Is the Islamic State Gaining Ground in Southeast Asia?

Is the Islamic State Gaining Ground in Southeast Asia?
The aftermath of the twin suicide bombing of a Roman Catholic cathedral in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province in the southern Philippines, Jan. 27, 2019 (AP photo by Nickee Butlangan).

It’s been six months since the Islamic State lost the last slice of its territory in Iraq and Syria, where it once controlled a land mass roughly the size of the United Kingdom. This loss dealt a serious blow to the terrorist group, but not a fatal one. As many different counterterrorism analysts have written, ISIS continues to spread its message and gather adherents who carry out attacks in its name across the globe.

One area where a metastasizing ISIS could seek to establish a greater foothold is Southeast Asia. In recent years, a number of countries in this diverse region, including the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, have had to confront militant Islamist insurgencies to varying degrees, and a number of ISIS-inspired attacks have taken place in the region this year.

For this week’s interview on Trend Lines, WPR’s Elliot Waldman is joined by Zachary Abuza, a professor of national security strategy at the National War College in Washington, to discuss the Islamic State’s encroachment into Southeast Asia. Zach is a leading authority on Southeast Asian politics and security issues, and he recently co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Islamic State Meets Southeast Asia.”

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Relevant Articles on WPR:
Abu Sayyaf Is Bringing More of ISIS’ Brutal Tactics to the Philippines
With Autonomy in the Southern Philippines, Muslim Rebels Must Learn How to Govern
Will the U.S. Chase the Islamic State as It Moves Into Central and Southeast Asia?
Islamic State Returnees Reawaken Extremist Threat for Southeast Asia

Trend Lines is produced and edited by Peter Dörrie, a freelance journalist and analyst focusing on security and resource politics in Africa. You can follow him on Twitter at @peterdoerrie.

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Podcast Transcript

Elliot Waldman: Hello and welcome to Trend Lines, a podcast on global affairs brought to you by World Politics Review. My name is Elliot Waldman and I’m an associate editor here at WPR. Before we dive into today’s interview, just a quick reminder to tune in again on Friday for our editors’ discussion looking at the week’s top headlines.

It’s been six months since the Islamic State lost the last slice of its territory in Iraq and Syria, where it once controlled a land mass roughly the size of the United Kingdom. The loss of this territory dealt a serious blow to the terrorist group, but not a fatal one. As many different counterterrorism analysts have written, ISIS continues to spread its message and gather adherents who continue to carry out attacks in its name all across the globe. One hotspot where a metastasizing ISIS could now seek to establish a toehold is Southeast Asia. Over the course of their histories, a number of countries in this diverse region, including the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, have had to confront militant Islamist insurgencies to varying degrees and a number of ISIS inspired attacks have taken place in the region this year.

To discuss the threat posed by ISIS in Southeast Asia and the regional response, I’m joined by Zach Abuza, a professor of national security strategy at the National War College in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues. He’s the author of a number of books, reports and monographs on these topics. And he also recently coauthored an article in Foreign Affairs titled “The Islamic State meets Southeast Asia.” Zach, welcome to Trend Lines.

Zachary Abuza: Thank you very much for having me.

Waldman: First and foremost, I wanted to ask you a realistic question. Just how serious is the threat posed by ISIS in Southeast Asia?

Abuza: It’s a persistent but very manageable threat. Persistent in that Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. It has plenty of pro-ISIS cells throughout the country. The Philippines remains fairly lawless in its southern regions. You have groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State since 2014. So in, in that sense, it’s a persistent threat. On the other hand, I don’t want to make it out that the region is, you know, in flames. I think the security forces have done a very good job over the past few years at mitigating the threat. They’ve been very creative in some of their responses to it. They’ve built up a lot of knowledge about the personal relationships amongst these individuals and the recruitment patterns. And the cells in Southeast Asia are fairly autonomous and disparate. So there’s not a single coordinating mechanism, so you can have attacks in Indonesia, but I just don’t think that any ISIS groups in the region really poses an existential threat to any state.

Waldman: Of the threat that is posed, how much of it is ISIS leadership proactively trying to expand influence in the region versus radical groups with deep roots in the region who are drawing inspiration from ISIS brutality on their end trying to leverage their association with a high profile, global terrorist movement to fundraise and gather recruits?

Abuza: That’s a very good question. I would say that for the most part these are groups in Southeast Asia that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. And that they are operating fairly autonomously. Starting in 2014 you saw a number of groups around the region—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines—declare allegiance to the Islamic State. That recognition was not reciprocated until early 2016 and no one really knows the reason for this. It could have been that the Islamic State was so busy expanding and consolidating its power and authority in Iraq and Syria, or that Southeast Asia really is considered the fringe of the Islamic world. So, by 2016, the Islamic State really starts to pay much more attention to Southeast Asia. Southeast Asians are featured more regularly in ISIS media. They start to develop Bahasa language materials for the region.

And you had a handful, not many, but a handful of top Southeast Asian militants in Iraq and Syria working with the Islamic State leadership and Southeast Asians really start to prove themselves on the battlefield in Syria. There were not many Southeast Asian militants, probably under a thousand in total. But they were able to put together a Bahasa language-speaking company that fought pretty valiantly, especially against the Kurdish Peshmerga. But the ability of the Islamic State center to influence events in Southeast Asia really seems limited. In mid-2017, pro-Islamic State militants sieged the Philippines city ofMarawiand held it for five months that received funds from the Islamic State. And we’ve seen other attacks that were either encouraged or funded by the Islamic State center, but there’s very little in the way of direct command and control. Most attacks are low level conducted by pro-Islamic State militants in the region.

Waldman: So what are some groups that we should be particularly aware of, and which ones are on the rise in the region right now?

Abuza: There are a number of different organizations that we should be thinking about. In the Philippines, we have the Abu Sayyaf group and different cells of that. They have been active and fighting since 1991. Originally, they supported al Qaeda but in 2014 the leader of the Abu Sayyaf pledgedbayat[allegiance] to the Islamic State and the Abu Sayyaf is important simply because they control chunks of territory in the Southern Philippines and adjacent to the Malaysian state of Sabah. And they’ve always been very willing to host foreign fighters in Indonesia. There were a number of different groups and cells that emerged out of Jemaah Islamiyah, the pro al Qaeda organization that declared allegiance to the Islamic State. The Mujahideen Indonesia Timor or the Eastern Indonesian Mujahideen were important for one critical reason. They were the only group in Indonesia that actually physically controlled territory.

But they’ve been really beaten back by the Indonesian security forces and pose much less of a threat than they used to. The most important group that has emerged in Indonesia isJemaah Ansharut Daulah[JAD]. This organization began as an umbrella grouping for all the different pro-IS cells in the country. It has morphed in the past few years into a terrorist organization in its own right. The JAD has been responsible for the 2018 Surabaya bombings that involve two families that attacked a number of Christian churches. JAD has been responsible for the takeover of a police headquarters. And you know, more recently, yesterday [Sept. 22, 2019] they arrested eight JAD suspects with large stockpiles of explosives planning a new wave of attacks on police stations. In Malaysia and Singapore, you have Islamic State cells but much less of an organization. The tendency there is to be much more in terms of lone wolf recruitment.

Waldman: Just for our listeners awareness, we’re recording this on Monday [Sept. 23]. So when Zach says yesterday, he means Sunday [Sept. 22]. So, you mentioned security forces’ responses to too many of these groups. And I know that a lot of countries we’ve been talking about have security forces that are particularly known for brutality and being very heavy-handed. And in the Philippines and Indonesia, I think that’s played a role in beating back a lot of these groups. But, but how would you describe the response and how effective has it been to contain the threat?

Abuza: Let’s start with Indonesia. The security forces there really deserve a lot of credit with how far they’ve come in a very short period of time. Until 1998, the police was actually part of the military. It was spun off. Following the 2002 Bali bombing, Indonesia established an elite counterterrorism force called Densus 88 [Detachment 88]. They have done a superb job in mitigating the threat in terms of first defeating the pro-al Qaeda group Jemaah Islamiyah. By 2010, that group no longer posed a military threat to the country. And they’ve done a very good job against the Islamic State. Obviously they’re not going to get everyone and they can’t stop people from leaving the country, but they really have mitigated the threat well. They’ve developed a very good intelligence network and an encyclopedic understanding of how the organization recruits, indoctrinates, where their loci are in the country.

