

Following a string of military conquests in Iraq and Syria in 2013 and 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the self-proclaimed caliph of a self-declared caliphate on June 29, 2014. Since then, ISIS has been in decline. Thousands of its fighters and several military commanders have been killed in coalition air raids, with the militant group losing key cities and about one-quarter of its territory.

ISIS will crumble, but it may not disappear immediately, especially if Libya emerges as the new epicentre of the caliphate. The endemic problems of governance in Iraq and Syria, as well as the heightening Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian divide in the Middle East, will delay the immediate death of ISIS. However, its dwindling power may heighten the threat to the world, especially South-east Asia.

Four scenarios are likely to present themselves:

Scenario 1


The scene of a suicide bomb attack at a police station in Solo, Indonesia, on Tuesday. The more ISIS comes under siege in the Middle East, the more it will be motivated to strike targets outside the region, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS

With ISIS under challenge in Iraq and Syria, its worldwide affiliates are likely to initiate attacks in various parts of the world. The more ISIS comes under siege in the Middle East, the more it will be motivated to strike targets outside the region. In South-east Asia, this could lead to attacks by ISIS returnees and supporters, including by non-South-east Asians, such as the Uighurs and Arabs.

This trend is already visible in the southern Philippines, which has emerged as the regional hub for ISIS' activities. Since April this year, with the appointment of Isnilon Hapilon as emir, a wilayah (province) has been declared in the southern Philippines, literally a de facto self-declared Islamic State in the region.

ISIS' attacks in Brussels and Istanbul are symptomatic of this strategy. An ISIS under threat will see its affiliates widen their attacks abroad to deflect and deter various coalition members from attacking ISIS in the Middle East. This is also to demonstrate to its supporters that it is capable of hurting its "enemies". This danger is likely to increase in South-east Asia in the coming months and years.

Scenario 2

South-east Asia has to be even more prepared for acts of terrorism conducted in the name of ISIS once it is weakened or defeated in Iraq and Syria. In fact, South-east Asia's larger war with terrorism would begin once ISIS is defeated in the Middle East.

There may be a "business as usual" approach as ISIS will not be easily defeated militarily because of the weakness of Iraq and Syria. While ISIS' territories may shrink, it will still be in a position to control large swathes of land and continue to recruit fighters because of the power of its ideology and the weaknesses of most Sunni-majority Muslim states.

The hatred against the West will continue to provide powerful motivation to win adherents for ISIS. A weakened ISIS will still be able to pose a serious threat to most of South-east Asia. Thus, even if ISIS is not physically dismantled, its threat to South-east Asia will remain.

Scenario 3

A military defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is also unlikely to end the threat it poses. Just like Al-Qaeda, following its defeat in Afghanistan in 2001, ISIS' affiliates will be able to pose a serious threat to various regions, including South-east Asia. This is because of the presence of a large number of trained and ideologically fortified South-east Asians in Iraq and Syria as well as a large pool of supporters and sympathisers in the region.

In Iraq and Syria, South-east Asian fighters are organised under an ISIS affiliate called Katibah Nusantara, and the return of its battle-hardened fighters will not augur well for the region. Even more chilling is the "buy-in" of the ISIS ideology by members of the security apparatus, raising the possibility of attacks by some military and police personnel in the region.

Scenario 4

The defeat of ISIS may also not end the threat posed by terrorism. A new round of low-insurgency warfare may surface as most of the issues that led to the rise of ISIS remain unresolved. Just as local extremist groups were attracted to Al-Qaeda and later to ISIS, there is every likelihood that a post-ISIS threat will emanate. Middle East geopolitics has been conducive for extremism and terrorism, and this is unlikely to change.

A new threat may be even more lethal than the one posed by ISIS. One possibility is the merger of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which are ideologically aligned but split by personal differences. South-east Asian fighters with the pro-Al Qaeda Al-Nusra Front may link up with ISIS fighters to pose an existential threat to the region.

In May this year, an ISIS video showed South-east Asian fighters in Katibah Nusantara declaring war on the region. Hence, South-east Asia should remain vigilant rather than laud the end of ISIS.

As ISIS weakens, its danger stems from its willingness to strike at international targets through its global franchises. This is to remain relevant politically, gain more recruits and justify its raison d'etre ideologically. The more ISIS shrinks territorially, the more it will free up its fighters for acts of global terrorism. The more ISIS is threatened, the more fighters are likely to return to their home countries, bringing ISIS' fight to various regions of the world, including South-east Asia.

This would be similar to what happened to the Afghan mujahideen following their success in the Afghan War in the 1980s. In short, South-east Asia has to be even more prepared for acts of terrorism conducted in the name of ISIS once it is weakened or defeated in Iraq and Syria. In fact, South-east Asia's larger war with terrorism would begin once ISIS is defeated in the Middle East.

•The writer is an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore and adjunct senior fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

•This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2016, with the headline 'New ISIS threats: Scenarios for South-east Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe