Beyond Bombings: The Islamic State in Southeast Asia

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Beyond Bombings: The Islamic State in Southeast Asia

To understand the group, look at its other tactics.

Beyond Bombings: The Islamic State in Southeast Asia
Credit: REUTERS/Beawiharta

On 14 January, nine militants staged a barricade style attack at a Starbucks in central Jakarta.  Small IEDs were detonated, and the militants engaged security forces for almost two hours. Two civilians, a Canadian and an Indonesian were killed.  Five of the attackers were killed and four were arrested.  Fortunately Indonesian security forces responded quickly and professionally, mitigating what could have been a much more costly attack that appears to have been perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The attack in Jakarta should not have surprised anyone; this type of barricade style attack has been seen from Mumbai to Paris. With low technical requisites and a high probability of spreading fear and garnering media attention, it has been the weapon of choice, including in Southeast Asia.

On 30 June 2015, a Malaysian court convicted a man and his son for fighting with ISIL and planning terrorist incidents at home. But it was not a wave of bombings they were plotting, but rather the kidnapping of politicians.  While hostage taking, executions and barricade style attacks garner less concern from security services than bombings, this is potentially an important development at both the tactical and strategic levels for Southeast Asian militants.  If we are to understand the real impact of ISIL on Southeast Asian militancy, it is this.

Hostage taking has become the face of ISIL terror in the Middle East. The grisly executions of orange-jumpsuited victims, mimicking Guantanamo Bay uniforms, have become more and more macabre. Dr. John Horgan called the recent execution videos “sadism at a clinical level.” These videos are instantly disseminated across a host of social media platforms, and rather than repulse people tend to broaden the group’s appeal as they try to outbid their rivals, equating sadistic violence with religious zeal.

Likewise, there have been a number of “barricade” style hostage taking events perpetrated by ISIL-inspired militants in Europe and beyond, most spectacularly on 13 November 2015 in Paris in coordinated attacks that left 129 dead.  And it is these barricade-style attacks that pose a serious threat in Southeast Asia.  As J.M. Berger explained, “Al Qaeda’s love of elegance was a distraction… But in reality, AQAP carried out only a handful of attacks, and at a languid pace, over the course of many years.”  But these low-tech, low-cost, and high probability of success attacks are tailor made for those who have fought with ISIL, but have little other experience than as front line troops.

The threat posed by ISIL in Southeast Asia is small but present. There are an estimated 800-1,000 Southeast Asians supporters of ISIS, including those who have traveled to Iraq and Syria, their family members, those killed in battle and arrested, as well as those returned by Turkish security forces.  It also includes the first wave that has already returned home to Malaysia and Indonesia. The Soufan Group estimates the number of Southeast Asian combatants to be 600, lower than official regional estimates of 900. Several have returned and plotted or executed attacks, including the first bombing plots in Malaysia and the first attempted chlorine bomb at an Indonesian mall.  Already, more Southeast Asians have joined ISIL and the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front than ever joined the anti-Soviet mujahideen.  ISIL has revitalized terror networks in Southeast Asia.

Yet, despite this concern as well as the previous wave of terrorism by the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah, there has been very little use of hostage taking, beheading, or barricade-style attacks as a tactic by Southeast Asian militant groups.  That should be expected to change, with the success of ISIL, the proliferation of their ideology, and return of veterans from Syria over the coming few years.

A Look At Southeast Asian Militant Groups

The Abu Sayyaf

The exception to this is the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) that has routinely engaged in both kidnapping and beheading since the early 1990s. But even with the ASG, hostage taking comes in two forms: kidnapping for ransom to raise funds, and hostage taking with no ransom but the execution/beheading of its captives to try to demonstrate their limited ideological bona fides. As the group has become increasingly desperate, while at the same time influenced by ISIL, it has stepped up its threats of beheading to raise ransoms.

