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Southeast Asia—The Islamic State's New Front?

Suicide bomb attack, Jakarta, January 14, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/zaws4r4 Scene of suicide bomb attack, Jakarta, January 14, 2016. CREDIT: Gunawan Kartapranata. (CC)

Over the past year, as the Islamic State (often referred to as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has suffered multiple losses in Syria and Iraq, the group has clearly been looking to widen its impact, taking the fight to countries outside of the Middle East. Increasingly, ISIS leaders have used social media to call on Islamic radicals to stage attacks in countries in the West like France and the United States, where the Orlando gunman, the San Bernardino gunmen, and the Nice attacker, among others, have publicly identified themselves with ISIS. In most of these cases, the attackers were lone wolves (or duos) who had not received any training or funding from ISIS, and often had not even traveled to Islamic State-controlled territory to train and fight. (To be sure, some recent attackers in Western nations had traveled to ISIS-controlled territory and fought with the group.)

At the same time, ISIS leaders also have stepped up their campaigns to train, advise, and influence potential radicals in South and Southeast Asia, regions which are home to the largest number of Muslims in the world. As coalition forces advance on ISIS centers like Mosul in Iraq and, eventually, Raqqa in Syria, this campaign to win over South and Southeast Asians is likely to intensify.

South and Southeast Asia are home to the majority of Muslims in the world, but ISIS is not looking to the region just because it has a potentially large pool of recruits to draw from. These countries might seem like environments conducive to ISIS for several reasons.

Some nations where ISIS is trying to recruit—Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines—have porous borders, and very weak customs controls. (Singapore, a tightly policed city-state, is an exception.) In addition, many of these countries also have large pools of unemployed or underemployed young men. Although Indonesia and Bangladesh have posted strong growth rates for over a decade, Bangladesh's powerhouse industries, like textiles, are dominated by women, and unemployment remains high for young men. In Indonesia, strong growth over the past decade has not made enough of a dent in unemployment, particularly outside of Java, the country's economic powerhouse.

Furthermore, conservative Salafist groups have spent considerable funds on schools and charity efforts in South and Southeast Asia over the past decade, building hundreds of schools in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and other countries. For example, Rice University's Fred R. von der Mehden, an expert on Islam in Southeast Asia, notes that one major Saudi conduit for promoting hard-line views in Indonesia is the Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (the Indonesian Society for the Propagation of Islam or DDII). He observes that DDII has been "a linchpin to the Islamic revival [in Indonesia] and interaction with the Middle East. It grew into a conservative organization with strong anti-Shi'a, anti-Christian, and anti-Ahmadiyah views. This fits neatly into the Saudi agenda, which has sought to counter Shi'ism."

Public schools in many parts of the Indonesian archipelago are quite expensive to attend, since teachers often ask families for cash donations just to keep the schools running. Foreign-funded religious schools, however, tend to be free, and so they have had quite an impact. Sidney Jones, an expert on radicalism in Southeast Asia who heads the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict think tank in Jakarta, showed that, in the 2000s, foreign-funded religious schools played a central role in radicalizing young people in and around Poso on the island of Sulawesi. Poso, Jones showed, became a center for extremist networks, and many of these networks clustered around a group of radical schools.

South and Southeast Asia also have existing insurgencies and militant networks that ISIS may be hoping to tap into. Militant groups like Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian branch of al-Qaeda, have been launching terrorist attacks in Indonesia for more than 15 years, including the Bali bombing in 2002 and multiple attacks on the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta. To be sure, Jemaah Islamiah has been weakened by years of arrests by Indonesian security forces, but its remnants may wind up being utilized by ISIS.  

Militant groups have been fighting in the Muslim-majority southern Philippines for decades. One group, the Abu Sayyaf, has become particularly notorious for kidnapping and then executing captives, sometimes by beheading them. In Thailand's Muslim-majority three southernmost provinces, a brutal insurgency has been going on since 2001. So far, over 6,500 people have been killed in the conflict, which has destroyed the three provinces' infrastructure, terrorized the population, and led to brutal reprisals by the Thai army and other security forces. Human Rights Watch has charged that the Thai security forces routinely detain people in the south, torture them, and "disappear" them. The most prominent human rights lawyer in the south, Somchai Neelapaijit, vanished in 2005 and has not been seen from again.

