Jul 24, 2014

Asia - Joining the New Caravan: ISIS & the Future of Terrorism in Southeast Asia

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The conflict in Syria and Iraq is now more serious and has gained traction for the salafi jihadist community in Southeast Asia.

Two videos of young Indonesians calling on their countrymen to come to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, have recently garnered significant media attention and raised alarms amongst security officials that the insurgents’ gains will have repercussions on security across Southeast Asia. While some analysts discount the threat, it is clearly a growing concern that the conflict will do much to reverse counter-terrorist successes in the past 12 years.  To date, the numbers of Southeast Asians who have joined ISIS are still low, but the consequences will be disproportionately greater.

In the videos, Southeast Asians, in a mixture of Bahasa and Arabic, implored their compatriots: “Let us fight in the path of Allah because it is our duty to do jihad in the path of Allah … especially here in Sham [the Syrian region] … and because, God willing, it will be to this country that our families will do the holy migration.”  Another said, “Brothers in Indonesia, don’t be afraid because fear is the temptation of Satan.”  A third recorded message, a former Indonesian soldier, attacked Indonesia’s secular ideology of Pancasila.

Who is fighting?

There are at least 30 Malaysians and 60 Indonesians thought to be in Iraq and Syria as well as at least one Cambodian, according to one British jihadist who appeared in a video, “There’s No Life Without Jihad.”  The Syrian representative to the UN disclosed that 15 Malaysians had been killed in fighting but offered little in the way of evidence.[1] The Malaysian government is investigating the allegation and to date has been unable to confirm the report.  More recent estimates put the number of Malaysians  at roughly 100.  The Indonesian police chief confirmed that at least 56 had gone to fight. Indonesian authorities fear that the number will soon climb to around 100.  The Philippine government has denied that there are any Bangsamoro fighting with ISIS, although some unreliable reports claim as many as 200 have gone, which is highly unlikely.  Singapore acknowledges that a “handful” went to Syria and that one other had been detained under Singapore’s  Internal Security Act, while two more were under “Restriction Orders.”

This tally is  still a fraction of the estimated 12,000 foreigners in ISIS according to the Soufan Group.  Their June 2014 report cites official government estimates of Indonesian fighters as 30-60, one from Singapore, and no official estimates from Malaysia and the Philippines. In addition, the Australian government estimates that at least 150 of its nationals are fighting in Iraq and Syria.  The United States government estimates that there are only 7,000 foreign jihadists fighting for ISIS.

In early May, Malaysia arrested 11 suspected militants in Selangor and Kedah, en route to Syria; they were ostensibly going to provide humanitarian assistance.  Security officials believed that they were part of a 50-person network that emerged in 2013 and had no previous ties to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).  They were charged with being “responsible for planning terror acts in and outside the country.”   Later in May, security forces arrested three men and one woman.  On June 13, Malaysian police arrested three more suspected militants that were linked to both Abu Sayyaf and ISIS.  Two more have since been detained and authorities have spoken of the possible need to cancel passports to prevent people from traveling overseas. On 15 June authorities arrested three men in Sandakan, Sabah.  Alarmingly, one of the three was a Royal Malaysian Navy sailor.  Naval officials were actively investigating to see if any other personnel were involved in the cell; the sailor was later released.  On 25 June, Special Branch officers arrested six militants in Sabah and were actively searching for several other members of the cell.  In July 2014, security forces announced that five Malaysian suspects with ties to ISIS and the Abu Sayyaf were hiding in Mindanao.  This cell was responsible for dispatching the first five Malaysians, (including the first suicide bomber) to Syria in March 2014.[2]

Who are they?

Some information has been released regarding who a number of the suspects are.  They come from across Malaysian society, and include multiple socio-economic classes and backgrounds.  The 11 arrested in May include:

Mohd Khairil Mi, 27, was charged with promoting terrorism.

Muhammad Armie Fatihah Mohd Hashim, 22, was arrested for encouraging violence at a public gathering.

Mohammad Hafiz Zahri Suparyatnoh, 28, was charged with openly supporting ISIS at a public gathering.

But surprisingly, and in demonstration of ISIS’ resonance, the group also included Azizah Md Yusof, a 55-year old housewife who was using two Facebook pages to recruit and “support terrorist activities.”

Another wanted militant is Mahmud Ahmad, a lecturer at Universiti Malaya’s Academy of Islamic Studies.[3]  Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, Malaysia’s first suicide bomber, was a former factory worker from Selangor, who pursued religious studies abroad. Muamar Gadaffi Mohamad Shafawi, a 30-year old plantation owner, was charged with providing militant training and indoctrination in Perak state.  Two colleagues were also charged with lesser crimes of illegal firearm possession.

The Singaporean nationals who have traveled to join the jihad include Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, a naturalized Singapore citizen from India who brought his wife and three children; a female Singaporean national along with her foreign husband and two teenage children who are thought to be providing aid to ISIS.  A self-radicalized lawyer, Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader, was detained under the Internal Security Act, while Zakaria Rosdan and Khairul Sofri Osman, both Singaporeans, were issued Restriction Orders and are unable to travel.

This is not the first time

There have been recent attempts to get Southeast Asians to join conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia.  Between 120 and150 Malaysians, Indonesians, southern Philippine Muslims and Southern Thai Pattani went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to join the mujihideen in the 1990s.  Many of these individuals returned to Southeast Asia where they established madrassas and indoctrinated a  generation of salafi jihadists and went on to lead militant organizations around the region, including Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the long-defunct Laskar Jihad, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and Gerakan Mujideen Islamliya Pattani (GMIP).  The influence of the returnees cannot be overstated.  Returning from Afghanistan, they were put on pedestals in their communities.   Their hagiographies were embellished as they constructed the narrative that if motivated jihadists could topple a super power, then regional secular and authoritarian regimes could also be defeated.  Their presence alone in Syria and Iraq gives them jihadi credibility.

In 2003, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in Indonesia recruited people to go to Lebanon to fight Israel.  Though some did go, it was  a harder sell among salafi jihadists since the war was primarily  fought by Hezbollah, a shia movement; the few Southeast Asians who went were used as cannon fodder and had negligible impact at home.  Southeast Asians tend to be more willing to donate to Palestinian causes than join a movement.

There were a few Southeast Asians who went to Iraq to fight the United States.  The head of the FPI, Habib Rizieq, was arrested by American’s almost immediately and was quietly sent home; Rizieq was not arrested upon return and remains free.  The total number of Southeast Asians who previously went to Iraq is small and their impact at home was never a serious concern for security officials.  They may be viewed more as publicity stunts.

The resonance of ISIS

The conflict in Syria and Iraq is now more serious and has gained traction for the salafi jihadist community in Southeast Asia.  ISIS, founded in 2011, has greater appeal than the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra front, which was tarnished by horrific attacks on civilians.  ISIS is inspired by al Qaeda (but not linked to it) and is committed to the re-establishment of the caliphate. Though only a few Indonesians joined al-Nusra, security officials fear that ISIS will have more traction in the region.  This is no publicity stunt.

Second, the conflict is against a shia regime and its allies.  In many ways the shia are more reviled by salafis than non-Muslims.  Though there are few shia in Southeast Asia, antipathy towards them is high.

Third, the crackdown on militants operating in Southeast Asia has continued and Southeast Asia is an infertile ground for jihadist operations.  So if Southeast Asians choose to engage in militancy, operating abroad is practical and ISIS has the most draw currently. Moreover, ISIS is winning, and there is nothing as good as success to attract more followers.

Fourth, social media is also a growing attraction factor.  This was true in 2006, but it has become even more ubiquitous in 2014 with the proliferation of 4G smart phones.  ISIS has proven extremely adept at exploiting social media, controlling their message, and using these means to recruit and indoctrinate.  Indeed, one of ISIS’ biggest on-line boosters, a 29-year old Australian convert to Islam, Musa Cerantonio  has been based in the Philippines until his arrest on 11 July and his likely extradition to Australia, which has a warrant for his arrest.  According to British researchers, he was one of the most influential boosters of ISIS in the world with a massive following in social media. The Indonesian pro-jihadi website www.al-mustaqbal.net is a one stop shop for all things ISIS.  Malaysian jihadists have also posted videos to show new recruits as well as members already in Syria.

Fifth, there is a fear of further radicalization.  Three Southeast Asians have become suicide bombers.  In May 2014, Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki drove an SUV filed with explosives into a military base in Anbar province killing 25 elite Iraqi soldiers and becoming the first Malaysian suicide bomber. The former factory worker from Selangor had preciously fought in Aleppo, Syria.  He had quit his job in March 2013 before traveling to the Middle East for “religious study.”  Authorities believe that he received some military training in Port Dickinson before leaving the country.

There have been two Indonesian suicide bombers: 19-year-old Wildan Mukhallad blew himself up in Iraq while Riza Fardi detonated his device in Syria in 2011.  Fardi had attended the infamous al Mukmin (Ngruki) Islamic boarding school in Solo, Indonesia, founded by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and also attended by the Bali bombers.