From the 1990s to around 2004, abductions were largely to raise funds. In 2001, they beheaded an American hostage. That year, they beheaded nine of 30 Christian hostages in order to force a halt to government offensive. But almost all other hostages were released after a ransom was paid or rescued.

From 2004-07, the ASG had reached out to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and apparently had enough international support that it all but stopped kidnappings. The hostages it did take in that period of time, it executed. In 2007, for example, it beheaded seven road workers on a USAID project on Jolo and 14 Philippine Marines on Basilan, without any ransom demands, but rather to demonstrate their Islamist bona fides.  The ASG did decapitate five Philippine Marines in 2011, but that was widely seen as an attempt to get the government to halt its offensive.

But since then, the group has devolved. There has been a steady stream of kidnappings, but ransoms have been paid and people have been released. Recently the ASG has increased the number of foreign hostages, but only because they pay more than local Filipinos, who garner ransoms in the $20-30,000 range.

The ASG routinely target Chinese and Malaysians – and Europeans when they avail themselves because they command higher ransoms. Since 2014, there have been a spate of raids into Malaysia’s Sabah state, including the kidnapping of a policeman; but the issue is only over how much of a ransom to be paid to secure his release. The usual demand for Malaysians and Chinese is 5 million pesos ($108,000). They had demanded 30 million pesos each for two Malaysians, whom they threatened to behead.  One paid and was released, the other was beheaded on 17 November. A former Australian captive reportedly paid $100,000 to secure his release.

One ASG leader, Isnilon Hapilon, made a YouTube oath of bai’yat to the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate.  But this was nothing more than a publicity stunt.  For example, soon after the oath, the ASG threatened to behead one of their two German hostages captured in April 2014 to force Berlin to leave the anti-ISIL coalition. Despite one of the hostages being photographed sitting in his own grave in front of a ISIL flag, those demands were instantly dropped with the alleged payment of $1.35 million in ransom, but with no concession by the Germans on ending their participation in the campaign in Syria. ISIL imagery and the threat of a beheading were solely to add a sense of urgency.

While recent kidnappings of locals – including women and children – has increased, all have been released with payment of ransom, most in relatively short periods of time; the ASG is simply “turning over the inventory.”  According to my open source dataset, between January 2014 to October 2015, there were 31 kidnappings, and in that time, 34 people were either released or escaped, including two children. The most recent case was of a Philippine mining executive, who was reported to have paid 1.3 million pesos ($27,600) to secure her release.

The ASG currently hold two members of the Philippine Coast Guard whom they have threatened to behead, but only if their ransom demands are not met.  Indeed, on 11 August, a village chief who was abducted along with them was found decapitated after the deadline for his ransom payment had expired.

On 21 September 2015, ASG gunmen staged a logistically complex but well executed raid on a luxury resort in Davao, kidnapping four, including three westerners and a Filipina.  On 13 October, the ASG released a video showing the four sitting in front of two ISIL flags in a jungle clearing on YouTube (since taken down).


The video was interesting for a few reasons.  First, it was the first time I recall seeing an ASG video with hostages, or certainly such a well-scripted one. Second, the hostages were on message: articulating what needed to be done to secure their safety and have ransom negotiations commence.  Third, though there was no mention of a beheading, one hostage clearly had a knife held at his throat.

What was most evident is that they have clearly been watching IS videos, which have set a new standard for propaganda and messaging.  The spokesman was very well-spoken and articulate, especially considering how poor and uneducated most run-of-the-mill ASG types are. This really looked as though it was the dress rehearsal for an ISIL-style on camera beheading.

But despite the ISIL imagery and influence, there is no ideological component to these abductions.  A second video, released on 3 November, simply stated the exorbitant demand of 1 billion pesos ($21 million) for the release of each of the four.  And it’s also important to understand that their use has much to do with which faction of the disparate ASG is responsible for the abductions. Only one or two cells have adapted ISIL-style propaganda and imagery.

In all, the ASG have beheaded roughly 40 captives since the early-1990s, all in an attempt to prove their jihadist bona fides. But at the end of the day, it is primarily about money.  The reality is that hostage taking is not a Philippine issue. It is really an ethnic Tausig issue, where kidnapping and piracy are culturally rooted.

While the ASG is mainly in it for the money, they remain a low level irritant, but can play a role in the regional spread of ISIL.  In December 2015 Philippine security forces killed a Malaysian member of ISIL – a known bomb maker and assistant to a top Malaysian ISIL operative – in a clash with the ASG. The constant inability of the Philippine government to secure its territory gives ISIL that important rear area to train.

There have been other kidnappings in the Philippines, but exclusively for ransom payments. The most notable group that did his was the Pentagon Gang in central Mindanao. There has never been consensus on whether Pentagon was simply a kidnap for ransom gang, a group that operated but kicked back funds to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), or themselves members of the MILF.  Regardless, once the peace process took root, the MILF became a responsible stakeholder and the Pentagon Gang all but ceased to operate. The MILF may have abetted or profited from kidnapping, but they officially condemned the practice as “un-Islamic.”

There is a concern that other Moro splinter groups are being motivated or have pledged allegiance to ISIL. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Front, which split from the MILF over the peace process, in 2007, has publicly pledged allegiance to ISIL, and routinely engages in sectarian pogroms, such as the Christmas 2014 attack in central Mindanao that left 14 Christians dead. Likewise, a new group, Ansar Khalifa Philippines, issued a recent video of a training camp, in which recruits trained in front of ISIL’s black flags. Again, this is most likely a way for a small and little known group to garner media attention, donations and recruits.

Jemaah Islamiyah

Other militant groups in Southeast Asia have largely eschewed hostage taking. The regional Al Qaeda affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, and its myriad of Salafist splinters, eagerly assassinated and bombed, but they never adopted hostage taking as a tactic.

In 2005, Noordin Mohammed Top broke off from JI’s leadership that had turned against targeting the far enemy and established “Al Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago.” But even as he started to emulate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his cell never adopted the brutal tactic of hostage taking and beheading as practiced by Al Qaeda in Iraq.

In 2009-10, another JI cell tried to bridge the crippling divide between Top’s pro-Al Qaeda wing and those who advocated renewed sectarian violence, by pushing for low cost/high impact barricade style hostage attacks influenced by the Lashkar e-Taiba’s 2008 takeover of the Trident and Oberoi hotels in Mumbai, India.  This cell was broken up and more than 125 members were killed or arrested, its leaders killed and/or imprisoned, and nothing more came of it.  But it was embraced as a cost-effective, high probability tactic.

Another JI splinter beheaded three Christian schoolgirls in 2006 in order to provoke a new round of sectarian conflict.  The schoolgirls were not taken hostage, nor was this glorified in jihadist media or video-taped.  This group evolved into the Mujihideen Indonesia Timur (MIT), currently the most lethal of all the JI successor organizations, whose leader, Santoso, pledged bai’yat to ISIL in 2014.

On 17 September 2015, MIT beheaded three Hindu transmigrants in Central Sulawesi.  Again, there was no attempt to ransom the hostages. It was an act meant solely to terrorize; the bodies were the message to the community, not a gruesome propaganda video for the ummah’s consumption. MIT is clearly a group to watch as it is gaining attention in international jihadist circles. But for the most part, their attacks are very much directed at security forces or local Hindus.

Southern Thailand Insurgents

In southern Thailand, where some 6,500 people have been killed and nearly 12,000 wounded since 2004, the Malay insurgents have only taken one hostage, a Marine private whom they executed in April 2013. But there is evidence that this was a very personal and targeted attack. The marine was a Muslim who had been used to leak information to the insurgents that led to a failed attack, in which 16 insurgents were killed; their single most costly attack since 2004. Malay insurgents have never abducted anyone again. In part, the local community saw it as beyond the pale, but many saw the fierce reaction of the government and feared that such tactics could be counterproductive to the insurgency.

And yet, the insurgents – conservative Sha’afis, but not Salafists – do use beheadings as a tactic to terrorize the Buddhist community.  Since 2004, there have been over 40 beheadings, most recently in April 2014.  But the rate has dropped: there have only been 12 beheadings since 2009 according to my open-source database; and almost all have been decapitated after being killed. Likewise, insurgents frequently desecrate corpses by setting them on fire or mutilating them. For example, insurgents set two couples that they killed in incidents in April and May 2015 on fire.

But here again, these are done without any media attention and no one has been taken hostage; it is simply gratuitous violence to terrorize the Buddhist community.  Perhaps there is little reason to film or glorify these grisly acts as the insurgents remain so shadowy and unwilling to have a 21st century media campaign.

Moreover, in a series of author interviews conducted in October and November 2014 and February 2015, insurgents revealed that they are under pressure from both their constituents and Islamic clergy to stop the beheadings and desecrations. Militants found such attacks to be very effective in sowing terror amongst the Buddhist population that they seek to drive from the region, but have largely complied with the directive from religious leaders.

And while ISIL has absolutely no role in the insurgency, its propaganda is increasingly being shared amongst Malay youth in southern Thailand and now routinely includes Thai subtitles. There is a concern that younger militants frustrated with the pace and scope of the insurgency are showing a willingness to escalate the violence.

Assessing the Impact of ISIL

The success of ISIL since 2014 has revived the threat of terrorism in Malaysia and Indonesia. It has led to an estimated 600-1,000 Southeast Asians to travel to Syria and Iraq to gain jihadist experience and given a new generation of members a pedestal. Some 169 Indonesians alone have been turned back by Turkish authorities, and many more cannot get to Syria and Iraq because of the logistical logjam caused by proactive measures by regional security forces.

But ISIL has increased the rate of indoctrination and induction. Importantly they have broadened the traditional base of JI’s recruitment, and have members representing the entire spectrum of society, including women.  Some, such as the MIT and Ba’asyir’s Jemmah Anshaur Tauhid (JAT), have publicly pledged bai’yat to ISIL. (In early January, Ba’asyir, through his lawyer, renounced his ties to ISIL, but that came just days before his 12 January court hearing to appeal for an early release for his 2011 conviction for supporting JI’s Aceh training camp).

And ISIL’s slick and Hollywood visual style propaganda, increasingly in Bahasa, has had great appeal and influence over Southeast Asian militants.  To date, Southeast Asian jihadists, other than the ASG, have never engaged in hostage taking, and no group has videotaped the act of decapitation or glorified it.  As ISIL videos are viewed and shared, the threshold lowers and their base of support no longer finds it to be anathema to Southeast Asian culture.

And as Charlie Winters has argued, what we see as grotesque barbarism in ISIL videos, its supporters see “triumphalism and vengeance” against those who have harmed their interpretation of Islam. “Islamic State’s most brutal propaganda serves as a vehicle by which to convey vengeance and supremacy,” says Winters.  And such acts are well suited to be disseminated through social media, which in Southeast Asia have some of the highest rates of use in the world.

There is a concern that the returnees from Iraq and Syria will have acquired the skills to carry out a new wave of bombings. One cell was in the final stages of preparing to bomb the Carlsberg brewery in Kuala Lumpur. Of greater concern, suspected returnees were responsible for an attempted chlorine bomb at a Jakarta mall in February 2015.  In September 2015, both the U.S. and Australian embassies in Kuala Lumpur issued very specific warnings of terrorist attacks, and a three man cell was arrested soon after.  It was the third active plot in Kuala Lumpur, which saw no active JI plots during that group’s reign of terror in the decade following the Bali bombing in 2002.

And while the specter of mass casualty bombings is not to be trivialized, focusing on it may miss the more immediate threat posed by ISIL cells or inspired individuals.  Most Southeast Asians fighting for ISIL have been used as cannon fodder, which is a point not sufficiently recognized or exploited.  Very few are going to return home with advanced bomb-making or terrorism skills.  Not everyone returns a Dr. Azahari. Yet most have sufficient training in small arms and a willingness to martyr themselves.

Thus, there is a well-founded fear that the spectacle of violence demonstrated by ISIL will take root, because of the low technical capacity of the returnees and the need to perpetrate bold attacks both to win over popular support and to assume the leadership of a dispersed, leaderless movement.

Hostage taking and barricade style attacks, are perfect for both the skill set and the short-term goals of ISIL. And unlike bombings, which are indiscriminate, kidnappings, executions and assassinations are very targeted.  Malaysian security officials have stated, though without providing evidence, that ISIL members are actively targeting senior politicians and security officials.

The case of Malaysians Murad Halimmuddin (49) and his son Abu Daud (25), who were plotting to kidnap politicians after returning home from fighting with ISIL, is a case in point.  But they were not alone; their cell included four others.

Another small cell that included one returnee from Syria, which Malaysian authorities broke up in July 2015, was also planning a wave of non-bombing terrorist attacks.  The cell intended to  target VIPs and engage in barricade-style attacks that have been recently used in Sydney, Paris and Tunisia.

More importantly, two Malaysians, Mohd Faris Anwar (20) and Muhamad Wandy Muhamad Jedi (26), were featured in in a grisly ISIL video of mass beheadings released on 20 February 2015.  Though it caused fear amongst the national leadership, the video was widely shared across social media platforms in the region. If people were shocked by the act, they were quiet about it, as there was little public backlash. Though Mohd Faris Anwar was killed in Syria in late 2015, his brutality remains widely disseminated on line.

In mid-December 2015, Indonesian authorities arrested six suspected members of ISIL and JI who were planning a wave of bombs and small arm attacks on Christian and Shia communities. The plot had direct funding from ISIL, according to Indonesian security officials.

Russian authorities have recently passed intelligence – though one certainly can question its veracity – to Thai authorities regarding an ISIL cell dispatched to Thailand to perpetrate barricade style attacks against Russian tourists.


Most Southeast Asians will never see hostage taking as a legitimate act.  Indeed, Malaysians look to the ASG kidnappings in Sabah as a sign of the lawlessness of the Philippines, not as anything part of a legitimate ideological struggle. Kidnapping has de-legitimized the group in the eyes of many.

Moreover, “disappearances” are things more often attributed to state security agencies across the region.  Most militants want to distance themselves from the practices of these instruments of state oppression.

But hostage taking and beheading could appeal to a certain segment inspired by or themselves returned from fighting with ISIL. As we saw in France on 26 June 2015, a single beheading of a captive, got enormous media attention.  And well executed barricade-style attacks such as in Paris on 13 November 2015 garner enormous media attention.

For a small cell with limited technical capacity to pull off a sophisticated bombing, including lone wolves merely inspired by ISIL, a kidnapping and beheading or barricade style attack is cheap, simple, easy to disseminate, and would instantly garner massive public attention. Moreover, it would help that group stand apart from rival militants by “out bidding” them through violence to prove their jihadist credentials; essential as Islamist militants have never been as fractured as they are today.

Security forces in the region may also have to brace for a wave of targeted assassinations of foreigners, as what happened on 28 September 2015 in Bangladesh, when ISIL militants gunned down an Italian aid worker. While not as headline grabbing as bombings, they are low cost, low risk, and effective.

ISIL is ultimately containable and their sheer brutality and limited governance arguably sows the seeds of their long-term demise.  And yet, in the short-run, their brutal tactics and savagery may be emulated by affiliates and groups hoping to outbid their rivals and consolidate leadership of the jihadist movement.  And as they continue to gain adherents and followers in Southeast Asia, their tactics will be replicated.

Zachary Abuza is a Professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, where he specializes in Southeast Asian security and politics. The views are his personal opinions, and do not reflect the views of the National War College or Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAbuza.