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After five days of fighting in the mountains of a southern Philippine island, the stronghold of Muslim militants with ties to the Islamic State has been captured by Philippine security forces. 42 militants were killed in the fight, an army spokesperson announced on Friday. While this seems like a big victory for the forces countering radical Islam in Southeast Asia, the regional practice of militancy in the name of religion has been a pervasive and difficult force to quell.
From the Philippine islands to Indonesia and even Singapore, it is growing increasingly obvious that the Islamic State is expanding beyond the borders of the Middle East and the Maghreb. This goes against conventional thinking and the parameters of the Western news cycle, but not logic. Southeast Asia boasts 62% of the world’s Muslim population, with Indonesia having the highest Muslim population in the world.
This is not the first time that a country has grappled with militant Islamic influence, either. SE Asian countries also faced al-Qaeda influence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, giving rise to Jemaah Islamiyah, the group behind the 2002 Bali bombings that killed over 200. The consequent arrests and executions after the bombing had a hand in weakening the presence of radical Islam in the region, but by no means did it kill it. The remnants of the al-Qaeda Islamist “wick” has been again ignited by the Islamic State.
Much like an animal adapting to a new environment, the Islamic State’s influence in SE Asia has some key differences when compared to the al-Qaeda impact. Today, the Islamic State has been keen to ship SE Asian fighters to their homesteads in the Mideast for training and then to ship them back. Up to 150 known Indonesians and 70 Malaysians are in Iraq and Syria according to their respective governments, but it is very likely that the “actual numbers are much higher.”
But the recruiting efforts expand beyond capable fighters. According to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, 60 percent of Indonesians who are en route to the Islamic State in Syria and are quickly caught/deported by Turkey are women and children. Efforts in social media are not only targeted to attract fighters and recruits, but to also bolster a society of opportunity and prosperity via a promise of married life for SE Asian women.
It has even come so far as to have Indonesian leaders stationed in the Islamic State bastion of Syria. Those like Abu Ibrahim, Abu Jandal, and Bahrun Naim (the suspected mastermind behind the recent Jakarta attacks) have been “competing with each other to encourage their contacts in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to undertake attacks against enemies of the self-declared caliphate. In some cases, they are also providing funds.” This, on top of the carefully orchestrated operations to instigate various amaliyat, or jihad operations, creates a system of direct and indirect force that is hard to stamp out. The system itself almost resembles the mythical hydra--chopping off one head will only result in the spawning of more.
This threat has not gone unnoticed. In a recent interview with NPR, CIA Director John Brennan expressed his concerns:
“ISIS is still very much pursuing a strategy of global expansion. [...] It's a much different type of threat. ISIS is more of a phenomenon [...] more of a movement. It has sort of taken the hearts and souls, minds of individuals. It's set up as false caliphate, and it has attracted thousands, upon thousands of individuals who have been misled by this narrative. And so I am very concerned about what ISIS is doing undercutting and undermining the fabric of societies, undercutting governments, again, taking advantage of some of these ungoverned spaces that have evolved and developed [like Egypt, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Indonesia.]”
U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg also reflected sentiments of a careful watch of ISIS activity in the region earlier this month:
“What I’m saying is that we have to watch very closely to see if at any point something develops more than this rhetorical situation, and we are concerned that something like that could happen, that’s why we do watch it closely.”
Other than general statements of careful watch and concern, the U.S. has yet to announce any decisive or concrete plans in regard to battling Islamic State presence in SE Asia. But one must ask, what kind of power do airstrikes and ammunition have against an idea, or a belief?
General public opinion in these areas, however, are concurrent with the general opinion of the Islamic State globally. Only 8% polled to have a favorable view of ISIS in Indonesia, while the total tallied at 11% in Malaysia and 9% in Pakistan. It’s clear that the Islamic State is a minority force that has an incredible capacity for destruction. It is not a question of numbers, but a question of the unfettered weight and leverage they carry amongst their loyal followers in the region.