Trans-Pacific View

Radical Islam in Asia: The Arc of Al Qaeda and ISIS

Insight from Audrey Kurth Cronin

By Mercy A. Kuo and Angelica O. Tang for
Radical Islam in Asia: The Arc of Al Qaeda and ISIS
Credit: Syrian refugees via thomas koch /

The Rebalance authors Mercy Kuo and Angie Tang regularly engage subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin – Director of the International Security Program at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government and International Affairs, frequent advisor to senior U.S. policymakers, and author of numerous publications, such as How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns and Ending Terrorism: A Strategy for Defeating Al-Qaeda is the 23rd in The Rebalance Insight Series.

In Foreign Affairs (April 2015), you posited that ISIS is not a terrorist group. Briefly explain the different goals and strategies of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

ISIS and Al Qaeda both engage in terrorism, have similar long-term goals, and were once aligned, but they differ in key ways that are vital to fighting them. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda generally have only dozens or hundreds of members, attack civilians, do not hold territory and cannot directly confront military forces. ISIS boasts some 30,000 fighters, holds territory in both Iraq and Syria, maintains extensive military capabilities, controls lines of communication, commands infrastructure, funds itself, and engages in sophisticated military operations. It is not a “terrorist group”; it’s a pseudo-state led by a conventional army that also seeks to inspire acts of transnational terrorism.

Al Qaeda thinks of itself as the vanguard of a global movement mobilizing Muslim communities against secular rule. It is playing a long game. The establishment of a so-called caliphate is a distant, almost utopian goal; educating and mobilizing the Muslim community comes first. It seeks to train violent mujahedeen, exclusively men, to act on behalf of that community.

ISIS has already declared a “caliphate” and is attracting a large number of foreigners (men, women and even children), drawn by the potential to build a society that follows strict Muslim rules now. It is unconcerned about popular backlash. Its brutality – videotaped beheadings, mass executions – is designed to intimidate foes and suppress dissent. It appeals to people who are yearning for personal power. It is the most effective employer of targeted social media propaganda we have ever seen.

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Is Asia the next theater for ISIS to expand its caliphate beyond the Middle East? If so, what is the strategic relevance of Asia or key Asian regions to ISIS?

No, Africa is the next major theatre for expansion. ISIS has expanded by developing affiliates in North Africa (especially Libya) and West Africa, where Nigeria’s Boko Haram recently pledged allegiance to the group.

But there is significant risk to Asia. A global competition is underway in the so-called “jihadist” movement: ISIS are persuading some existing Al Qaeda affiliates or splinter groups to shift their allegiance to them. It’s the current “hot brand.” In Asia, they succeeded in attracting former al-Qaeda-linked affiliates such as the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf (although that group still pursues its own agenda). According to the head of Indonesia’s national counterterrorism agency, Islamic State may also be training fighters in Poso, a port town on the northeastern coast of Central Sulawesi.

What about the threat of foreign fighters from Asia?

ISIS’ mythical concept of a caliphate has drawn tens of thousands of gullible outsiders, including from Asia. Small numbers of foreign fighters have traveled from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia, sometimes bringing along their families. Estimates vary widely; however, the largest numbers apparently come from Australia (between 100-250 people) and Indonesia (between 30-60).

For Asia, the danger lies in what militarily-trained ISIS foreign fighters will do if they return to their native countries, as well as whether those who have been prevented from traveling will carry out attacks at home. A powerful element of the Islamic State’s message is to goad people into violence wherever they are. Unfortunately, terrorist attacks in Asia are virtually inevitable.

What countervailing forces and social conditions in Asia could mitigate ISIS incursions?

In the short term, three things are important. First, countries must strengthen their border controls, increasing both domestic and international cooperation in policing and intelligence. Second, they must increase regional cooperation to counteract ISIS’ financing and the movement of weapons. Third, they must monitor potential risks at home, meaning both returned foreign fighters and those just inspired by ISIS. Although national perspectives can differ markedly (e.g., China’s Uighur problem is as much about a fear of separatism as it is terrorism), there is no substitute for good intelligence and regional cooperation, within the rule of law.

That does not necessarily mean treating returnees as criminals. The “caliphate” is a brutal Wahhabi Sunni Arab empire led by an Iraqi. As the truth unfolds, many foreigners are now trying to flee ISIS. Well-publicized testimonials from defectors could be a powerful counterterrorism tool. Also, efforts to counter ISIS messaging through social media, such as Malaysia’s new counter-messaging center, are vital.

In the longer run, ISIS is trying to polarize societies. Governments must address the conditions that contribute to radicalization, including discrimination, unemployment and ignorance. 

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What emerging, over-the-horizon challenges of violent radical Islamism in Asia will the next U.S. president likely confront?

The U.S. will be concerned about violence against Americans and American businesses in Asia, a destabilizing blow to an Asian ally or a partner, and the creation of sanctuaries for recruitment or radicalization to violent extremism, including by ISIS. Moving forward, regional efforts such as the recent discussions on extremism held during the ASEAN meetings in Kuala Lumpur and the upcoming January 2016 conference on deradicalization in the ASEAN region will be crucial to reducing the threat of ISIS in Asia for everyone.

Mercy A. Kuo is an advisory board member of CHINADebate and was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Angie O. Tang is Senior Advisor of Asia Value Advisors, a leading venture philanthropy advisory firm based in Hong Kong.