The Global Impact of Isis: The Case of South East Asia


2014-09-19 By Atle Mesoy

The civil wars raging in Syria and Iraq have created a new situation for global security. One of the most critical challenges is the effect of foreign fighters involved in the war who have been fighting in support of the Islamic State (ISIS).

The foreign fighters come from more than 80 countries, the majority from Arab and Asian countries. South East Asia, with its recent history of terrorist attacks, is perhaps one of the most vulnerable areas and there are security concerns with foreign fighter returning to the region and finding support from sympathizers to ISIS.

This article republished with permission of our partner Risk Intelligence appeared in the September 2014 issue of Strategic Insights.

The article evaluates the potential terrorist threat from these developments, in particular the threat to maritime security, in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

ISIS as the new center of militant power

The Arab Spring and the civil wars in Syria/Iraq have opened possibilities for militant groups in South East Asia to send members for training together with the largest jihadi organizations, such as Jabaat al-Nusra (JN) and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the latter now having become the IS.

An Isis Tank in Syria or Iraq

In addition, the militant Islamists of South East Asia are using the Internet as a channel for propaganda, agitation and communication. At the end of March this year, a message on Twitter said the ‘Lions from Indonesia’ had come to support the jihad in Syria. The twitter message included a YouTube video showing jihadi fighters in training.

Two of the spiritual leaders, Amman Abdurrahman and Abu Bakar Bashir, have also posted messages to support the jihadi groups and fighters in Syria. Notably, both of these leaders were writing their messages from prison. In his message to the fighters in Syria, Abu Bakar Bashir did not support one particular group, although he now supports the “caliphate” declared by al-Baghdadi, the leader of the IS. Amman´s message was in support of IS, and he said he would prepare his “children” to participate in their fight.

Recent history has demonstrated the porous borders of Indonesia (as well as other South East Asian countries).

Therefore, it can be expected that militant Islamists will use the opportunity to join the IS and possibly other groups and will gain contacts, battle experience, and be energized and inspired by the idea of a new caliphate.

Mujahidin Indonesia/Timur (MIT) has already pledged an oath to the IS caliphate and to al-Baghdadi and issued a In an online posting from the “news and Islamic media” outlet Waislama, Abu Wardah released a YouTube video with a message directed at the ‘brothers’ fighting in Poso.

He encourages their fighting against the Indonesian counter terrorism forces, Detachment 88, and lauds the fighters for being brave. He also underscores there is only one way forward, and that is jihad. In his five minute speech he encourages the brothers of Poso to continue their fighting and says the path of jihad is tough and demanding. The video ends with a caption: Eastern Indonesian Mujahidin of Timur.

It is always difficult to verify the authenticity of the statements on the Internet. However, there is no reason to believe they are not authentic, compared to what is known of publishing by the jihadi groups and organizations.

Still, it might be questioned if a person such as Santoso can speak on behalf of all militant Islamists in Indonesia.

The near and far enemy

Both JN and IS have been fighting against the Assad regime in Syria and IS has also been fighting the Shia regime in Iraq to re-establish an Islamic state, something al-Baghdadi has now declared. The war is viewed by many Islamists as a sectarian battle: the battle between Shias and Sunnis, which resonates in one of the texts in the hadiths (stories and sayings from the Prophet Mohammed).

JN is an affiliate of al-Qaeda and the group may therefore have long-term goals of attacking Western targets. IS’s primary goal is to gain control of Iraq and Syria and to attract Muslims from every corner of the world.

Their secondary goal is to destabilize the countries surrounding countries Syria and Iraq, such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan.

A critical success criterion for IS and al-Baghdadi will be the number of groups and individuals supporting the new Islamic State.

Complicating the picture is the rift between JN and IS. JN is a branch of al-Qaeda so this is a significant division. There have been rumors of al-Qaeda branches joining ISIS, although of dubious veracity. Nonetheless, some of the al-Qaeda branches have leaders who have stated their support to IS and some Salafist leaders have done the same. Islamist groups in Libya and Tunisia, such as Ansar al-Sharia, are also supporting IS and fighters have come from these countries and others – some of them being former al-Qaeda members.

