When the self-proclaimed Islamic State was declared in June 2014, the primary concern in Southeast Asia was the security implications such a wannabe proto-state would have on the region. Once it became apparent that Southeast Asian fighters, especially from Malaysia and Indonesia, were “migrating” [hijrah] to Syria and Iraq, the fear was that this could complicate domestic politics through sectarianism with divisions within the Muslim community and between Muslims and non-Muslims. The gross brutalities perpetrated by the ultra-violent ISIS worsened fears of what the existence of such a cruel “regime” would mean for national security, either through large scale or “lone wolf” attacks.
Now, after more than 37 months of existence, Islamic State’s controlled territories and fighting forces have been severely degraded. With the loss of Mosul, it is only a matter of time before Raqqa will be recaptured. This would mean that the physical “caliphate” will disappear. Instead of being euphoric about the disappearance of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, however, new fears have risen in Southeast Asia. The defeat of ISIS in the Middle East will not signal the end of the threat of terrorism from extremist Islam. For Southeast Asia, there are three key issues that need addressing the day after the fall of ISIS.
Threat 1: Export of the ISIS Model to Southeast Asia
ISIS represented a new type of terrorism. This was embodied by the appearance of a charismatic leader, al-Baghdadi, a multinational coalition of groups that pledged loyalty to the caliph and the caliphate, possession of a multinational military capability, control of large swathes of land, existence of an administration (government), and the ability to attack and defeat the “enemy” on a regular basis, both at home and abroad.
This model survived for nearly three years and is about to be terminated. In place of the ISIS that was centered in Syria and Iraq, new bases of operation are likely to emerge. The export of the ISIS model is already evident in Libya and Yemen, and probably in parts of the Asia-Pacific. ISIS already tried to transplant its model to Poso, Indonesia but was neutralized by the Indonesian military. What is transpiring in Marawi City in the Philippines is symbolic of the ISIS model in operation in Southeast Asia.
ISIS has already declared two wilayats (provinces) in the southern Philippines, one under Isnon Hapilon, known as Wilayat Filipines, and another under Abu Abdillah, the East Asia Wilayat. Added to the leadership and government, there is a coalition of local and foreign groups and military forces that have been able to hold Philippines troops at bay for more than two months so far. Even if Marawi City is regained by the Philippine government, a functioning and operating model has been exported to the region and we can expect more Marawi City-type operations in Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar. Southeast Asia would also have to learn to live with foreign fighters entering the region in support of jihadi causes.
Threat 2: Preparing for a Post-ISIS Realignment
ISIS was born when a group split from al-Qaeda, considering the latter to be weak and lacking in a vision, to establish an Islamic caliphate. What ISIS has demonstrated in the last 37 months is that there can be not only an alternative to al-Qaeda but also to the Westphalian state system. While the ISIS model did not survive for too long in the Middle East, there is every probability that an ISIS-plus model will resurface in the near future. There could be multiple Islamic States all over the world at the same time, only this time decentralized in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and possibly in the Eurasian regions.
The post-ISIS scenario should also not rule out a mega-merger of Islamic State and al-Qaeda, especially as the aging al-Qaeda leaders leave the scene. Such a possibility cannot be dismissed, especially in the Southeast Asian region, where both groups have a strong footprint. Even in the current security terrain, both pro-al Qaeda and pro-ISIS groups are present in Southeast Asia, with many Southeast Asians fighting for ISIS or al-Qaeda’s military wing, Jabhat al-Nusra in the Middle East — often fighting each other. The pro-al Qaeda Jemaah Islamiyah, which was a major security threat in the region from 1999 to 2010, remains active to this day.
Threat 3: Managing Southeast Asian Returnees
With the declaration of the Islamic State in 2014, many Southeast Asians traveled to Syria and Iraq, mainly to fight under the ISIS umbrella against the Assad regime in Syria and against Shias in general. Most of the Southeast Asian fighters came from Indonesia and Malaysia and supported the Islamic State, although a smaller number fought for Jabhat al-Nusra.
While the exact numbers remain unknown, it’s estimated that more than 1,000 Southeast Asians, both fighters and their family members, supported and lived in the Islamic State. More than 100 Southeast Asians are also believed to have died fighting in the Middle East, many from Indonesia. To accommodate these fighters, ISIS even established the Katibah Nusantara, a fighting unit dedicated to the Malay-speaking world of Southeast Asia, under the leadership of Bahrumsyah.
With ISIS central likely to be defeated soon, there are a number of options opened to Southeast Asian ISIS fighters. First, they can continue to fight to the death for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which some have openly declared they will do. Second, they can migrate to other theaters of military operations, including Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, as well as parts of Asia, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and most probably, to the Philippines, the new regional center of gravity for ISIS. Third, as they did following their jihad in Afghanistan, the jihadists can return home to their respective countries.
To be sure, Southeast Asia already has many returnees from Syria and Iraq. Some have returned following their deportation from Turkey, before being able to cross into Syria. Indonesia is believed to have about 400 such deportees. Others have returned due to injuries, disappointment with the ISIS cause, or being strategically sent back to continue to the struggle in their respective homeland.
A new dimension to the returnees’ saga would be returnees from regional conflicts such as in Marawi City, where there are Southeast Asians fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, and elsewhere supporting their Filipino co-jihadists. These regional returnees would also need to be managed.
Whether Southeast Asian authorities decide to detain and criminally deal with the returnees or rehabilitate them, the region has to be prepared for the “day after ISIS” scenario. The security situation could worsen with the region being awash with ISIS and non-ISIS returnees who are skilled in combat operations, adept in the use of sophisticated military weapons and tactics, and most important of all, experienced in combat, ideologically fortified, and strongly networked.
These are serious challenges which the region has never confronted before. While the ISIS threat has been largely distant since 2014, with the group’s defeat in the Middle East, this is likely to become a direct regional problem, especially with many militant groups already operating in individual Southeast Asian states. With the conveyor belt of ISIS returnees coming to roost at home, mostly schooled in radical ideology, especially anti-Shia strains, inter-Islam relations could also worsen in Sunni Islam-dominant Southeast Asia.
Bilveer Singh, PhD. Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore; Adjunct Senior Fellow, Centre of Excellence for National Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; President, Political Science Association, Singapore