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Home-grown Terrorism

The Potential ISIS Threat in South East Asia

19 August 2015

The spread and impact of terrorism in South East Asian countries is not a new phenomenon. The presence of home-grown terrorist groups in these countries still remains a major concern. The Abu Sayyaf militants who killed almost 50 people by raiding a Christian town of Ipil in the Philippines in 1995 are an instance of it. In addition, around 222 people were killed by home grown terrorists in Bali, Indonesia in 2002 and 2005. Even now eastern Indonesia and Southern Philippines have cases of kidnappings and killings.

What indeed is worrisome is how ISIS is able to reach out to the Asia-Pacific region and recruit citizens to fight in Syria and Iraq. What must be understood that the spill-over effect of ISIS is not limited to the Middle East alone but to the entire Muslim population in general and thus, the matter needs to be sensitively dealt with. This article deals with the growing threat of ISIS in the South East Asian countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines, attempt to establish concrete causal agents behind this growing phenomenon and how it can be dealt with.

ISIS in South East Asia

The rapid mushrooming of ISIS in South East Asian Muslim countries can be definitely perceived as a growing threat, taking into account the manner in which the organisation is trying to infiltrate borders across the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, Jakarta estimates that already 60 of its citizens are fighting for ISIS, though the real number hasn’t been officially calculated yet. In a key-note address in 2015 International Institute for Security Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue[1], Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed that ISIS has started its own combat unit in countries such as  Indonesia and Malaysia that calls itself as ‘Katibah Nusantara’-the Malay Archipelago Combat Unit.[2]

The international community has still not forgotten the heart-wrenching manner in which the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, an utter loss for humanity as well as architecture. Moreover, the rampant endeavour undertaken by ISIS to destroy the archaeological heritage of Iraq and Syria, which was preserved for more than 4000 years, has spurred fears that the Borobudur Temple in Java might be an ISIS target. The Borobudur temple, along with being a major tourist attraction, is also the largest Buddhist monument in the world.[3] These fears are further exasperated by recent news of Abu Bakar Bashir, the leader of the Indonesian based terror group ‘Jemaah Islamiyah’ officially announcing his allegiance to ISIS from his prison cell.[4]

On the other hand, the official statement of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, openly branding ISIS as ‘humiliating’ to Muslims, reveals the government's stance on this matter. Meanwhile the Malaysian government, which has been acknowledged for traditionally practicing a moderate brand of Islam, has geared up on monitoring their citizens who are travelling overseas. The Malaysian government has also called ISIS a culprit for committing crimes in the name of Islam. and is seeking assistance from the Southeast Asian Cooperation to handle this threat. As  the current strikes by the Western governments on Syria and Iraq seem to be ineffective, Hishammuddin Hussein, the Defence minister of Malaysia has clearly quoted that ‘working in isolation’ would not solve the threat of ISIS which aims to establish a global Islamic Caliphate. [5] In addition, he condemned Arab States' silence against the growing rise of ISIS and the level to which it  jeopardises the lives of innocent civilians through their massive man-slaughter and atrocities.

The Institute for the Study of Wars in its recent report, published on June 7, has revealed that ‘ISIS Military Operations during Ramadan’ would further capitalise on religious tension and war.[6] It has also predicted that along with aiming at Western nations, ISIS also plans to ‘awaken the sleeping cells’ in South East Asian countries to further expand its reach by the end of July 18. The ISIS website officially uploaded a news piece titled ‘Mujahidin Malaysia Syahid Dalam Operasi Martyrdom’ which revealed how Malaysia’s first suicide bomber, a 26-year-old Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, had played a vital role in causing the death of 25 Iraqi military officials.[7]

The ISIS effect on the relationship between South East Asian governments and its Muslim citizens

The advent of Islam in South East Asian countries had primarily originated from India by the Sufi saints who practiced the ideology of tolerance for coexistence. In this process, they expanded on the basis of letting the natives retain pre-Islamic beliefs and practices, which on the contrary would be taken quite critically by the radical and stern adherents of Islam in the other regions. An example of this is the social interaction blended with the pre-Islamic customary law in which women were allowed to retain a stronger position. Even within the cultural scene, Javanese shadow plays were slowly blended with the tinge of Islam rather than imposing it in a harsh manner.[8] In short, the pre-existing beliefs were integrated with Islam through a slow process of religious conversion, especially in countries like Malaysia, Southern Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Thailand.[9]