The other thing that really strikes me about Indonesia is that this is a country that does not have a great human rights record and yet their counterterrorism forces really have understood the importance of not being heavy-handed. And let me recount one story. Several years ago they arrested the one of the top members of Jemaah Islamiyah. And he was just convinced that he was going to be tortured and he was treated really well. And you know, during his interrogations they would break it off so that he could pray. After a while they were asking him to lead the prayers for the police in the interrogation. And they really won him over and defeated the narrative that the state was repressive and anti-Islamic. So I think that’s important. The other thing about Indonesia that strikes me as so unusual is some of the creative approaches they’ve done to counter terrorism.

There was a member an Islamic State detainee, and he went to the warden and said, you know, one of the problems is when we’re arrested and the breadwinner is in jail, the families continue to rely on the social welfare networks of either JI or Islamic State. And he said, we have to help break that system. And he convinced the warden of the prison to establish a school for terrorism suspects’ children to help break that, that reliance on the social welfare network. And, and that school continues to grow to this day. And I think those are very creative responses that some countries have had. Now the Philippines is a very different situation. They have always approached counterterrorism largely through military operations. They’ve done a fairly poor job of it as well. They have committed egregious human rights abuses.

They tend to go in and begin artillery shelling of villages leading to high casualty rates that, that always, you know, plays into the hands of the militants. The security forces absolutely leftMarawilooking like Mosul due to untrained eight aerial bombardment, poor artillery strikes. And this happens all the time in the Philippines on a smaller scale. The security forces there are very corrupt. They have no incentive really to ever finish the job against the Abu Sayyaf simply because the Americans continue to subsidize their military to such a high degree. We provide around $50 million a year in counterterrorism assistance alone, let alone subsidize their military with almost 300 joint military operations a year. So we’ve kind of created this moral hazard in the Philippines. And on top of that, the security forces, through president Duterte’s war on drugs campaign of extra judicial killings has led to the death of over 30,000 people. And you’re really seing a breakdown in the rule of law, the power of the courts, turning police into hit squads. You know, at the end of the day to be effective in counterterrorism, you need robust state institutions and rule of law, and that’s been weakening in the Philippines.

In Malaysia the special branch of the Royal Malaysian police is very competent. Like in Indonesia they’ve developed a an encyclopedic knowledge of the threat of the organizations, the individuals, and they’re very well-resourced and professional.

Singapore too has very competent security forces, strong legal authorities to counter terrorism. And the problem for Malaysia and Singapore is that so much is happening by lone-wolf militants that, even with the best intelligence, sometimes you just don’t see these individual actors.

Waldman: I know that in the Philippines there was a new autonomous region that was inaugurated this spring that gave more independence, more rights to the region of Southern Philippines where many Muslims live. What kind of impact has that had on the campaign against radical groups?

Abuza: I am cautiously optimistic that this will have a very positive impact in combating the pro-Islamic State groups. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front had been fighting for their own homeland since the 1980s. They negotiated an agreement with a government that was finally implemented after several setbacks this past year, and they are implementing an autonomous region. These have failed in the past, so I’m not too optimistic, but one of the real arguments that the MILF made to the Philippine government and the Congress that had to approve the agreement is: No one has a greater incentive in neutralizing the threats posed by the Islamic State groups than we do. They’re against autonomy. They are challenging us for authority. They are trying to destroy the Philippine state. We are in active negotiations and working with the Philippine state.

So we’ll see. In 2015, the peace process had a real setback when there was a what was described as a tragic mis-encounter between Philippine police and, and MILF combatants that led to the death of 44 police. And even though the peace process got back on track, one of the things that was taken away was the MILF’s ability to be responsible for internal policing. So we’ll see how well it works right now. Those provisions of the peace process are actually just being implemented now. The problem of course is that the MILF have almost no control over parts of the Philippines inBasilan, Tulu, Tawi-Tawi, where the Abu Sayyaf are most active and we still see a steady stream of foreign fighters coming into the Philippines.

Waldman: I’m glad you mentioned foreign fighters because that was a one aspect of the piece you wrote in Foreign Affairs with Colin Clark that I thought was interesting. Because we read a lot about the return of foreign fighters from European countries, from the battlefields in Iraq and Syria and the dilemma that Germany, Belgium, and France among others are facing. But we don’t hear as much about the Indonesians and the Muslims who fought and are being held in the Middle East. And, and you know, it’s a dilemma as well for Southeast Asian governments about what to do. And you also have those who try to go to places like Iraq and Syria and then were turned away and come back. So how is this dilemma being approached by countries in Southeast Asia?

Abuza: Yeah, it’s an important one. We have good guesstimates on the numbers. Probably around 1,500 Southeast Asians traveled to Iraq and Syria. We know several hundred died on the battlefield. A large number right now are being held in camps either in Iraq or Syria and the Malaysian and Indonesian governments are trying to figure out what to do with these individuals. Many, as you noted, were returned by Turkish authorities. So the governments are really perplexed what to do. The Malaysians have made it very clear that the men, the combatants, that will be returned from Iraq and Syria will be detained. And the government has those legal powers to detain them. The family members, wives, children, will also be detained and go through a religious disengagement program.

The men will probably face prison sentences. In Indonesia, they’ve had a real quandary what to do, because of the numbers. In 2018, following theSurabayasuicide bombings, the government really rushed through a new counterterrorism bill that was controversial for a number of reasons. But one of the provisions of that was it actually criminalized the act of going overseas and joining a militant group such as ISIS, which until then was not illegal in Indonesia. So they do have those new powers and authorities. Indonesia too has tried to put people that have been returned through some sort of disengagement program. It does not always work. For example, in January of this year there were two suicide bombers in the Southern Philippines— Indonesians who had been returned by Turkish authorities and were supposed to be through this disengagement program. So obviously not everyone finds the exit ramp from militancy.

Waldman: So we’ve been talking a lot about a law enforcement approach to this issue that countries in the region are taking. But as you just mentioned, there’s also disengagement, deradicalization, and there are also the broader deep causes of radicalization, like economic insecurity and unemployment and social issues. So how are these problems being tackled and is the nexus between those kinds of issues and radical groups being well understood in governance would you say?

Abuza: I have very mixed feelings about this. You know, I really don’t believe that poverty causes terrorism, but it certainly becomes part of the narrative. In the Southern Philippines, poverty is important in this. I mean, the grinding poverty of the poorest part of a poor country certainly helps keep militant groups able to recruit people. Whether it’s an ideological driver or not, or just sheer pragmatism, these people are going to pay my salary. In Indonesia, there’s really no link between poverty and membership in JI or IS groups. It’s really quite ideological. And yet in Malaysia and Indonesia, where you ethnic tensions, where ethnic Chinese have long dominated the economy, that certainly plays into the narrative and they play it up. By and large, you know, we see people recruited into IS groups certainly in countries like Malaysia, across the socioeconomic spectrum. It’s not just young unemployed youth, or marginalized factory workers. Membership in these groups is—I don’t want to say it’s a middle-class phenomenon because you do have, you know, fairly poor people recruited—but it’s not unusual to have support of people that, that really have everything to lose, not nothing to lose.

Waldman: And so how does, how does that shape or color the law enforcement or security response and the response by government agencies who have to try to build up a portfolio of understanding in terms of what the drivers are of radicalization?

Abuza: Yeah, again in each country it’s really quite different. In the Southern Philippines, you know it really does feel like the country is still under martial law that security forces do commit human rights abuses. There is grinding poverty. And there is the ideological factor and the pull of being part of a broader struggle. In Indonesia, I think the government is really trying to tackle this by going after some of the social welfare networks of these organizations as well as this simple law enforcement and arresting terror suspects. They really understand that this is not a nationwide phenomenon. There are certain places in Indonesia that are real hot spots for radicalization and recruitment, it’s not all 17,000 islands. It’s really eight to 10 key regions that are responsible for the lion’s share of recruitment and radicalization.

So they really focus their efforts on those locales. And of course the Indonesian government can point and say, look, you know, we’re a Muslim majority country, we’ve been implementing portions of the Sharia. There are regions such as Aceh that fully implement the Sharia. You know, we’re not against the Islamic State. You know, we’re not a government of infidels. And the Malaysian government has been able to do so even more in terms of the Islamization of society. So I think the governments do try to approach this in not just a law enforcement way.

Waldman: And how have they responded to the change in tactics that have been inspired by ISIS. One of the things you mentioned in your article in Foreign Affairs was the increased number of suicide bombings that have taken place in recent years as a result of groups taking on that new approach inspired by the Islamic State. So how has that how has that affected their response?