Apart from jihadi groups, Islamist organizations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir have rejected the caliphate claimed by IS, despite having the reestablishment of a caliphate high on their agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood has also denounced the IS, claiming that the timing is not right and it lacks legitimacy. At the time of writing, Jamaat Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) in Indonesia, for example, had not made a final decision on the question of giving its support to al-Baghdadi.

Humanitarian volunteers or jihadi fighters?

Authorities in Indonesia and Malaysia have cracked down on foreign fighters departing for Syria and Iraq; the government in Indonesia estimated at the beginning of 2014 that 50 Indonesians had gone to Syria. A representative for the Islamic Defenders Front said that they had sent two of their volunteers together with thirteen others from Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) and JAT. These are all groups known for supporting the use of violence, even if JAT has stated their denouncement of terrorist attacks.

Within Islamic voluntary aid organizations there is a grey area where some of the organizations are linked to groups or organizations using terrorism. The leading group for sending volunteers to Syria from Indonesia is HASI, the humanitarian wing of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

It is impossible to say how many of the volunteers have only been providing aid and how many are jihadi fighters; nonetheless, it would be naive to believe none of the volunteers will be using the organization as a cover for their violent jihadi activities.

Within terrorism research and counter terrorism organizations there is a thesis and fear of blowback from the foreign fighters in the Syria/Iraq wars.

The terrorism researcher Thomas Hegghammer wrote a paper on the blowback effect where he measured the ratio of foreign fighters returning and becoming involved in terrorism. According to his calculations, one of nine foreign fighters have become involved in violent actions in the countries they departed from. Following the large response to his article, Hegghammer warned of extrapolating the figure to the current conflicts, so there are many uncertainties of the blowback effect.

One organization, CAGE in the UK, provided a report discrediting much of Hegghammer´s findings and in general the blowback thesis. They make valid points, such as Hegghammer not having the total number of foreign fighters in his calculations: in other words, how many did fight in a foreign country and did not engage in violent actions when they returned.

The CAGE report also points out most of the volunteers traveling to Syria and Iraq are only supplying humanitarian aid.

Although the one-in-nine figure is not absolute and cannot be extrapolated to the Syria/Iraq conflict, it does give an idea of the potential risks that foreign jihadi fighters represent.

Some of these risks are: firstly, it cannot be excluded that the IS (as well as JN/al-Qaeda) have an interest in spreading the jihad and using violence as a tool in locations outside Syria and Iraq; secondly, these countries have seen long-standing conflicts where foreign fighters have been involved; and, thirdly, there is a significant sectarian element that has spread with the Arab Spring, and the power games between Iran and Saudi Arabia competing for influence in the Middle East.

For countries in South East Asia, they seem to be particularly vulnerable for returning jihadis. This is due to the deep roots of militant Islamism and the many groups waiting for training opportunities to increase their capacity.

Recent statements from leading clerics and ‘terrorism ideologues’, as well as public gatherings, have demonstrated a degree of support to spread of an ‘Islamic state’ to Indonesia and the region.  In one protest in March this year more than 1000 gathered to support (then) ISIS.

Returning foreign fighters can travel to their country of origin, but they might also travel to neighboring countries to stage attacks or join different militant groups. They will be trained in the use of many types of weapons and explosives, and even in some cases counterintelligence.

IS and international operations

Although the IS has its focus on Syria and Iraq, there are indications that it is behind or at least has inspired international operations already to date. In July 2014 there were terrorist plots against Morocco and Norway.

In the plot against Morocco, Moroccan foreign fighters in the IS leadership were thought to be behind the plans. Two of the larger Norwegian newspapers reported that four persons connected to IS were on their way to Norway in July. It is not clear if the attack plans against Norway were conceived by a group of loosely connected foreign fighters or the leadership in the IS.

However, the two cases demonstrate how foreign fighters may also be part of the leadership in the IS; in the Norwegian case, fighters are known to be part of the ‘middle management’ in the IS.

There was also a threat made against a famous Hindu temple, Borobudur, in Central Java; the threat was posted on one of the IS´s Facebook pages on 15 August. Between April and June, 19 suspects were arrested in Malaysia with plans to bomb discos and pubs in Malaysia.

One of the targets was a licensed Carlsberg brewery. The plot was described by Malaysian law enforcement as an IS-inspired plot; although poorly conceived and only at the planning stage, it was reported that some of the arrested persons in this operation were intending to travel to Syria to join the IS. These international plots demonstrate how the IS can effectively expand its international reach through the linkages with foreign fighters.


Since the Bali bombings in 2002 security organizations have cracked down on militant Islamist organizations in Indonesia, especially on the leading terrorist organization; Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Nonetheless, militant Islam never disappeared from South East Asia, something demonstrated through the numerous terrorist attacks and alleged plots uncovered. Some of the most well known are the attack on the Ritz Carlton and the Marriott Hotels in 2009, the attack on the Australian Embassy in 2004, and the third Bali plot in 2012.

Currently some of the groups are small, and shadow like, while others have a clear profile. In Indonesia the most known active groups are: JAT, Mujahidin Indonesia Barat (MIB), KOMPAK, and Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad (TQJ). Most of the groups are small and have been decimated by counter-terrorism operations, although it is essential not to underestimate the threat and to note the history of political violence in Indonesian history: Darul Islam was established in 1948 and JI was founded on the NII Movement, Negara Islam Indonesia, (The Islamic State of Indonesia) in 1993, growing out of the Darul Islam movement.

In 2010 a training camp in Aceh was discovered and dismantled by the government security forces, Detachment 88. Of the 77 persons that were arrested, the key elements were ex-members from JI and KOMPAK; four had roots to the Aceh Movement, and the rest were a mix of militant Islamists, including the Islamic Defenders Front.

The project was led by Dulmatin, a veteran from the Bali bombings. Dulmatin´s idea was to create a regional training center to uphold sharia law in Indonesia, and the planned targets seem to have been mostly local officials.

Although the training camp was dismantled, and Dulmatin killed, there are believed to be several other smaller training camps still remaining.


Although Indonesia is the country of main concern for the impact of returning fighters, Malaysia has groups advocating terrorism. JI has established itself and because of the porous borders and proximity to Indonesia, the two countries have much in common security-wise.

Since the weakening of JI, other groups have taken over, such as KMM (Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia). However, there is now information about a new branch of JI that has rejuvenated the brand and may contain some 3,000 members.

The latest counter-terrorism arrests, as well as the plot linked to the IS noted above, have focused on connections to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the Philippines as well as a link to India. Bomb maker Zulkifli Abhir or “Marwan” is linked to the KMM and believed to be hiding in the southern Philippines. The person arrested with connection to India was suspected of attacking consulates in Bangalore and Chennai.

Some new terror related groups have been referred to as BKAW, BAJ, Dimzia and ADI and these are said to be foreign fighter groups with links to Syria and Iraq,likely sending fighters to the Middle East after training with the ASG. Some 19 people had been arrested by law enforcement in Malaysia by the end of June this year for terrorist connections and authorities were also investigating reports of Malaysian nationals having been killed fighting with the IS.


In June one of Australia´s notorious Salafist preachers, Robert Cerantinio, was arrested in Lapu-Lapu city and deported to Australia, and in the beginning of September Bilal Philips, another Salafist preacher, was arrested and deported to Canada for inciting and recruiting people to conduct terrorist activities. A video showed Cerantino had been gathering support for the IS. He is known as one of the most popular preachers for young Muslims to become jihadis in Syria/Iraq. There have been reports of 100 foreign fighters travelling to Syria/Iraq from the Philippines. A small militant Islamist group, Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao, seems to have a presence and was first reported in August 2013.