Sixth, ISIS has significant resources at its disposal – at least $2 billion and growing with their conquest of more oil and gas facilities and sale of electricity. ISIS also received sizeable donations.  These funds  will help attract new members and supporters.

Finally, speaking to the resonance of ISIS, there is a Hadith that speaks of the final battle between good and evil being fought in Syria, and many jihadist recruits are inspired by the idea of being part of this apocryphal war against the enemies of Islam.

[1] Clearly the Syrian government is trying to play up the threat so as to garner more diplomatic support for its counter-insurgency operation.

[2] The five were identified as Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, Mohd Najib Husen, Muhammad Joraimee Awang Raimee, Mohd Amin Baco, and Jeknal Adil.

[3] The other four are Najib Husen, Muhammad Joraimee Awang Raimee, Amin Baco and Jeknal Adil.

The success of ISIS directly impacts Southeast Asian security in several ways. ISIS breathe new life into terrorist networks that have been pulverized in the past decade.

In the years following the October 2012 Bali bombing, over 400 members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), including much of its leadership, were arrested across Southeast Asia.  Although JI was able to perpetrate major attacks between 2002 and 2005, it was not able to stage major attacks again until 2007.  JI was riddled with factionalism and was seriously divided over strategy and tactics.   There were two chief camps. First, there were advocates of the al Qaeda line which established a new organization, al Qaeda in Indonesia, under the leadership of Noordin Mohammad Mop Top.  On the other side were people who argued that targeting the west had little impact on the movement’s objectives and led to government crackdowns. This side also articulated a strategy based on waging sectarian conflict in Sulawesi, the outer islands, in order to create pure communities governed by sharia from which JI could emanate without provoking a heavy-handed government response.  However, neither strategy worked particularly well.  The pro-al Qaeda group staged suicide bombings in Jakarta in 2009, but that was it.  Elite Indonesian counter-terrorism forces replaced the clumsy and thuggish Brimob forces in Central Sulawesi, and helped to neutralize the advocates of sectarian violence.   Other members of JI simply gave up on the fight and established nominally non-violent organizations such as Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT).

In 2009-10 there was an attempt to reunify these divisions.  JI leaders who had been hiding in Mindanao returned to Indonesia and established a large training camp in Aceh.  This cell, which called itself Al Qaeda on the Veranda of Mecca (a Koranic reference to Aceh), was influenced by the Lashkar e-Taiba’s 2008 takeover of the hotel in Mumbai and wanted to replicate the bold but low cost operation in Jakarta.  The cell was broken up and had more than 125 members.  A senior member, Umar Patek, was arrested in Abottabad, Pakistan shortly before Osama bin Laden’s capture by U.S. Navy Seals. He was there to solicit al Qaeda support and funding.  After 2010, JI was severely crippled and could only stage small-scale attacks.  JAT was also hurt in the follow-up as its leader Abu Bakar Bashir was imprisoned for 15 years for his role in funding the camp.

Beyond factionalism and debates over strategy and tactics, JI also experienced simple operational impediments.  It was very hard to reconstitute under a dragnet.  Various cells began to operate autonomously, often setting up their own organizations, such as Abu Umar’s West Indonesia Mujahideen (WIM), or Mujahideen Kompak.  Without any leadership, and in particular, a strong religious leader – an amir – to serve as a unifying figure, it has been very hard for JI to reconstitute.  Today there is a myriad of jihadist groups in Indonesia.  These include WIM, Mujahideen Kompak, other JI remnants, JAT, and the Hilal al-Ahmar Society.  Although there are still regular arrests of cells and attempts to rekindle the organization through attacks, the network is disparate.  Since mid-2013 there have been a spate of attacks in Central Sulawesi, but no broad-based sectarian conflict has re-erupted as a result.

For a while it appeared that the Myanmar government would be targeted due to their treatment of Muslim Rohingyas.  In May, two JI members were arrested for plotting to blow up the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta.  Even still, the two defendants said that after the attack on the Burmese embassy they intended to travel to join ISIS. In July 2013, two senior Rohingya leaders, members of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO, original signatories of al Qaeda’s 1994 fatwah) traveled from their home in Bangladesh to Indonesia to meet with hardline groups for support.  Muhammad Jibril Abdul Rahman, the son of a JI founding member Abu Jibril and a member of the Karachi-based JI cell known as al Guraba, posted media on the JI websites and social media platforms that he manages.   Since then, however, emphasis has again focused outside of the region.  Local jihadists have little appetite right now for operations within the region, and that brings ISIS to the fore.