Abuza: He’s seen suicide bombers in Southeast Asia since the 2002 Bali bombing, that that was the genie out of the bottle. And we had a series of suicide bombers as part of Jemaah Islamiyah and al Qaeda until 2009, and then it went dormant for a few years until we saw the return of suicide bombers with the Islamic State. And unfortunately that tempo has really increased since 2018. Not only have we seem suicide bombers in Indonesia as part of the Islamic State, and several, you know, really stark cases involving—in Surabaya in May 2018Z—involving entire families. I mean, down to two children, eight years old. And we also saw more recently a wife of a JAD suspect blow herself up with her child instead of being taken alive. And her apartment had, you know, a couple hundred kilograms of explosives in it.

So we have seen an uptick in, in suicide bombings in Indonesia. In the Philippines, despite years and years of insurgency and terrorism, there had not been a suicide bomber until about 14 months ago. And now we’ve had three different events with suicide bombers. There have now been five in that country. We have not seen any suicide bombings in Malaysia. But chillingly there have been at least 13 Malaysians who were suicide bombers in Iraq and Syria. So, again, the genie is out of the bottle. I think that trend will continue. It’s very effective to get in to a target close. But perhaps the more important trend is simply the use of female suicide bombers. So we’ve seen females being used now twice in the Southern Philippines. We’ve had several women in Indonesia and one more who was arrested right before her attacks. So that certainly makes it a larger target pool for the security forces in Southeast Asia. You know, women are no longer simply the Jihadi wives that bind organizations and groups and cells together through marriage and kinship. But they’re actually active terrorists in their own right.

Waldman: Well, Zach, I’d like to thank you very much for taking the time to chat today. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

Abuza: We really don’t know how the Islamic State is going to evolve. You know, they’ve shifted to this global insurgency model having lost the caliphate. But I really don’t know the degree to which they will rely on Southeast Asia as a new front. I think it’s very clear that the Islamic State center has been somewhat frustrated with Southeast Asian militants, that they have not been able to sustain their attacks or have a centralized command and control. The top Southeast Asians who were part of the Islamic State leadership have all been killed. So we don’t know the representation there at the highest levels of the organization. And the Islamic State’s central media functions have really diminished their output and in particular the output of their Bahasa language media. So we really don’t know how this is going to play out. But the one thing that’s really important to note is that one of the founding documents of the Islamic State, and it was a, a theoretical document first drafted by al Qaeda theoreticians called “The Management of Savagery,” was very racist in their depiction of Southeast Asians.

It said, look, these people are really bad Muslims. They, they don’t have good Sharia discipline, but they’re really useful. They want to prove themselves. They want to be no longer considered the Islamic periphery. They want people to understand that their struggle is essential to the persecution of Muslims everywhere. And we can use them. And my feeling is you ignore that document and those sentiments at your peril. We really don’t know how any of this will play out. If the Islamic State will successfully shift to a global insurgency just simply bound by an online ideology or an ideology propagated online, or whether it will start to reconstitute a centralized command and control. And the other thing that’s really important to understand is that, especially in Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiyah is poised to rebound. They have watched their Islamic State rivals take the body blows in terms of arrests and attention of the security forces since 2014. The Indonesian government has given JI an inordinate amount of space to regroup, indoctrinate, as long as they are “left ofboom.”[editor’s note: This implies a focus on preventing terrorist attacks, as opposed to preventing the spread of ideologies that inspire terrorism.] Their network of madrassas and mosques is as robust as ever. A recent arrest of the top JI leader revealed that they had a steady supply of funding and resources. So I think the Indonesians in particular, but this will spill across Southeast Asia, have to brace themselves for the return of JI that is simply biding its time waiting for the right time to resume militant operations. They certainly have not renounced militancy. It’s just been a tactical period to lie low.

Waldman: Zach, thank you very much again.

Abuza: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Waldman: Zach Abuza is a professor of national security strategy at the National War College in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues.If you’d like to comment on the discussion or ask a question, please email us at Trend lines is produced and edited by Peter Dorrie. You can follow him and World Politics Review on Twitter. And, while you’re at it, go ahead and leave us a nice review wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and tune in again next week.

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