The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is looking to declare at least one foothold in Asia in 2016, with the Philippines and Indonesia being the most likely targets, a terrorism expert said Tuesday.
Southeast Asia has already emerged as a key recruitment center for ISIS, with more than 500 Indonesians and dozens of Malaysians joining the group and forming their own unit, the Katibah Nusantara (Malay Archipelago Combat Unit). Earlier this week, reports surfaced that two Malaysian suicide bombers from that unit had blown themselves up in Syria and Iraq in the last two weeks, killing more than 30 others (See: “Malaysian Islamic State Suicide Bombers Kill More Than 30 in Middle East”).
But leaders and experts have also been warning that ISIS could gain a territorial foothold or at least establish a satellite presence in Southeast Asia. At last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore’s premier Lee Hsien Loong warned that ISIS could “establish a base somewhere in the region,” a geographical area under its physical control like in Syria or Iraq (See: “Singapore Warns of Islamic State Base in Southeast Asia”). On Tuesday, in an opinion piece in The Straits Times, terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna argued that ISIS is likely to create at least one branch in Southeast Asia this year – most likely in either the Philippines or Indonesia – with alarming consequences for the region.
“ISIS is determined to declare at least one province in Asia in 2016,” Gunaratna, a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University wrote in the Singapore-based newspaper. “An ISIS foothold will present far-reaching security implications for the stability and prosperity for a rising Asia,” he added.
The main candidate for an ISIS branch, Gunaratna argued, is the Philippines. That is not surprising. The country has served as a training ground for terrorists before, including Al-Qaeda’s so-called Southeast Asian offshoot Jemaah Islamiyah. A number of local groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with the Ahlus Shura (council) appointing Isnilon Hapilon – the leader of the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan – as the overall leader of the so-called Islamic State in the Philippines.
“Shortly, ISIS will declare a satellite of the caliphate in the Sulu archipelago,” Gunaratna wrote.
The consequences, Gunaratna argues, would be dire. If ISIS succeeds in creating a safe haven in Basilan and mounts operations from the Sulu archipelago, training camps will lure recruits from neighboring Asian states who cannot reach Syria, including Malaysia, Australia and even China. In addition, he argues that it is “very likely” that ISIS will dispatch explosive experts, combat tacticians and other operatives. As ISIS enforces its brand of Islam, beheadings, mass killings and other attacks are also likely to occur. To preempt all this, Gunaratna urged the Philippine military to deploy in strength in Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi as well as focus on winning Muslim hearts and minds to reduce ISIS support.
“If the armed forces can dominate the Sulu archipelago, ISIS cannot successfully declare, operate and expand its satellite in the Philippines, with implications for Malaysia, the region and beyond,” he argued.
The other candidate for an ISIS branch, Gunaratna wrote, is Indonesia. His case is much less developed here, though he is not alone in worrying about this. Just last month, Australian attorney-general George Brandis warned that ISIS had identified Indonesia as a location for a “distant caliphate”.
Thus far, to their credit, Gunaratna acknowledges that the Indonesian military has “pre-empted” ISIS plans to declare a satellite state of the so-called caliphate in eastern Indonesia. This week, Indonesian police said that a more aggressive campaign is being launched focused on Poso and surrounding areas to find Abu Wardah – better known as Santoso – Indonesia’s most high-profile backer of ISIS. Elsewhere, Indonesian security forces have also made key arrests to stop planned attacks, including of several militants across Java in December with the help of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Australian Federal Police and Singaporean authorities.