TSG IntelBrief: Islamic State Gains Traction in Southeast Asia
August 12, 2014
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Extremist groups in Indonesia and Philippines have in recent weeks declared their support for the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS)
• More than 50 and perhaps up to 200 Indonesians, and at least 30 Malaysians have already travelled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State and other rebel groups, via third-party countries (such as Egypt and Turkey), and frequently under the guise of humanitarian organizations
• Just as the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group sent Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans to Afghanistan for military training in the 1980s, and they returned home to carry out attacks, these Southeast Asian countries now fear that militants may similarly return from Syria and Iraq, with terrorist training, to mount new campaigns
• Meanwhile Southeast Asian extremists will continue to take advantage of the perceived success and strength of the Islamic State to issue more calls for the creation of a Caliphate in Southeast Asia.
In recent weeks, leaders of extremist groups in Indonesia and Philippines have pledged baya’, or allegiance, to the group calling itself the Islamic State. Most significantly, the new acolytes include Abu Bakar Bashir, the former leader of the Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah and founder of the splinter group Jemmah Anshorut Tauhid.
Bashir’s baya’ to the Islamic State, which continues to be disputed by some of his followers despite a photo circulating online of Bashir and other men posing in front of the Islamic State’s trademark rayat al-uqab flag inside an Indonesian prison, is the first by a leader of a militant group previously trained and funded by al-Qaeda core.
Bashir, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for establishing a training camp in Aceh, Indonesia, in the name of al-Qaeda, is reported to have urged Indonesians to fight with their “fellow brothers” in the Islamic State. Some of his followers, however, insist that because Bashir was formerly loyal to al-Qaeda central, he has not pledged baya’ to Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Rather, Bashir is still seeking guidance from fighters in al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, about the status of al-Nusra’s discord with the Islamic State.
Pledges of allegiance by other Southeast Asian militant groups have been less controversial, as they were memorialized on YouTube. The Abu Sayyaf terrorist group of the Philippines made the pledge in a video released on YouTube featuring long-time wanted extremist, Isnilon Hapilon, and 15 other militants standing in a circle in a jungle that resembles the islands of Sulu and Jolo, where Abu Sayyaf has bases. Hapilon read from a script and his followers recited after him: “We pledge baya’ to Caliph Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Ibrahim Awwad Al-Qurashi Al-Husseini for loyalty and obedience in adversity and comfort.”
One month before Hapilon’s video, dozens of Filipinos in a prison, including detained Abu Sayyaf members, also issued a video of themselves in a hall gathering around the Islamic State’s flag and swearing allegiance to it. Philippine police report having found other rayat al-uqab flags in searches of Abu Sayyaf camps in recent months.
Meanwhile, Indonesian jihadists in either Syria or Iraq released a video one day before Hapilon’s, called “Join the Ranks.” In the video, a group of fighters sits by a river while the leader pledges baya’ to the Islamic State and al-Baghdadi. According to Indonesian National Police, the leader, who goes by the kunya Abu Muhammad al-Indonesi, is a wanted terrorist with ties to Santoso, the leader of Mujahidin Timor Indonesia.
Santoso, who has used the alias Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi al-Indonesi in honor of the late Jordanian al-Qaeda in Iraq leader and who used to be part of JI founder Abu Bakar Bashir’s network, also issued a video from his hideout in Sulawesi, Indonesia. In his video, Santoso “swears allegiance to the Caliphate” and to al-Baghdadi.
The close timing of the videos from Indonesian and Philippine jihadists may indicate some level of coordination, not surprising since JI previously ran a training camp in southern Mindanao. Few leaders from Indonesia and Malaysia continue to hide out there. Groups like Abu Sayyaf and Mujahidin Timor Indonesia may be inclined to support the Islamic State because al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri failed to reach out to Indonesian and Philippine extremists the way Usama bin Ladin did before his death in 2011. Moreover, just as Bin Ladin’s “seed funding” of several million dollars enabled Abu Sayyaf and JI to launch their first operations in the 1990s, so may militants leaders like Hapilon and Santoso hope that a portion of the Islamic State’s hundreds of millions of dollars will filter into their hands. Such largess would further buy their loyalty, solidify the relationship between the Islamic State and Southeast Asian militants, and enhance Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s legitimacy among the global jihadist community.
For now, the pledges of loyalty from Abu Bakar Bashir and other leaders may see renewed confidence and increased funding and recruitment for extremist groups in Southeast Asia, as well as greater activity on social media. In response the Indonesian government has announced the banning of pro-ISIS websites and propagation of its ideology while insisting that it cannot ban travel by Indonesians to Syria or Iraq, or to criminalize membership in ISIS. Other Southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia have been less tolerant; both earlier announced arrests of nationals attempting to travel to Syria to fight with rebel groups.
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