S.E.A View

The patterns and portents of ISIS activity in South-east Asia

Extremism is not foreign to South-east Asia. It has been a part of the regional political and security landscape since the inception of independent nation-states, many of which had to struggle against communist movements bent on subversion and overthrow of nascent regimes - including popularly elected governments.

In the 1980s and 1990s, religiously inspired extremism, fanned by the Afghan "jihad", emerged as a matter of concern in South-east Asia not so much for the danger it posed to the stability of ruling governments in the region, but because it threatened to coalesce into a region-wide movement by dint of the fact that it was in Afghanistan that South-east Asians from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar met and trained together, and built an incipient network.

This fear became a reality at the turn of the century, when it emerged that the Indonesia-based terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah, comprising many Afghan "alumni", nursed aspirations to establish a regional caliphate with the use of force covering Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, precisely through the mobilisation of these networks.

Fast-forward to the present, the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore consider returnees from the civil wars in Syria and Iraq to be a potential source of insecurity in their respective countries in the coming years . They have good reason to be concerned. Thus far, the number of Indonesians and Malaysians known to have made their way to join in the Iraq and Syrian civil wars are estimated to range from 150 to 300 in the case of Indonesia and 80 to 150 in the case of Malaysia. Of course, it is unlikely that all joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Indeed, many are known to have joined other extremist groups operating in the Syrian theatre, including those that have opposed the ISIS such as the Al-Nusra Front.

Recent revelations regarding the existence of Katibah Nusantara, the South-east Asian unit within the ISIS ostensibly created to improve communication with recruits from Indonesia and Malaysia who are not conversant in Arabic or English, give pause for further thought. Even more alarming, perhaps, is the creation of a Malay language school for purposes of educating and indoctrinating the children of these Malay- and Bahasa Indonesia-speaking recruits. Recruitment patterns themselves have changed.

In Malaysia and Singapore, social media has proven to be the primary avenue for recruitment, although in the case of Malaysia, security officials are also believed to have focused attention on a few Islamic schools. In Indonesia, while recruitment for Syria- and Iraq-based groups has, by and large, leveraged on pre-existing extremist networks such as Jemaah Islamiah (whose members actually joined anti-ISIS extremist groups), there is evidence that the idea of the establishment of a pristine Islamic state has garnered sympathy from middle-class Indonesians. These have hitherto been unconnected to any of the pre-existing networks nor in possession of extremist backgrounds but are drawn to both the humanitarian call for action in support of fellow Muslims in Syria as well as the eschatological discourse of the ISIS.

There are also disturbing international connections that have been uncovered. In September last year, a total of seven Uighurs were found to be training in a small extremist base of the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia) in Poso, central Sulawesi, a group that was established by a militant by the name of Santoso. It has been reported that the recruitment of Uighurs took place after Indonesian extremists in Syria had discussed ways to strengthen Santoso's group with the recruitment of foreign fighters.


What do these patterns tell us about the evolving nature of the ISIS threat?

First, while the number of South-east Asians inspired by the ISIS and who have left for the conflict zones may not be large relative to recruits from other regions, their level of commitment is deep, and the bonds they will inevitably forge are difficult to break. The fact that whole family units have embarked to Syria and Iraq is disturbing on several counts. Not only does it mean that as migrants, the circumstances they face would strengthen bonds between these families, much in the same way that migrant families everywhere tend to gravitate towards those of similar nationality or cultural and linguistic background and close ranks, but it also means that with children in tow, indoctrination now takes place at a younger age and in the conflict zone itself.

In other words, Indonesians and Malaysians are fighting together in a way that is a cause for concern, especially when foreign fighters return to their home countries.

For when and if conflict dynamics change, these extremists would have formed deep bonds that could potentially provide a basis for cross-border cooperation among them.

Second, the "end-times" narrative of the ISIS' propaganda makes the threat more resilient than previous iterations of religious extremism. Here, what is striking is not so much the deterministic nature of the ISIS' eschatology (which is common in many religions) but the fact that it calls on its supporters to be active participants in the final apocalyptic battle.

Hence, although the leadership of the ISIS may be intent on territory and statehood (that is, creating an actual territorial and administrative Islamic "State"), its brand of eschatology is, in fact, encouraging a virulent and fanatical form of fundamentalism in which adherents are willing and ready to sacrifice their lives for a cause that transcends this life.

Third, while cooperation between regional states has deepened and will continue to do so, counter-terrorism strategy is still confronted by considerable obstacles rooted in domestic contexts. In Indonesia, for instance, corruption in the prison system remains a major Achilles heel. Likewise, while there is doubtless also awareness that anti-terrorism legislation needs to be strengthened, these efforts have been hampered by inter-agency competition between the police and military.

In Malaysia, decades of anti-Shi'ite discourse tolerated, and in many instances sanctioned, by state religious authorities have fanned the flames of resentment against Shi'ite Muslims and played into the hands of ISIS propaganda, in the process posing problems for a Muslim-led government that has always been concerned about its religious credentials.

Finally, the use of information technology by the ISIS, not to mention imagery more commonly associated with the entertainment industry, not only distinguishes it from earlier extremist and terrorist groups, but has also had a profound effect on its audience, especially millenials. Defeating the virtual online army of extremist groups thence, whether it be the ISIS, al-Qaeda or any other such entities, will require attention to be devoted to understanding the aspirations of and appeal to digital natives through the creation and nurturing of engagement programmes specifically targeted at them.

Ultimately, countering the threat posed by the ISIS in South-east Asia calls for less conventional strategies and a greater degree of cooperation, not only between governments but also within governments. The threat of extremism has clearly evolved with new skills, new ideological commitments and new networks.

It is absolutely imperative that our strategies to counter this threat evolve as well, and preferably at a faster pace.

•The writer is Lee Kuan Yew Chair in South-east Asia Studies, Brookings Institution, Dean and Professor of Comparative and International Politics, S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

•S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2015, with the headline The patterns and portents of ISIS activity in South-east Asia. Subscribe