Recalibrating the Islamic State Threat in Southeast Asia

For many Southeast Asian governments, terrorism threats rank among their top security concerns. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore—no strangers to dealing with violent Islamist threats—have been on heightened alert for the past two years over concern that attacks linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group could take place in their territories.

An Indonesian suicide bomber believed to be a supporter of ISIS on July 5 attacked a police station in the city of Solo in Central Java Province, killing himself and injuring a police officer. Earlier this year, in January, bombing attacks targeting a police station and shopping district in central Jakarta in broad daylight, masterminded by an Indonesian ISIS fighter based in Syria, marked the first successful attack by the militant group on Indonesian soil.

Meanwhile, Malaysian police on July 4 confirmed the first successful ISIS attack on Malaysian soil, after having foiled numerous plots being planned by ISIS-linked suspects to attack public targets deemed as un-Islamic. According to Malaysian authorities, a Malaysian ISIS fighter in Syria had ordered the June 28 grenade attack on a bar outside the capital city of Kuala Lumpur in which two of the locals suspected of being involved were police officers.

These attacks suggest that similar ISIS-linked attacks can reasonably be expected in Southeast Asia in the future, despite the best attempts by regional governments to preempt them. As ISIS fights to cling to its territory in Iraq and Syria, the group is said to have recently expanded its sights to Southeast Asia—a prospect long feared by governments and security experts—in an effort to maintain its influence.

A propaganda video released by ISIS on June 22 in five languages—Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, English, Malay, and Tagalog—called on its supporters in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines who cannot join the group in Syria to “join the mujahideen in the Philippines” instead. This is due to the fact that Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singapore authorities have been intensifying arrests of local suspects as they attempt to leave for Syria, as well as of Southeast Asian ISIS fighters returning through the Middle East before they reach home.

These latest developments are concerning for several reasons. Up until now, ISIS’s reach—to the extent that it was organized—was attributed to several local militant groups in Indonesia and the southern Philippines claiming allegiance to the group. In Indonesia, this takes the form of the East Indonesia Mujahidin group, or MIT, based in the jungles of Central Sulawesi Province. Santoso, MIT’s head and a U.S.-designated terrorist, has been on the run from Indonesian police and military forces for months.

In the Philippines, factions of the militant group Abu Sayyaf, which now makes its living from criminal activities, have pledged allegiance to ISIS in recent months. In a video released last month, Abu Sayyaf leader and U.S.-designated terrorist Isnilon Hapilon was named the leader of ISIS forces in the Philippines.

But the latest call could empower Southeast Asian fighters in the Middle East, many of whom are disillusioned with their conditions or the menial non-combat tasks given to them, to return and potentially regroup in the southern Philippines, where protracted Muslim insurgencies and weak government control over the years have bred ungoverned spaces and a weak rule of law.

Estimates of the number of Southeast Asians who have joined ISIS in the Middle East vary between 700 and 1,000, a miniscule figure in a region of over 600 million people. Yet should they choose to head for the southern Philippines instead of their home countries, this could present a shift from existing patterns to which regional governments have become accustomed and pose greater challenges for the overstretched Philippine armed forces.

The Philippine government has already seen a growing threat of ISIS affiliates in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, where Abu Sayyaf kidnappings and the execution of foreign hostages have underscored the lack of control the Philippine government has over its southern reaches. For 13 years as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, U.S. forces advised and assisted the Philippine military in the fight against militants with the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines. Officials declared the joint task force a success, as numbers of Abu Sayyaf fighters dwindled and a peace agreement was negotiated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, one of the largest separatist groups in the southern Philippines.

The U.S. Pacific Command in 2015 decided to wind down the task force’s operations, leaving just a small team of advisers to continue assisting the Philippine military. But the Philippine Congress’s failure to follow through with the peace agreement and the concurrent spread of ISIS’s message on social media have given Abu Sayyaf the opportunity to attract dissatisfied radicals and increase its foothold in the area.

The national security team of newly inaugurated president Rodrigo Duterte has declared the eradication of Abu Sayyaf its first priority. But without a concrete plan to renew the peace process in the southern Philippines, the remote islands of the Sulu archipelago will continue to provide a safe hideout for ISIS-inspired militants.

Now that the militant group has publicized messages aimed at Southeast Asia, it remains to be seen whether this will translate into greater resources and better organization for local pro-ISIS groups, most of which have had difficulty recruiting and obtaining training and resources due to stepped-up policing efforts. In March, for example, a small network of ISIS supporters who were trying to sneak two foreign terror suspects out of Malaysia to another Southeast Asian country and channel funds to a group in the southern Philippines were arrested by Malaysian police before they could cause real damage.

In addition to the southern Philippines, Poso in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi has emerged as a training ground for foreign fighters hoping to travel to join ISIS. How this network will factor into the group’s and its returnees’ potential plans to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia should be seriously considered. Already Uighurs from China were found among MIT militants during clashes between MIT and Indonesian police in Poso earlier this year. Meanwhile, ISIS’s ability to infiltrate the police in Malaysia—a trend concerning in itself—can be made worse by the group’s supporters’ improved ability to organize and disseminate information.

These developments add yet another layer of concern for regional governments and the United States, which has expanded counterterrorism intelligence sharing efforts with Malaysia and Singapore over the past year. ISIS’s message ultimately has limited appeal in most of Southeast Asia, but the group’s ability to evolve, adapt, and exploit cracks in a region with porous borders, and, in some cases, limited state capacity, should be a legitimate cause for concern.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the July 7, 2016, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)

Phuong Nguyen is an associate fellow with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Conor Cronin is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: Oscar Siagian/Getty Images

Conor Cronin

Phuong Nguyen

Associate Fellow, Southeast Asia Program