ISIS not only inspires people from Southeast Asia to take up arms, it rallies up the base, which has been demoralized in recent years.   And sadly, the Indonesian government is allowing this to happen:  On June 14 in the Indonesian city of Solo, members of Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) marched in support waving ISIS banners.  In Indonesia, it is still not illegal to raise money for ISIS or other terrorist groups.  (Technically it is, as Indonesia is bound by UN Security Council decisions, but Indonesia does not have domestic implementing legislation).  Groups regularly and publicly fundraise for ISIS.

ISIS has also restored JI’s charitable arms and social networks.  The Hilal al-Ahmar Society in Indonesia (HASI), considered the humanitarian wing of JI, has been operating in Syria, and possibly supporting ISIS rebels.  Indeed, Indonesian authorities believe that many militants have traveled to Syria via Turkey in the guise of being humanitarian aid workers.  MER-C is now active in Palestine, operating legitimately as a charity despite their very checkered past as abetters in violent sectarian violence in Sulawesi and the Malukus in the late-1990s and early 2000s. There are unconfirmed reports that they are also active in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS is an opportunity for jihadists to regroup, recruit, gain military experience, and indoctrinate away from the security force dragnet at home.   It creates new networks, alliances and friendships.  It has also given radical clerics like Aman Abdurrahman and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir new platforms to reach out to followers, despite the latter’s incarceration.  Ba’asyir has instructed his followers to support ISIS, whose success has rekindled calls for the establishment of the caliphate.

ISIS’ success is also heartening to the JI members who supported sectarian violence in places like Poso, Sulawesi or Ambon in the Malukus.  The goal of those campaigns was to create proto-Islamic states governed by sharia.  From there, they could expand outward, demonstrating the success of Islamic governance.  While the re-establishment of the caliphate may be a pipe-dream, the establishment of “Islands of Islam,” governed through a strict interpretation of Islam, are all too real.  ISIS’ governance is inspiring.

Southeast Asians who have joined ISIS have adeptly used social media to recruit new members and propagandize their exploits.  The most famous of these is Malaysian Mohd Lotfi Ariffin whose Facebook page with frequent posts was attracting a growing number of followers before being taken down.

ISIS is also rekindling transnational networks.  As mentioned above, Malaysian authorities are investigating the link between the ISIS militants and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).  One of the three men arrested on 15 June in Malaysia, had been trained by the ASG in Sulu.  There is also concern that some ISIS-bound militants have received some training in southern Thailand, though to date there is little evidence of this.   The transnational nature of the threat needs to be understood.  In the 1990s, when JI was first founded, its cells operated throughout the region, and in many ways each cell had different functions and responsibilities (fundraising, military training and weapons, sectarian violence, recruitment, operations, propaganda).  Maybe this was not the intention, but it was smart as no one security force ever had a full picture of what JI was doing; and at the time, there was very little cooperation amongst the JI groups.  JI reached out to other militant organizations for support.  Weaponry and military training was provided by the MILF and ASG in the Philippines or Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Pattani (GMIP) in Thailand.  The RSO helped move members to South Asia.  There was an attempt in the late 1990s – three meetings – to unify the different organizations.  This was known as the Rabitatul Mujihedin. But history caught up.  Post 9/11, there were no further attempts to unify the command structures of these groups.  Yet the networks mattered.  For example, post 9/11, JI’s operations chief Hambali, had safe refuge in southern Thailand. Even if there is no formal alliance between these various groups, the connections and networks existed.

Perhaps the greatest threat posed by ISIS is their sheer brutality, including the mass executions of prisoners and shia civilians. This is a double-edged sword.  It’s not that Southeast Asian jihadists have eschewed extreme mass casualty violence, but their community and base of support does find it to be anathema to Southeast Asian culture.  Egregious attacks often lead to pushback from the local community.  On the other hand, such extreme violence will force security services to react – and most likely – over-react, which is what the militants try to provoke.

ISIS’s brutal attacks against the shia are inspiring similar attacks in Indonesia.  The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace has reported a threefold increase in the number of attacks on shia between 2012 and 2013.  This is coupled with a surge in attacks against the Ahmadiyah sect in recent years, including a brutal attack in February 2011 in which three Ahmadis were beaten to death while Indonesian police stood by. In June 2008, the government banned the Ahmadiyah despite the constitutional protection of freedom of religion.  According to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, between 2008 and 2013 some 62 Ahmadiyah mosques were attacked or destroyed, 45 of which were forcibly closed, and more than 100 displaced after their village in Lombok was attacked.  There have been further attacks on suffis. The government’s 2008 decree on deviant sects has been seen as a green light for groups like the FPI to engage in sectarian violence.[1]

Is there any good news?

