United front needed to counter ISIS' growing campaign in South-east Asia

A multi-state front comprising police and military institutions will reduce threat

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIS or Daesh in Arabic) has embarked on a global campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate across Asia.

To fulfil the vision of its self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, even affiliated militant groups in South-east Asia have been injected with their extremist doctrines, turning them into a unified force. The manner in which ISIS conducts itself has been translated onto South-east Asia, resulting in the "Daesh-isation" of the region.

ISIS is not merely a terrorist outfit fighting an asymmetrical war, as is often claimed. Instead, it behaves like a conventional army - albeit devoid of morality. Instead of small cells, it has tens of thousands of fighters organised in battalions and brigades, equipped with weapons and doctrinal manuals, and have been conducting war by conquering and occupying territory.

With the Daesh-isation of South-east Asia, militants in the region also attempt to engage in conventional warfare, even though, in reality, their enemies are far superior. Militant forces in Mindanao - involving elements of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Abu Sayyaf Group, Mujahideen Indonesia Timur and Malaysians - are regrouping for that reason.

A similar militant joint operation is also taking place in Poso, where the Indonesian government states that more than 100 foreign militants are operating.



Just as ISIS is a conglomerate of multinational, multi-ethnic brigades or kataib in allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, these groups from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, although loosely organised with different aims, are crystallising into a unified force.

Unlike the past, the present Daesh-oriented security threat is driven by an ideology that gathers support from any group or individual that believes in the Daesh vision to establish a wilayat (administrative division) in support of a global caliphate.

Additionally, foreign elements have also joined in local extremist missions, as is increasingly evident in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. Most recently, inroads are being made online to pull the historically insular Thai insurgency into Daesh-isation, with the emergence, on social media, of a Daesh flag superimposed on the map of southern Thailand.

They are unified not just through allegiance to a self-styled caliph, but also through a common South-east Asian language group, comprising mainstream and dialects of the languages of the Malay world.

When the Jund al-Tawhid faction from the Philippines released its video of oath-taking, online supporters recognised the video as a product of "Mujahidin Serumpun Melayu" (Mujahidin of the Malay Family).

Daesh's ideas are also propagated through local South-east Asian languages such as Bahasa Indonesia and Tagalog, as seen in official ISIS Telegram channels directed at South-east Asia.

Moreover, the presence of multinational militants in Poso, including Uighurs and Mandarin-speaking fighters, and reports of Arab fighters in Mindanao imply an internationalisation of a symmetrical war in the tri-border area straddling Sabah, Sulawesi and Mindanao.

Last Saturday, Mohammad Khattab, a Moroccan bomb-making instructor, was killed during a firefight in Basilan with Filipino forces. He was reported to have wanted to unite the ISIS-affiliated groups in the Philippines and link them with the international terrorist organisation.


However, Daesh-isation of South-east Asia involves the application of wilayat as an extension of the global caliphate. This ISIS contribution to extremist parlance brings sophistication to militant activities, strategy and operation. Extremists do not just act out local grievances through banditry under a militant command centre. Extremists are now ostensible citizens of an illegitimate global caliphate, and their sub-state wilayat is expected to add value to the caliphate, by supplying new recruits or to broaden the imagination of the boundaries of the elusive Islamic state.

Fighters are known to have discarded passports, as a gesture of the rejection of their previous allegiance to the state system; they identify themselves instead through their bai'aat or oaths of allegiance and crude identity cards created as conduits of "citizenship". With wilayat as an extension of ISIS' pseudo-state, Daesh-isation also introduced the concept of non-military contribution, instead of merely front-line fighting.

Even extremism in South-east Asia is beginning to take on a Daesh flavour.

Whereas Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and Al-Qaeda are now apparently more careful or are in postponement of sectarian conflict, Daesh is uncompromising in its hatred of out-groups, especially the Shi'ites, inherited from its late founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Already, Malaysia is adamant in not accepting Shi'ism as part of Islam while Indonesia has a history of blood-spilling, house-burning sectarian violence. The sectarian aspect of Daesh-isation is compatible with regional communal tensions and online fighters receive approbative responses whenever they turn to using Shi'ites as whipping boys for Daesh's atrocities in the Middle East.


Aside from the existing regional political consensus and inter- agency intelligence information sharing, to defeat Daesh in South-east Asia, there should also be joint operations where necessary, especially when groups such as Abu Sayyaf operate over multiple borders. The Mindanao-based group had recently abducted Malaysians and Indonesians in the waters off Semporna and an unknown location near Malaysian waters.

Even if such joint operations are just a show of force or combined training efforts, a united multi- state front comprising both police and military institutions will shatter any dreams of a wilayat spanning the archipelago. From the bottom to the top, the order of battle of the police and militaries of South-east Asia will have to address areas such as Mindanao and Poso to significantly reduce the pernicious threat of terrorism in the region.

ISIS' affiliates seem to have no conception of defeat. They are neither concerned about the global opposition, nor the weakness of their own forces, in the belief that death is the imagined salvation usually unattainable, while defeat is but a temporary setback.

After Paris, Istanbul and Brussels, a paradigm shift is crucial to counter, contain and degrade, if not eliminate the extremist militants of Daesh so as to prevent them from creating havoc on earth.

  • Jasminder Singh is a senior analyst and Muhammad Haziq bin Jani is a research analyst, both with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentaries.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2016, with the headline 'United front needed to counter ISIS' growing campaign in S-E Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe