Southeast Asian governments with large Muslim populations are concerned that the nascent Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, better known by its initials ISIS, or its Islamic rival the al-Nusrah Front, are recruiting young followers for battle and also raising funds throughout the region.
“Basically we have had them going to Syria since late 2012,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict and a well-known expert on radical Islam in Southeast Asia. “Mostly their purpose was to provide humanitarian aid, but it has started to metamorphose into joining the fighting. Asians have gone into the main camps, fighting in Syria and Iraq.”
In Indonesia, Malaysia and to a lesser extent the Philippines, networks are growing that involve dozens, perhaps hundreds of people who support ISIS by raising money and swearing allegiance, Jones said. But so far the numbers going to the battle front remain small but governments are trying to block social media from exhorting the young to join and taking measures to stop the growth of ISIS. Malaysia is actively using its Securities and Special Measures Act, its successor to the infamous Internal Security Act, to arrest and hold potential terrorists. In April and May, officials arrested 11 people who were accused of fundraising for ISIS.
Possibly 100 to 150 young fighters have made their way to Syria or Iraq from Indonesia since the attempt to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus began, authorities think, although they have the names of only 56. There are perhaps 30 to 50 from Malaysia, Jones said, far from the 11,000 to 12,000 fighters that other organizations believe have come from Europe and Australia. Southeast Asians mostly don’t speak Arabic, creating a language barrier, while Australians and Europeans tend to be from expatriate Arab families. The young also tend to find themselves more isolated and alienated in Western societies unlike in Asia, where they are more connected to their families and community.
A story in the Straits Times of Singapore put the number of Malaysians in Syria at 100. The Syrian permanent representative to the United Nations reported in June that 15 had been killed in Syria after joining jihadist outfits. But that can’t be confirmed and it’s thought to be exaggerated; Malaysian authorities haven’t been able to find the names of any of them.
“Despite what we are seeing in some corners of the local media, there is unlikely to be an exodus of Filipino Muslims leaving their homeland to take up the cause of ISIS outside of the Philippines,” said Matt Williams of Pacific Strategies & Assessments in Manila. “The Abu Sayyaf, who once maintained links with Al Qaeda, are now criminally motivated and lack the fanatical ideology that drives organizations like JI [Jemaah Islamiyah] or ISIS. The greater concern is that the recent wave of ISIS success may spark renewed ideological zeal in the coming generation of Abu Sayyaf members and a return to a terrorism agenda. At present, Muslim extremism in the Philippines is about clan warfare, insurgency and criminal enterprise as opposed to global terrorism.”
Malaysia awakened to the problem with a bang on May 26, when a quiet 26-year-old former factory worker named Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki drove an SUV filled with tons of explosives into the headquarters of Iraq’s special weapons and attack team in al-Anbar Province, killing himself and 25 Iraqi soldiers. ISIS, with its scrupulous attention to furthering its exploits via social media, featured his photograph on its official website with the title, “Mujahidin Malaysia Syahid Dalam Operasi Martyrdom” (Malaysian Muhahidin Martyrdom Operation).
Indonesia’s first recorded death was in November of last year, when Syrian rebel forces of the al-Izz Brigade said Riza Fardi, a 2006 graduate of an Islamic school led by radical Indonesian imam and convicted terrorist Abu Bakar Bashir, had been shot and killed by Syrian forces. Like Ahmad Tarmimi, he has since been called a martyr and his bloody body has been displayed on social media.
Abu Bakar Bashir himself made headlines this week in Indonesia by pledging allegiance to ISIS from prison, where he is supposedly unable to undertake political activities.
The Jakarta Globe in mid-July reported that Indonesians who joined the Middle East fighting have since returned to establish ISIS branches in Jakarta and West Nusa Tenggara province. Indonesia has carried on a ruthless and largely effective campaign to rid the country of radical Islamists for years, killing many of them and security forces are alert to any resurgence.
Nonetheless, as with Tarmimi and Reza Farmi, Jones said ISIS has shown uncommon dexterity with social media to raise funds and seek recruits. Indonesia has responded by attempting to block YouTube videos featuring calls to local Muslims to sign up and by threatening to designate anybody who declares allegiance to ISIS as stateless, suspending their passports. Communications and Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring said earlier this week that the videos were uploaded late last month.
On Monday, Indonesia officially banned ISIS, saying it presented a potential threat to the state. “Every attempt to promote ISIS should be prevented,” said security minister Djoko Suyanto. “Indonesia should not be the place to spread [this ideology].”
The concern on the part of Southeast Asian leaders is that the young, as they did during the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, would come back to take on their own governments. Many of them returned from Afghanistan battle-hardened, becoming a threat to successive governments in both Indonesia and the Philippines. But, Jones said, the young going to the Middle East are heeding the call to establish a Muslim kingdom across the region, not to fight their own governments.
Thus the battle for Syria, Jones said, carries special resonance with young Muslims because of a prediction, contained in the hadith, or sayings by the Prophet Mohamad, that Greater Syria, or Sham, is where the battle for control of the world will begin at the end of time, and that Islam will be victorious. ISIS’s ambition to re-establish a caliphate across much of the Middle East has filled the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the oil rich Gulf states with dread. It is opposed by Iran, whose Shia government is in bitter conflict with majority Sunnis who make up most of the Islamic world.
The Sunni roots of ISIS raise further concerns about returnees from the Middle East, Jones said. Small Shia minorities in Indonesia and Malaysia already face official and non-official attacks and repression, and fired-up Sunni radicals could accelerate the problem.
There is a bitter split, however, between ISIS, which emerged from the al-Qaeda insurgency in Iraq led by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to a report by Jones’ Institute for Policy Analysis, and the al-Nusrah Front. The two have squabbled over leadership of the Syrian insurgency.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became its leader in 2010. In 2013, al-Baghdadi announced that the al-Nusrah Front was ISI’s front in Syria and that the two groups would henceforth work together as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), which he would head.
The al-Nusrah Front wanted no part of this, especially when members were ordered to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi, and the split became deep and dangerous. At that point, al-Nusrah associated itself more explicitly with Osama bin Laden’s designated successor, Aiman az-Zawaheri.
“So far,” Jones said, “we have no evidence that the ISIS central command is providing funds or trainers throughout Southeast Asia, but the real concern is that it could be imminent. There is persistent discussion on social media about ISIS personnel coming to Indonesia, but we don’t think we have seen any yet.”