The large number of foreign fighters joining ISIS is reminiscent of the flow of volunteers who joined the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. At that time, many young Muslims from Southeast Asia traveled to Pakistan to support the Afghan mujahideen. Some of them returned to their countries of origin to establish extremist groups, most notably Jemaah Islamiyah.
Beginning in the early-to-mid 1990s the Al Qaeda terrorist network extended its reach into Southeast Asia — setting up local cells to support its global operations and fostering cooperation among indigenous radical Islamic groups. In the ensuing decade, the full extent of the region-wide terrorist network with extensive ties to Al Qa'ida was uncovered.
Over time, however, there was a steady decline in extremist violence and a weakening of jihadi networks in Southeast Asia, due to a combination of factors, including enhanced vigilance and effective law enforcement. Nevertheless, jihadi ideology continued to be widely disseminated, particularly in Indonesia. And even as the capabilities of some extremist groups such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) were degraded and/or riven by factionalism, new groups appeared. Enter ISIS …
Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have confirmed that some of their nationals have fought in Syria and Iraq. What are the reasons for ISIS’ appeal? How heavy is the ISIS footprint in Southeast Asia? Has the ISIS threat thus far consisted mainly of the use of websites and social media to recruit followers? Or, is there also evidence that ISIS has deployed operatives to Southeast Asia and elsewhere in Asia for the purposes of recruiting foot soldiers? To what extent have local groups and individuals appropriated the ISIS narrative for their own purposes? Has ISIS won adherents and recruits elsewhere in the wider Indo-Pacific region?
From the perspective of South and Southeast Asian governments, ISIS militants arguably pose a greater threat when they eventually return home than when they are trained and recruited to fight in the Middle East. What steps have Asian authorities taken to counter the ISIS’ appeal? What measures have they contemplated or have they already put in place to prevent militants who return from the Middle East battlefield from rejoining local radical groups and rekindling the terrorist threat in the region?
The essays in this series explore these and other questions pertaining to the threat posed by the rise of ISIS to Asia and efforts that the governments of the region have taken and could/should take to respond to it.
January 9, 2015
How ISIS Charmed the New Generation of Indonesian Militants
The Islamic State’s (ISIS) media wing, Al-Hayat Media Center, recently released a video entitled “Join the Ranks” that features a group of Indonesian foreign fighters in Syria. In the video, the charismatic Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah calls on his fellow Indonesian Muslims to migrate to the land of the “caliphate.” It is estimated that 100 to 300 Indonesian militants have gone to fight in Syria. While some are spread across al-Qa‘ida (AQ)-affiliated groups such as Ahrar Sham, this essay focuses specifically on links between Indonesian militants and ISIS. Indonesians and Malaysians fighting for ISIS appear to have formed their own military unit, the Katibah Nusantara. Meanwhile, 2,000 people across the Indonesian archipelago pledged allegiance to ISIS earlier this year.
January 12, 2015
Vulnerabilities and Resistance to Islamist Radicalization in India
India has long remained an enigma within the discourse on the Islamist extremism and terrorism that have afflicted widening areas of the world. The emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its appeal to significant numbers of radicalized Muslims have highlighted ambiguities surrounding the role of these ideologies in India. Fighters from at least 82 countries are said to have joined ISIS. Western countries with tiny Muslim populations and long-standing programs intended to counter the trends toward radicalization of Muslims have found that scores—even hundreds—of their citizens are involved in the fighting in Iraq and Syria. By comparison, India, with a Muslim population of about 176 million (well over twice the total population of Europe), has seen an estimated 18 radicalized Muslims join ISIS in Iraq-Syria.
January 14, 2015
The Contemporary Islamic State of Indonesia: Threats and Challenges
Tia Maria Kibtiah
The Islamic State (ISIS) currently poses a serious security threat to Indonesia. The group has already recruited hundreds of young fighters and jihadi volunteers from various parts of the country. Its battlefield successes and its call for the establishment of a caliphate in Indonesia have resonated with, mobilized, and united jihadi groups that had previously been fractured and weakened. This essay examines past efforts to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia and discusses how veterans of past conflicts―from the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s to the religious conflicts in Poso and Maluku―seeded Indonesia’s jihadi movement, spawning new networks and organizations. The current global jihad battlefield in Syria and Iraq is the training ground for the next generation of jihadi returnees to Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
January 16, 2015
Militant Islam in Malaysia: Synergy between Regional and Global Jihadi Groups
The militant jihadi movement has been growing steadily in Malaysia since the early 1970s. The origins of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) can be traced to Seremban, Malaysia, where Abu Bakar Ba‘asyir began laying the groundwork for the organization in the early 1980s. When he spearheaded the formal establishment of JI a decade later, Ba‘asyir created four mantiqis (bases) covering Malaysia and Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, Indonesia and Sulawesi, and Australia and the Papuas. JI went on to serve as a platform for international terrorist groups. Al-Qa‘ida and, more recently, the Islamic State (ISIS) have tapped into JI’s organizational structure in order to increase their influence in Southeast Asia. This essay explores this ongoing synergy between regional and international militant groups in Malaysia, and examines the government’s continued failure to contain the spread of extremism.
January 27, 2015
There and Back Again: Indonesian Fighters in Syria
Julie Chernov Hwang, Noor Huda Ismail
In July of 2014, I met with a former member of Tanah Runtuh, Jemaah Islamiyah’s onetime affiliate in Poso, Central Sulawesi. As he was newly released from prison, I wanted to inquire as to his future plans. Would he go to the hills and fight with Mujahidin Indonesia Timor (MIT)? Would he follow in the footsteps of many of his former comrades and become a contractor? When he walked into the room, I was surprised to see that he sported an Islamic State (ISIS) t-shirt. “Do you want to join ISIS?” I asked. “If I can raise the money,” he answered. A week later, I met with a former affiliate of Noordin M. Top who was running several small businesses in Solo, Central Java. I had interviewed him in 2012 when he was due to open the Solo branch of Dapur Bistek, a restaurant-cum-job training program for former fighters run by the Institute for International Peace Building. With his son next to him eating ice cream, he told me that he hoped to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front); he simply needed to raise the money. Whether or not these two individuals ever make it to Syria, their responses raise important questions.
January 29, 2015
ISIS and the Institution of Online Terrorist Recruitment
The rise of ISIS and associated jihadi violence taking place in Syria and Iraq has reverberated widely. The effects can be felt not just in the horrific attacks that took place in Paris in January 2015, but across the Asia-Pacific region as well, including Australia. Public officials and analysts are struggling to understand and devise countermeasures to the recruitment mechanisms employed by ISIS and other violent extremist groups. This essay explores the role that social media has played in ISIS’s efforts to attract adherents.
May 3, 2016
ISIS Recruitment of Malaysian Youth: Challenge and Response
Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani
This essay discusses ISIS recruitment methods that target Malaysian youth and critically examines the measures that the authorities have thus far put in place to counter them.
May 10, 2016
The Role of Women of the Islamic State in the Dynamics of Terrorism in Indonesia
Drawing upon the work of Mia Bloom, this essay challenges the assumption that women are seldom involved, or are at any rate marginal actors in violent extremist groups. The author argues, with reference to the case of Indonesia, that women are strategic actors, and not hapless victims or bystanders in terrorist movements and counter-terrorism efforts.
May 19, 2016
ISIS in Southeast Asia: Internalized Wahhabism is a Major Factor
Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid
Surveys over the past few years have worryingly indicated a rise in the level of extremist tendencies among Southeast Asian Muslims, albeit these tendencies are still at a comparatively low level. The internalization since the 1970s of the Wahhabi brand of Salafism among Southeast Asian Muslims is the major factor behind this apparent shift towards a more radical worldview. The relatively low level of concern over rising Islamist extremism among Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims indicates a worrying institutionalization of radical interpretations of Islam in the general Islamic landscape of both countries. Countering Salafization is rendered difficult by the fact that influential Muslim personalities and elements within Muslim-majority states have themselves embraced aspects of Wahhabism. Between Wahhabism and ISIS, which is but its violent manifestation, lies a short and slippery slope.
August 2, 2016
The Rise of Islamism and Single-Party Rule in Malaysia
David Martin Jones
This essay demonstrates that beneath the surface is a tangle of festering problems that have contributed to the progressive alienation of elements within Malaysian society and rendered them susceptible to the appeal of transnational jihadist influences. The rise of Islamist radicalism is one of the more visible and worrisome signs of the erosion of the authority of Malaysia’s long-standing ruling party, the United Malay National Organization (UMNO).
August 16, 2016
Malaysian Foreign Fighters from Past to Present: Different Pathways to Terror
Hafiza Nur Adeen Nor Ahmad
This essay briefly examines Malaysia’s past experience dealing with jihadist activities and profiles four Malaysian foreign fighters from the current period. The central argument is that, even though Malaysians constitute a relatively small number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, they pose a major problem for Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries and are a complicating factor in the conflicts in which they are involved.
August 25, 2016
Beyond Performativity: Islamic State (ISIL) and Indonesia’s Counter-radicalization Challenge
his essay explores the counter-radicalization landscape in Indonesia with reference to the current challenge posed by Islamic State (ISIL). The author argues that rather than adopting “ISIL-specific” strategies, the Indonesian state should engage more comprehensively with the problematic of counter/de-radicalization policy and, more controversially, the nascent mainstreaming of extremism.
October 14, 2016
Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama: A Tolerant, Inclusive Message
The current initiative by Nahdlatul Ulama (N.U.)—a traditionalist organization with an estimated membership of over 40 million—to promote globally the notion of Islam Nusantara (Islam of the Indonesian Archipelago) aims to spread, both locally and globally—and to the Arab Middle East in particular—a multifaceted message of a tolerance and moderation in an effort to counter religious extremism and terror. This essay examines the background, substance, and significance of this initiative.
January 31, 2017
Institutionalized Violence in the Muslim World Begets Global Islamic Militancy
Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid
The rise since mid-2014 of the Islamic State (ISIS) seems to have eclipsed other manifestations of global Islamist violence. ISIS’s notoriety is attributable to, among other things, its spectacular brutality, territorial gains and apocalyptic ideology. Escaping the attention of many is the fact that ISIS taps into sentiments that have been fostered by extremist policies of many Muslim governments and leaders themselves as an outgrowth of decades of authoritarian rule following post-colonial upheavals in many Muslim societies.
August 15, 2017
The Malaysian State Responds to IS: Force, Discourse, and Dilemma
This essay critically examines the Malaysian state's responses to IS, which, while having proven relatively successful in maintaining public safety (as compared to Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines), have not slowed the pace of radicalization among the Malaysian populace. The essay highlights the operational dimension in the post-Internal Security Act (ISA) era, as well as the active discursive campaign to denounce, discredit and diminish IS. The essay then discusses the dilemma faced by self-proclaimed “Islamic” states such as Malaysia in countering Islamist militancy.
September 19, 2017
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS): Renewing Efforts in India
Mohammed Sinan Siyech
On September 4, 2014 Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) announced the formation of a new regional affiliate called “Qaedat al-Jihad fi’shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiya,” or Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Recently, AQIS has been ramping up its efforts to increase its presence in India. This article examines AQIS’ renewed ambitions and activities in India.
October 10, 2017
Killing in the Name of Air Time? Global Mass Media’s Representation of ISIS
The relationship between the mass media and terrorist outfits, particularly ISIS, as symbiotic; that is, terrorists provide bloody emotional news, which the mass media uses to sell their products. Another, less convincing but prevalent criticism of the press, is that the attention they accord terrorist groups fuels further violence. Still others argue that globalization of the mass media, in a sense, contributes to the spread and enhancement of terrorist outfits’ ability to extend their reach, even to countries as far afield as Southeast Asia. This essay shows that, on the contrary, global media’s skewed reporting of terrorism serves to manufacture popular revulsion of terrorist acts and opposition to jihadists’ agendas.
February 5, 2019
The Islamic State in India: Upgrading Capabilities?
Mohammed Sinan Siyech
The Islamic State (IS) is generally considered to be a very modest threat to Indian national security when compared to Kashmiri separatists, Naxalites, and the North East insurgencies. Yet, paradoxically, of all such violent non-state actors it has been IS that has garnered the most national attention in recent years. In December 2018 and January 2019, it was reported that Indian authorities had disrupted terrorist plots by two IS-inspired groups. This article discusses these incidents and what they reveal and might portend.
May 7, 2019
Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Bombings: Moving Forward
On Easter Sunday (April 21), a series of devastating terror attacks struck popular churches and high-end hotels in Sri Lanka. These tragic events rocked the nation and reverberated across Asia and beyond. This article discusses the circumstances surrounding the bombings and the authorities’ initial responses to them, and suggests ways to help reduce the risk of extremist violence in Sri Lanka.
September 3, 2019
Islamic State Ideology Continues to Resonate in Bangladesh
Three years after a major Islamic State (IS)-claimed attack in its capital Dhaka, defeating the group remains a work in progress for Bangladesh. The residual and regenerative capacity of the local pro-IS cells in Bangladesh is significant as evidenced by actual and thwarted attacks in the country during the first half of 2019. Amidst the threat emanating from Bangladeshi jihadist returnees from Syria, IS ideology continues to resonate and attracts new recruits in this part of South Asia. It remains to be seen how Bangladesh will respond to the re-surfacing of the IS, especially at a time when the region is witnessing inter-religious tensions.
February 4, 2020
What Makes a Movement Violent: Comparing the Ahle Hadith (Salafists) in India and Pakistan
Mohammed Sinan Siyech
This article examines the Salafist movements in Pakistan and North India (known as the Ahle Hadith movement), which originated in the colonial era in India. The article seeks to explain what led Salafist/Ahle Hadith organizations in Pakistan, though not those in India, to adopt violence.
May 24, 2020
Returning Foreign Fighters: Is Malaysia Ready?
Amalina Binte Abdul Nasir
It has been more than a year since the fall of Baghouz. Eleven Malaysians have returned from Syria under the Malaysian government’s offer, conditional upon compliance with checks and enforcement, and a one-month rehabilitation program. Since then, the authorities are optimistic that more will be able to return. However, the anticipation of more returnees raises questions about Malaysia’s readiness to receive incoming batches of Malaysia Islamic State (IS) fighters. Given Malaysia’s lack of experience dealing with battle-hardened terrorists and questions about the efficacy of existing deradicalization efforts, can these structures tackle issues that Malaysia has never faced?
June 23, 2020
Deradicalization Programs for SOSMA, POTA, and POCA Detainees in Malaysia
Mohd Mizan Bin Mohammad Aslam
Counterterrorism strategies can be made more effective by incorporating deradicalization and rehabilitation measures. Deradicalization is a key element element of Malaysia’s counterterrorism and violent extremism strategy. This article discusses the Malaysian Government’s multi-stage deradicalization process.
November 24, 2020
Foreign Terrorist Fighters: Implications for Malaysia’s Border Security
Amalina Binte Abdul Nasir and Rueben Ananthan Santhana Dass
As governments all over the world continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the world must not lose sight of the ongoing threat of returning Islamic State (IS) foreign terrorist fighters from Syria. As foreign fighters and their families scour for places to seek refuge, Malaysia may inadvertently turn out to be an attractive destination given the country’s visa-waiver program; the porousness of the tri-border region of Sabah, Indonesia, and the Philippines; and insider threats. In the past, terrorists have capitalized on these vulnerabilities. Given the country’s susceptibility to being used as a terrorist safe haven and platform for staging trans-border terrorist attacks, Malaysian authorities need to strengthen and improve existing measures aimed at countering terrorist infiltration.