Asians, Australians among foreign fighters in Iraq

Dozens of Asian and Australian fighters have joined foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria to support insurgent groups, experts and officials have disclosed recently in statements that are heightening concerns over their likely ramifications for the Asia-Pacific region.

Recent arrests and revelations have highlighted the involvement of groups from Malaysia and Indonesia with the leading Iraqi hardline group - the Islamic State in Iraq and the al-Sham (ISIS) which is also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The group has been rapidly increasing areas under its control in Iraq after controlling vast swathes of Syria including oilfields in the eastern part of the country.

But regional analysts say many more South Asians will be involved as well, while Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Wednesday said that nearly 150 Australians had trained with militants in the Middle East.

“I had intelligence briefing from agencies this (Wednesday) morning and (the) best estimate is that there are about 150” fighters from Australia who either have fought or are fighting “with opposition groups in Syria and beyond”, Ms Bishop told ABC radio, calling the number “extraordinary".

“In Syria, it seems that over a period of time they have moved from supporting more moderate opposition groups to the more extreme, and that includes this brutal extremist group ISIS,” she said.

While many might been killed in the battles currently being waged in the Middle East, experts warn of the consequences once the remaining members return battle hardened and keen to put their acquired skills to use.

Few have forgotten how hundreds of fighters from Asia trained with Al-Qaeda and the Taleban and fought the Soviets in Afghanistan some years ago. A  few then returned to strengthen and train new recruits of militant groups taking shape in South and South-east Asia and elsewhere, among them the regional group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which was behind the Bali bombings and several other plots. 

Besides, ISIS has already gained a reputation for being deadlier than Al-Qaeda. Such has been its savagery, ruthless killing of Shi'ites in Iraq and its bid to take over the Al-Qaeda outfit in Syria - called the Nusra Front - that it forced Al-Qaeda's general command to issue a statement in February this year declaring that ISIS was not part of Al-Qaeda.

The denouncement notwithstanding, ISIS has been making headway, gaining control over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown which is just over 140km from Baghdad. Iraq's key strategic asset, the Baiji oilfield, was also taken over by the insurgents. And such has been ISIS' gains that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has requested Washington to launch air strikes against the Sunni militants. US President Barack Obama for now has sent 300 US military advisers to gauge the situation.

But observers say that the gains by ISIS is not entirely a surprise given the strategic manner in which it has been progressing under its current emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who took over in 2010. Its bid to take over oilfields in Syria has given the group financial muscle. Arrests and seizures also point to meticulous planning by a core group of members enabling the group to build its capabilities.

ISIS has also been on a campaign to revitalise the group by inducting younger recruits. And such has been its appeal that it has attracted many foreign fighters. Estimates of the strength of ISIS range from 6,000 to 12,000, with some observers saying that at least a third of the group is now made up of militants who do not hail from Iraq or Syria, the two strife-torn countries, where it has a strong base.

A report by the Economist states that the group could have at least a thousand fighters from Chechnya, while about 500 more from France, Britain and elsewhere. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons earlier this week that at least 400 British Muslims were marching with ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, presenting a bigger threat to the country now than Afghanistan.

"I don't know how we measure how widespread the influence of ISIS (in Asia) is but it certainly has admirers from Sumatra to Sumbawa in Indonesia," says Jakarta-based analyst Sidney Jones who heads the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (Ipac).

"And we've seen several YouTube posts of would-be ISIS followers elsewhere in South-east Asia," she tells The Straits Times, adding that the region also has followers of rival groups such as the Nusra Front, which find ISIS too brutal.

Till recently, a video doing the rounds on YouTube showed Indonesian militants in Syria, encouraging fellowmen to join the jihad. The video emerged shortly before ISIS seized control of the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, Time magazine reports. The video has now been removed from YouTube.

Events have been held to raise money in Indonesia for ISIS, according to Ms Jones. Leaders of many of the hardline groups have also posted online statements of support, she says.

The list includes one of the founding members of JI, Abu Bakar Bashir, and radical cleric Aman Abdurrahman, who is serving a prison term for aiding a JI training camp in Aceh. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry has said that about 50 Indonesians trained with militants in Syria. And while it is not clear if any moved to Iraq with ISIS, reports have said that a 19-year-old Indonesian reportedly died in a suicide bombing attack in Iraq.

A Malaysian became the second South-east Asian to die in a suicide bombing attempt, in an explosives-laden SUV, that left 25 Iraqi soldiers dead earlier this month. Ahmad Tarmimi was a factory worker in Selangor and his immediate family had no clue about his involvement with ISIS, reports said. A continuing crackdown has exposed others linked to the group, with police arresting a weapons handler on Wednesday, taking the total number of ISIS-linked arrests to 16.

Singapore has not been immune either to the turmoil in the Middle East, although links have been traced to Syria, not Iraq. A person of Indian origin, who had obtained Singapore Permanent Resident status  and was working as a systems analyst here, was investigated under the Internal Security Act for his role in abetting and aiding a Singapore national, who worked as a supermarket manager, to participate in the armed violence in Syria.

The manager returned to India and reportedly recruited two Indian college students to support the struggle in Syria.

"These are the three known cases of Indians being involved in Syria," says Dr Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. "But there could be dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of other people travelling from Pakistan or elsewhere to the Middle East. There are reasons to believe that given past records, although details are not clear.

"Traditionally, we act after a bomb attack. But that should not be the case. Indications of the links are there. We need to wake up now," he said in a phone conversation with The Straits Times.