Meanwhile, although Myanmar has no organized Muslim insurgent groups, Rohingya Muslims (and other Muslims) have faced a campaign of violence against them since the early 2010s, when the country began to transition from military rule to civilian rule. A campaign has launched repeated attacks on Muslim communities, primarily in western Myanmar but even in Yangon and Mandalay, the two biggest cities. It is led by hard-line Buddhist monks, who spread their messages of hate via social media and DVDs of their speeches, and have played a central role in fomenting anti-Muslim violence. Over 150,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced out of their homes in western Myanmar's Rakhine State since the early 2010s, with many moving to de facto internment camps in Rakhine. Mosques and Muslim-owned shops have been bombed in Rakhine and other parts of Myanmar, most recently in July 2016. It is not inconceivable that this orgy of anti-Muslim violence might lead some Myanmar Muslims to embrace extremism themselves and to join global militant networks.

ISIS' Efforts

The Islamic State's efforts to win over South and Southeast Asians have been substantial and have increased over the past two years. According to multiple intelligence reports, at least 1,000 Southeast Asians, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, have traveled to ISIS-controlled territory in the Middle East. Not all have gone to fight; according to Zachary Abuza of the U.S. War College, whole families have traveled to ISIS territory, including women and children. The number of Southeast Asians who have returned from ISIS-held territory to Southeast Asia remains unknown, although some intelligence experts believe it is in the hundreds. According to a July 2016 New York Times article, the Bangladeshi authorities believe the number of people who travelled to ISIS-held territory to be small, no more than "several dozen;" but then it goes on to quote an official who says two to three dozen ISIS operatives have returned from Iraq/Syria. ISIS leaders have even created a brigade fighting in Syria to be filled specifically with fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, and neighboring nations. The brigade has released disturbing videos, shared on social media, of Southeast Asian children participating in training exercises in ISIS territory. Some Indonesians and Malaysians who travel to ISIS-held territory also may then try to mastermind attacks back at home. An Indonesian man operating out of Raqaa, the heart of the Islamic State, reportedly masterminded a bombing/shooting attack in a busy neighborhood of Jakarta on January 14, 2016 that killed eight people and injured 23 more.

ISIS' social media efforts also increasingly target South and Southeast Asians. Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia are relatively open societies, with high rates of social media usage (although Internet speeds remain relatively low in Myanmar and the Philippines.) Indonesia now has the fourth third largest number of Facebook users of any country in the world, and in Myanmar, social media usage has exploded since the transition to civilian rule in the early 2010s. Social media is also widely used in the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Bangladesh. Over the last two years, ISIS' social media arm has released many propaganda videos and other items in Indonesian/Malay, which are virtually the same language. (Many people living in southern Thailand also can understand Malay.) The videos usually call on Southeast Asians to rebel against their moderate political and religious leaders, and feature ISIS' slick and brutal images of extreme violence, for which the organization is infamous.

ISIS has not relied on virtual recruiting alone. Apparently it has also sent bomb-makers and possibly other operatives to the southern Philippines and tried to convince existing South and Southeast Asian radical groups to pledge allegiance to ISIS and join forces with each other as part of a kind of ISIS-alliance. This has worked, to some extent, in the Philippines. There, the Abu Sayyaf and several other smaller militant groups have pledged to work with ISIS, and ISIS has named the head of Abu Sayyaf its chief in the Philippines. In spring 2016, the Abu Sayyaf, which as previously mentioned has a long history of kidnapping for ransom, beheaded two Canadian men after the ransom demands were not met. (The two others kidnapped with them have since been released.) In April 2016, southern Philippine militants linked to ISIS killed 18 Philippine army soldiers in a fierce, day-long firefight over rough terrain.  