The ASG is still active in the Philippines, and has regional connections in South East Asia as noted, but is now mainly involved in domestic robberies and kidnappings, as well as running militant training camps. Nonetheless, in June the ASG pledged their allegiance to IS. Another militant group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters

Detachment 88 Personnel on Exercise in Bali

(BIFF) has connections to JI in the region. It is also reportedly working with the ASG on training fighters to travel to Syria/Iraq and both groups have made statements in support of the IS. However, it was also reported that a BIFF spokesperson had claimed that the group was not recruiting fighters and had no plans for an IS style government in the Philippines.

The operations of these groups have been typically focused in the southern parts of the Philippines, notably with the goal of independence for Mindanao. The

Philippines government has pursued a carrot and stick approach, securing a peace deal with the largest of the Islamic groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), this year while continuing operations against the groups that fight on such as BIFF and the ASG.

It should be noted that the US this June ended one of its counter terrorism missions by pulling out its JSOTF-P (Joint Special Operations Task Force, Philippines). This is probably not a good time for weakening security, especially due to the declaration of support from ASG to the IS and its caliphate.


There are two competing scenarios that have a relatively high probability, based on recent developments and information available.

In the first scenario, if the IS continues to prosper, there is a risk that the jihadi environment in South East Asia would be energized through the training of foreign fighters in Syria/Iraq and support from the IS (and possibly JN) leadership. 

Abu Bakar Bashir in Prison in Indonesia

Not only the jihadi environment would be energized, but the sharia movements might also be strengthened, with implications for international business, especially in Indonesia. Terrorist attacks of a larger scale would be anticipated, especially against foreign interests. These attacks would likely come from foreign fighters, small individual groups, solo actors inspired by foreign jihadi successes, or the larger terrorist groups.

Under this scenario, maritime targets might be ports and oil/gas transport, or even symbolic Western targets such as large cruise ships. Hub ports such as Singapore, or busy port areas in Indonesia, would be of likely interest.

Shipping in the Straits of Malacca is often mentioned as vulnerable but there are no groups in South East Asia that are considered to have an agenda and the capacity to stage a terrorist attack against maritime traffic there currently. Developing capacity would be the first step for a group inspired by the IS to attack shipping targets.

In the second scenario, if the IS does not continue to succeed on the battlefield, and loses territory due to the lack of support from partners and the military campaigns led by the US. 

The IS would be expected to lose face and influence with foreign fighters and Islamist organizations (militant and non-militant). Militant groups in South East Asia would probably still continue to grow, although at a slower pace.

Instead of being inspired by the IS to target Western interests, their focus would be on establishing local sharia zones. Although groups such as JI would want to establish their own large-scale Islamic state, they would meet resistance from governments and wider civil society. International maritime interests would therefore probably not be affected to the same extent.


There can be no doubt of the recent support for the IS and its leader al-Baghdadi from some groups in South East Asia.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to gauge the numbers and the potential effect of foreign fighters returning to the region. If it turns out to be a relatively large support for the IS among militant Islamists in South East Asia, it could have a huge effect. There is a risk of old ideas being re-energized with the new ones, perhaps will goals of a South East Asian caliphate or the targeting of foreign interests in the region.

Ultimately, it can be expected most of the jihadi groups in Indonesia will support either JN or the IS and it seems like the latter is in the ascendency. Foreign fighters have left to engage in what they see as a jihad in Syria/Iraq.

They will gain military training, have battle experience and return to their countries with new energy, capacity and goals. Some might re-join their groups or become involved in other militant groups. It is likely they will strengthen the contact between the Middle East and local militant groups.

The militancy of jihadi groups in South East Asia will be strengthened and will represent a higher risk to national security and international business. The nature of this risk might well depend, however, on the continued successes of the IS on the battlefield.

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