Barry Desker For The Straits Times

The long arm of Islamic radicalism


This year, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is seen as the primary threat arising from Islamic radicalism. It has rapidly overtaken Al-Qaeda in international coverage and in the attention paid by governments around the world, including South-east Asia. Yet, ISIS, which is also known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Islamic State (IS), did not exist three years ago.

It now controls large stretches of territory in Iraq and Syria, mounts a sophisticated social media campaign and elicits pledges of loyalty worldwide, far from its roots in the brutal civil war in Syria.

The rise of ISIS reflects the bitter Sunni/Shi'ite sectarian conflict in the Middle East. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad's military and intelligence services, Iraq's Shi'ite Islamist militias, Lebanon's Hizbollah - strongly supported by Iran - confronted Syria's Sunni Arab opposition.

The conflict was rapidly brutalised and internationalised as foreign Sunni radicals joined the struggle, with the Al-Nusra Front emerging as the centre of Al-Qaeda activity in the Middle East. In Iraq, the Nouri al-Maliki administration marginalised Sunni tribes.

The result was the rapid ISIS takeover of Iraq's four Sunni Arab provinces. That followed the earlier seizure of Sunni-majority areas in Syria and the proclamation of a worldwide caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph and the establishment of the Islamic State on the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, on June 29 last year.

The United States and its partners decided to intervene through air strikes and training of the Iraqi military after the execution of an American hostage, journalist James Foley, in August.

ISIS versus Al-Qaeda

ISIS and Al-Qaeda had split in February last year, leading to similar splits among supporters globally. Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS controls and administers territory and does not focus only on spectacular acts of violence.

It has used former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's military officers and bureaucrats as well as foreign Islamist experts to build the rudiments of a functioning administration. The proclamation of a caliphate is a powerful tool in attracting adherents as it establishes a claim to global Islamic authority, recalling the glory of Islam's seventh-century legacy.

Last year was marked by a higher level of Islamist activity in South-east Asia because of the rise of ISIS. Rivalry between the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS was replicated in the region.

In Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia rejected Baghdadi's claim to be the caliph as he was self-proclaimed and not selected by a council while ISIS was an organisation, not a state, and could not be a caliphate.

However, the imprisoned JI spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir pledged his allegiance to the caliphate.

That split his own organisation Jamaah Anshorul Tauhid, with a majority of members - including Bashir's sons - breaking away to form Jamaah Anshorul Syariah.

Leading militants such as the Poso-based Santoso of the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and the imprisoned cleric Aman Abdurrahman backed ISIS.

Radical university students and IT-literate younger Indonesians were also influenced by the well-crafted YouTube videos and online messages produced by the ISIS information machinery.

South-east Asia links

One consequence has been increased activity by JI and pro-ISIS cells in Indonesia as they seek to outbid their rivals to claim the mantle of revolutionary legitimacy. This has not been manifested in terrorist attacks so far but through recruitment, ideological indoctrination and propagation, localised military training in isolated areas such as Poso in Central Sulawesi and the sending of Islamist volunteers to Syria and Iraq.

Although JI stepped up its activities, ISIS commanded attention in South-east Asia over the past year because of the growing numbers who joined pro-ISIS groups and volunteered to fight in Syria and Iraq. There are believed to be more than 200 ISIS volunteers from Indonesia, although the accuracy of these numbers has been questioned, and more than 30 Malaysians.

Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, a Malaysian, was the first suicide bomber from the region. He reportedly blew up 25 Iraqi soldiers at Iraq's Swat headquarters in May. Ahmad Affendi Abdul Manaf was the second Malaysian suicide bomber, driving an explosives-laden truck into a military installation in Syria. An Indonesian was also killed in a suicide attack in Homs, Syria.

The conflict in Syria and Iraq has attracted some support in Singapore. A self-radicalised lawyer, Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader, was detained in October 2012 as he attempted to travel to Syria to engage in armed extremism. Zakaria bin Roslan and Khairul Sofri bin Osman contacted militant groups in Syria, intending to join them. They were issued with Restriction Orders in December 2013.

A Singapore woman, her Penang-born husband and two children from a previous marriage went to Syria in November 2013. Her husband joined the Al-Nusra Front while her son joined ISIS. She works as a cook and her daughter teaches English to children of foreign fighters in Syria.

A new Singapore citizen originally from India, Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, accompanied by his wife and three children, joined ISIS in Syria in January last year and recruited two Indian college students from Tamil Nadu to join him.

Salafi doctrines

South-east Asian Islam was historically influenced by mystical Sufi beliefs, with an overlay of earlier Hindu-Buddhist and animist practices. However, the influence of Salafi doctrines has been rising.

These doctrines emphasise a return to religious practices of the Prophet and his followers in the seventh century and the removal of all forms of innovation and any adherence to pre-Islamic practi-ces.

In the region's Muslim-majority countries, the Salafi influence can be seen in the opposition of government agencies responsible for Muslim affairs to practices such as ritual visits to the graves (keramat) of saints and religious leaders to pray for divine inspiration, and ritual baths in the sea to celebrate the Mandi Safar traditional bathing festival. In Malaysia and Indonesia, there has also been opposition to celebrations of Valentine's Day and Halloween.

The growing influence of Salafi doctrines springs from the dominance of Middle East-trained ulama of government religious affairs departments. In West Malaysia, that led to a controversy over Christians' use of the word "Allah" to refer to God, and the seizure by religious affairs officials of bibles in the Malay language which referred to "Allah".

In Indonesia, religious affairs officials supported Islamic groups who prevented the building of churches and temples in areas close to Muslim communities.

In recent years, there has been rising opposition to Muslims greeting their Christian friends "Merry Christmas". Even President Joko Widodo was criticised by the Islamist group Front Pembela Islam for wishing Christians "Merry Christmas". Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia has been critical of Muslims participating in celebrations with religious connotations, such as Christmas and Deepavali.

In Brunei, Ministry of Religious Affairs officials visited offices, shops and restaurants to remove Christmas decorations last month, for fear they "unknowingly damage" the aqidah or religious faith of Muslims.

Three conclusions can be drawn. First, there is concern in South-east Asia that battle-hardened ISIS and Al-Nusra Front Islamist fighters would return from Syria and Iraq and mount attacks at home, just as the returned mujahideen fighters from Afghanistan were the core of JI and were responsible for some of the worst attacks in the region after the 9/11 terrorist acts in America in 2001.

Second, splits in the leadership and the establishment of splinter organisations have been a recurrent theme in the history of Islamist movements in the region. That has been so since 1803, when Salafi-inspired Minangkabau pilgrims from West Sumatra returned from the Middle East and launched the Padri revolt against the traditional elite (uleebalang) and Sufi-influenced religious teachers.

Third, while Islamist militancy will remain an ongoing security threat in the region, the Islamist movements are unlikely to take over governments in Indonesia and Malaysia. The greater risk is that governments in these Muslim-majority states may attempt to outflank Islamist opposition by adopting their programmes, undermining the region's reputation for religious moderation.

The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Bakrie Professor of South-east Asia Policy, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.