In Bangladesh, where radicalism has been expanding for over a decade, a percentage of the population has been increasingly radicalized since the government executed several prominent Islamist leaders in 2013. Now, in this increasingly radicalized environment—and one in which the government has become increasingly authoritarian—new local groups have emerged with links to the Islamic State, such as the Jund al-Tawheed wal Khilafah. In addition, small cells of militants inspired by ISIS may be operating in Bangladesh. Over the past two years, groups of men carrying machetes have hacked to death dozens of prominent secular writers, bloggers, and activists in Bangladesh. After several of the brutal killings, ISIS claimed responsibility, although it is unclear whether the killers actually had been in contact with Islamic State leaders.

Some Thai intelligence officials believe that ISIS has also, in the past year, sent operatives to the three troubled provinces in southern Thailand to recruit and possibly disperse funds. Until recently, it has been difficult for ISIS to recruit in southern Thailand. The insurgent groups seemed to want to focus their war on their home territory. They launched few attacks outside of the south, although they were believed to be behind bombings in Bangkok on New Year's Eve 2006/New Year's Day 2007. Despite 15 years of war in the deep south, and an intense division between residents of the southern provinces and central Thailand, many southerners practice a Shafi'I brand of Islam, and inherently distrust the radical Sunni Islam of ISIS. However, as it has become clearer to southern insurgent leaders that Bangkok has no real interest in coming to the peace table with them—initial peace talks were broached in 2013 but have gone nowhere—it becomes more likely that some southern insurgents will decide to work with ISIS, and spread their attacks outside of the Thai south. Already, Thai intelligence believes that southern insurgents were behind a 2015 bombing on the resort island of Koh Samui that injured at least seven people. Militants may try to strike in Bangkok or other Thai resorts as a way of pressuring the government to come to the peace table.

In July 2016, meanwhile, the Malaysian government announced that ISIS-linked militants had been behind a grenade attack on a bar in Kuala Lumpur the previous month, and that the Malaysian authorities had foiled at least eight other plots by ISIS militants in the past year. The grenade attack was the first confirmed ISIS-related attack in Malaysia. In addition to the January 2016 Jakarta attacks, in July another suicide bomber inspired by ISIS attempted to attack a police post in Solo, another city in Java; he failed and killed only himself. Most horrifically, in July militants linked to ISIS took over an upscale café in Dhaka and held hostages for nearly half a day. By the time the siege was over, with commandos storming the café, 28 people were dead.

Grounds for Optimism

Yet many militant plots in South and Southeast Asia thus far have been foiled, or have caused relatively few casualties. Joseph Liow, an expert on Southeast Asian radicalism at the Brookings Institution, notes that most ISIS-linked groups in Southeast Asia do not yet have the capacity to launch massive, mass-casualty attacks like the Bali bombing of 2002, which was carried out by the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah. But ISIS' local networks soon might. Jones argues that ISIS-linked militants in the region, who are often relatively young, are simply inexperienced plotters. Over time, she notes, they will gain experience—and attacks could become far more dangerous. Liow further believes that the Abu Sayyaf and ISIS are trying to create a safe haven in the southern Philippines, where they could avoid capture and receive training.

Nevertheless, and very importantly, ISIS in South and Southeast Asia does not appear to draw on any deep wells of public support. Although more than 1,000 Southeast Asians may have traveled to ISIS-controlled territory in the Middle East, there are more than 240 million Muslims in Southeast Asia, and nearly 149 million more in Bangladesh. One thousand is a tiny fraction of the region's total population. In contrast, between six and seven thousand people have reportedly traveled from Tunisia to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq, even though Tunisia has a total population of just under 11 million people. Nearly 1,600 people have traveled to ISIS-controlled territory from France, which has a population of 66 million, and more than 600 people have traveled to ISIS-controlled territory from Egypt, which has a population of almost 90 million.

In addition, a range of polls show that there is a low level of support for the Islamic State among populations in most of South and Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, for instance, a poll by the Pew research organization released in November 2015 showed that only 4 percent of Indonesians have a favorable view of ISIS.

Religious and political leaders in Indonesia have played a central role in preventing ISIS from inspiring many followers in their country, which has the largest Muslim population in the world. First, since the end of the Suharto era in the late 1990s, Indonesian politicians have overseen a process of political and economic devolution that has reduced Jakarta's powers and empowered provinces, cities, and towns, giving them more rights to elect their own leaders, use their tax revenues, and control their budgets. In contrast, Thailand and the Philippines have remained highly centralized states, with Bangkok and Manila controlling nearly all levers of power. This lack of decentralization has added to grievances in areas where large numbers of ethnic and religious minorities live, abetting the appeal of radicalism. (New Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has proposed changing the country’s political system to make it more decentralized, but this requires a constitutional amendment, and it is unclear whether it could pass.)

Indonesia's decentralization, which fits naturally in a country made up of over 18,000 islands stretching across more than 3,000 miles, has reduced the radicals' appeal. It has allowed more conservative Muslim groups to push their ideologies through the political process, and has given some local governments greater say over social and cultural norms. Devolution has also reduced radical groups' ability to blame Jakarta for their problems, and has fostered interaction between local politicians and local religious leaders. It also has spawned a new generation of political leaders outside of Jakarta—most notably, Indonesia's current president, Joko Widodo, who got his start as mayor of Solo. Before that, Widodo was a businessman in Solo; he is the first Indonesian president not to come from the military or other elite Jakarta circles.

Meanwhile, Indonesia's biggest religious organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has over the past two years launched a national campaign to counter the Islamic State's brand of Islam and remind Indonesians of the country's traditionally moderate and syncretic form of Islam. NU has more than 50 million members, and is probably the largest Muslim mass movement in the world. NU's campaign includes conferences, speeches by leaders, and a nationwide advertising campaign emphasizing how alien ISIS and extremism is to Indonesian Islam. NU has made films repudiating ISIS' brand of Islam, and invited scholars from across the world to NU headquarters to discuss how to spread this message of rebuke. Other major Islamic mass movements in Indonesia also are launching campaigns to combat ISIS’s ideology. Unlike in some other countries in the region, like Bangladesh, the NU campaign has included appeals for moderation by some of the famous, revered clerics in Indonesia; in Bangladesh, most of the clerics speaking out against radical groups are less well-known.

To be sure, some analysts believe that in parts of Indonesia, like Solo, radicalism is gaining ground. Notably, there has been a string of attacks, probably by hard-line Islamist vigilantes, on religious minorities in Indonesia over the past five years, including many attacks on Ahmadiya Muslims. Indonesia's national and provincial governments have too often failed to condemn the attacks, or actually encouraged discrimination against Ahmadiya Muslims.

But overall, both religious organizations like NU and political leaders in Indonesia, have taken the critical steps to prevent radical groups from gaining wider followings. Political leaders have not been shy of using their bully pulpits to argue that militants threaten Indonesians, not just Western interests in the republic. The government has taken firm, tough action against militant cells—a sharp contrast to Bangladesh, where until recent months the government appeared to be mostly ignoring the string of gruesome killings of secular bloggers and writers. (Dhaka now has begun making arrests and pursuing cases against suspects believed to be involved in the brutal slayings.)

Indeed, the Indonesian government has recognized that the country needs to reform its prison system to create more humane conditions, so that it does not become a greater source of recruiting for radicals; whether Jakarta has the resources and will to actually do so is another story, but at least Indonesian officials have recognized the problem. Indonesia has been willing to cooperate with the Philippines and Malaysia to work together to police the Sulu Sea, a lawless body of water between the three countries known for piracy and militant networks. In May 2016, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila agreed to launch trilateral patrols of the Sulu Sea, a major first step toward cooperating to combat piracy, kidnapping, and the movement of terrorists through the Sulu Sea.

There is little evidence that Indonesia is going to become more fertile ground for ISIS. With its free expression, free politics, and strong anti-radicalism leadership, it has remained relatively tolerant. As Jones notes, ISIS' rise in the Middle East actually has "triggered a broader backlash within the Indonesian Muslim community"—ISIS' brutality in Syria and Iraq may actually be decreasing support for radicalism in Indonesia, the exact opposite of what the Islamic State wants.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. His books include the forthcoming A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.

Read More: Islam, Terrorism, Armed Conflict, Collective Security, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, The Philippines

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