The concept of Ummah is prevalent in these countries and Mecca is revered as a holy pilgrimage site. The government has also played a role in this integration by allowing Muslims to perform Hajj. For instance, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand hire planes and several Muslims on the Hajj from all different parts of South East Asia. Also, education plays a very important role in bringing together Muslims in South East Asian through local Muslim schools called as ‘pesantren’, which further helps them become an indelible part of the Muslim community as a whole. Politically also, for instance, the government of Thailand has allowed Muslims to be a part of the bureaucracy. In the case of Malaysia, the government is very sensitive in both integrating the Muslim institutions and at the same time, not frighten the Malay community with their presence in lead decision-making roles. In Indonesia, the idea of ‘God’ has been very sensitively dealt with, by not framing it into the constitution, so that people of all faiths can have their freedom of speech and expression. So, one can spot both Muslims who believe in Allah and Buddhists in Bali who preach the essence of Buddhism. The Christian element which is quite strong in Eastern parts of Indonesia has also been endowed with its own religious space. It is only in the northern tip of Sumatra where the Arab Wahabbi kind of Islam is strictly followed.[10]

Thus, the expansion of ISIS in South East Asian countries would definitely disturb the societal equilibrium. The governments of these nations, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia fear that the home-grown Islamic militants in league with ISIS would not only function in Syria and Iraq but also return and bring ISIS propaganda to their homelands, which is definitely a major concern. They also fear that the ISIS model is to train a small but well-armed and financed insurgent force in South East Asian countries. Along with creating a strain in the government and citizen relationship, the expansion of ISIS would also take a sectarian colour in the coming years in these countries, growing the divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims, in spite of the fact that these countries have been traditionally following a very liberal and non-sectarian brand of Islam. Similarly, the advent of sectarian division may  also impact religious differences. It would be quite sensitive to deal with how the Chinese, Malay, and Buddhists tend to interact socially with their Muslim counterparts with the fear of ‘Jihad’ and the Islamic Caliphate becoming a worrisome subject. Religious tensions would definitely take place if the governments are not able to tackle the issue of these three perspectives. 

Firstly, governments need to understand where, how and why ISIS is able to absorb secular Muslims from South East Asia, which Al Qaeda had failed to do. Secondly, they need to also perceive how the roles of Muslims would be defined in society, both politically and culturally so that it does not demoralize minority groups. Thirdly and most importantly, they have to take measures to ensure that the moderate nature of Islam in South East Asian countries is not hampered with. The differences between Islamic revival, Political Islam, Extremists and Terrorists need to be made very clear.[11] It is worth noting that despite the furore over ISIS accumulating allegiances by minor terror based group to their ideologies, governments should not call for the application of harsh measures and an unnecessary fuss that could lead to the security dilemma be blown out of proportion. Thus, the identities and interests along with the long history of Muslims in these countries should be taken well into regard when tackling the ISIS dilemma in South East Asia.

Countering ISIS in South East Asia

Indeed, South East Asian countries need to take security measures against the growing threat of ISIS. But it needs to be done in a step-by-step manner. Firstly, the governments should start strict surveillance on theAbu Sayyaf Group (Philippines) and Jemaah Islamiyah (Indonesia), and operate through their intelligence machinery to gather more information about their whereabouts, their operations, recruitments and expansion plans.[12]Secondly, the governments need to respond to the ISIS threat in a political manner. For instance, the Parliament of Malaysia plans to reconsider a new anti-terrorism act. At the same time, it should not be as strident as the Internal Security Act which allowed for indefinite detention without charge as it would have massive societal impact and strain the relationship of the government with its Muslim citizens.[13] Rather, preventive measures should be taken into consideration. The government of Singapore is planning to introduce a de-radicalisation programme, but it should not be accompanied with harsh detention and strict surveillance. Instead, the step taken by Singapore which in January introduced the new study abroad initiatives that aims at de-radicalisation in a very subtle manner is a well-thought idea.[14]Thirdly, South East Asian countries need to understand that they cannot work in isolation, thus the need of regional cooperation in counter-terrorism should be boosted. Fourthly, the regional cooperation should be at the level of political and economic organisations such as ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations. Fifthly and most importantly, the governments should also note that not all home-grown terror groups support ISIS. For instance, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Philippines has openly condemned the acts of ISIS and vows to stop their ‘virus’ from reaching South East Asia.[15]


In the recent months, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have confirmed that their citizens are involved with ISIS and are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq. But the issue of the growing threat of ISIS cannot be solved if few very prominent questions are ignored. Firstly, why are secular and liberal Muslims of these countries attracted to ISIS, as in, what appeals to them in ISIS' Jihadi ideology and why? Secondly, what methodologies are being used by ISIS to recruit these citizens, is it through social media, local Muslim schools, video footages or inbuilt anger against their own government’s policies which had never been vented out before? Or are there ISIS operatives working inside these countries, which intelligence units are unaware of and hence, the mass recruitment is made possible? Also, it is important to understand to what extent these allegiances actually start and end, without exaggerating both its strengths and weaknesses.