The potential for blowback in Southeast Asia is real, but it is also limited and can be mitigated for the following reasons:

1. The numbers of Southeast Asians joining ISIS are still very small, despite the pervasiveness and effective use of social media by ISIS.  There have only been several hundred over the past 2-3 years. Though they are expected to remain steady, they are not expected to surge.  Governments in the region are actively trying to prevent people from leaving the country, dealing with the problem now rather than upon their return.

2. Mainstream Muslim organizations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah have rejected ISIS and the establishment of the caliphate by force.

3. Southeast Asian militants and Islamists are still divided over ISIS and al-Nusra, and that competition plays out both overseas and at home.  Indonesian jihadist websites are strongly divided over ISIS, with some – Albusyro.com – remaining totally loyal to al-Nusra.  In addition, these ideological schisms can be exploited by security forces.  Interestingly, although Abu Bakar Ba’asyir has instructed his followers to support ISIS, his JAT in the past was supportive of al-Nusra.  As one of his lieutenants explained, “There seems to be discord between JN and ISIS. That’s why we’ve chosen to refrain from declaring the ba’iat [an oath of loyalty], but our position is clear. We support the formation of a caliphate and that the established territorial control by ISIL has gained traction as acknowledged by Ustad Abu [Bakar Ba’asyir].”

Beyond ideological schisms, there are actual organizational schisms.  The Malaysian government claims that there are at least four, if not five, separate groups who are involved in recruiting individuals, sending them to either southern Thailand or Mindanao or Sulu in the Philippines, and then trying to exfiltrate members to Iraq or Syria (usually via Turkey).  The divide could be ideological; it could be based on ego, or it could simply be an inability to organize in a harsh security environment. Right now, we do not know.

In at least one case, there is no organizational tie at all back to Southeast Asia.  The Star gained access to one Malaysian militant who asserts that he is simply a jihadist mercenary, with no ties to any organization back home.  While these individuals still pose a threat, and the issue of self-motivating individuals is troubling in of itself, they pose less of a threat than disciplined organizations with more resources and a greater ability to mobilize.

Some groups such as the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI), are more inwardly focused, as they have been tied up in the heated Indonesian Presidential election, trying to push forward their own agenda.  It is possible that after the election, that they will again focus on external issues, such as Syria and Iraq.

4. The security forces are aware of the threat.  In 2001-2002 security forces  throughout the region were in denial about the influence and networks of the Afghan veterans.  Today, the security services in Southeast Asia are all too aware of the threat and are monitoring it closely.  These militants are not going to simply return to Southeast Asia and be able to operate unhindered.  The governments are studying travel patterns and working with partners overseas to identify possible militants.  Most governments in the region have stepped up their border controls (though Malaysia did take hits following the discovery that Iranians used false documents to board the ill-fated Malaysian jetliner).  They have increased monitoring of local jihadist networks, forums, and communities to identify recruiters and potential volunteers. They are intercepting people before they can even leave the country, which was not the case in the 1980s.  Some states could consider France’s strategy of criminalizing the act of traveling abroad to join militant groups.  This time around, the security forces are being proactive and will not be caught flat-footed.  They understand the blowback potential.

It is interesting that the Malaysian government, usually the most tightlipped and hyper-sensitive about Islamist terrorism is out front on the issue.  This was less the case in Indonesia, but that had more to do with the extremely tight presidential election between Joko Widowi and Prabowo Subianto, the latter, whose campaign coalition included all of the Islamist parties and has allegedly used the support of thuggish groups such as the FPI as enforcers.   Indonesia could begin to crack down after Jokowi is inaugurated in October 2014.

5. The experience and professionalism of security forces in Southeast Asia has improved.  The experience gained since 2002 is immeasurable.  Moreover, the ability of security forces across the region to have routine and regular contact with one another without high-level political interference has never been greater.

6. There is time for the security forces to react.  The conflict in Syria and Iraq is not going to come to a conclusion anytime soon.  It is unlikely that large numbers of Southeast Asians will start to return to the region in the height of the conflict, especially when ISIS has been making such significant gains.

The success of ISIS – now calling itself the Islamic State – poses numerous security challenges for the world, including Southeast Asia.  But the  threat is manageable, and with inter-state cooperation, pro-active policies, good intelligence and surgical police actions, and effective social media strategies, the threat can be mitigated.

[1] Because of the erosion of religious freedoms, protection of minority rights, changing policies, and sectarian attacks, since 2009 the USCIRF has designated  Indonesian as a Tier II country.

Dr. Zachary Abuza

Dr. Zachary Abuza is a professor and analyst of Southeast Asian politics and security.  He has lived and traveled extensively throughout the region. Dr. Abuza consults widely and is a frequent commentator in the press. He holds an MALD and PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.


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