It is indeed difficult to excavate and find the answers to these pertinent questions without regional cooperation. South East Asian countries need to understand why a Muslim would become an ISIS soldier before starting off with their de-radicalisation programmes or imposing new security laws. The rise of ISIS reveals the caveats that are still lingering in these countries.  Unfortunately, there has been no catharsis or political dialogue from the government's side with its own citizens to ensure the identities and interests of Muslims, Buddhists, Chinese, Christians and Malay people are understood fully, thereby causing massive distrust and loopholes in the governments' functioning.

[1] Olivia Siong, 2015, ‘ISIS could pose serious threat to whole of Southeast Asia: PM Lee at Shangri-La Dialogue’, Channel News Asia,  http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/isis-could-pose-serious/1880506.html

[2] Josh Rogin, 2015, ‘Islamic State Is Rapidly Expanding in Southeast Asia,’ Bloomberg View,http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-05-29/islamic-state-makes-a-move-on-southeast-asia

[3] The Wall Street Journal, 2014, ‘ISIS in Southeast Asia,’ Review and Outlook,http://www.wsj.com/articles/isis-in-southeast-asia-1409590016

[4] Josh Rogin, 2015, ‘Islamic State Is Rapidly Expanding in Southeast Asia,’ Bloomberg View,http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-05-29/islamic-state-makes-a-move-on-southeast-asia

[5] AFP, 2014, ‘Malaysia calls for Southeast Asian cooperation on ISIS threat’, Al Arabiya News,http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/asia/2014/10/17/Malaysia-calls-for-Southeast-Asian-cooperation-on-ISIS-threat.html

[6] Jay Akbar, 2015, ‘The sick ambitions of a caliphate bent on carnage: Chilling map predicts where ISIS will seize new land, strike the West with 'lone wolf attacks' and awaken 'sleeper cells'... all before the end of Ramadan’, The Daily Mail UK, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3134534/The-sick-ambitions-caliphate-bent-carnage-Chilling-map-predicts-ISIS-seize-new-land-strike-West-lone-wolf-attacks-awaken-sleeper-cells-end-Ramadan.html

[7] Luke Hunt, 2014, ‘ISIS: A Threat Well Beyond the Middle East’, The Diplomat,http://thediplomat.com/2014/07/isis-a-threat-well-beyond-the-middle-east/

[8] World History Forum, 2002, ‘The Spread Of Islam To Southeast Asia’, World History Forum, http://history-world.org/islam7.htm

[9] Anthony Reid, ‘Islamization and Christianization in Southeast Asia: the Critical Phase, 1550-1650’ IN Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era: Trade, Power, and Belief, ed. Anthony Reid. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp.151-79

[10] Anthony Shih, 2002, ‘The Roots and Societal Impact of Islam in Southeast Asia’, Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, Volume 2, pp.114-117, http://web.stanford.edu/group/sjeaa/journal2/geasia2.pdf

[11] Bruce Vaughn, 2005, ‘Islam in South and Southeast Asia’, CRS Report for Congress,http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/43999.pdf

[12] Dong Manyuan, 2014, ‘The Rise of ISIS: Impacts and Future’, China Institute of International Studies,http://www.ciis.org.cn/english/2014-11/14/content_7369551.htm

[13] The Economist, ‘ISIS and Southeast Asia’, Analysis, The Economist,http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/ISIS-and-Southeast-Asia-291079081.html

[14] Charlotte Taylor and Rachael Romano, 2015, ‘New study abroad program in Singapore to focus on CVE and deradicalization’, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Responses to Terrorism,http://www.start.umd.edu/news/new-study-abroad-program-singapore-focus-cve-and-deradicalization

[15] Vanitha Nadaraj, 2014, ‘Asean must get rid of ISIS in Southeast Asia’, The Establishment Post,http://www.establishmentpost.com/asean-must-get-rid-isis-southeast-asia/