On Sunday, news surfaced that the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed in a raid by U.S. Special Forces in Syria. While Baghdadi’s death may be a blow to the Islamic State as a group, the implications for the wider battle Southeast Asian states have been waging against terrorism in recent years is less certain.
While the headlines with respect to the Islamic State (IS) have been predominantly focused on the Middle East, including Baghdadi’s dramatic declaration of a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq back in 2014, the group, its affiliates, and inspired supporters have been responsible for a range of terrorist attacks across the world. Southeast Asia has not been immune from this, with the most dramatic example being the siege by IS-linked militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi. Indeed, even as IS has lost ground in the Middle East, Southeast Asian nations, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore have continued to see terror plots hatched and worries have increased over the impact of returning foreign fighters as well.
Baghdadi’s death is certainly not without significance for Southeast Asia’s struggle against IS, its affiliates, and other supporters. Baghdadi is the most senior terrorist leader killed or captured since Osama bin Laden’s death in a raid in Pakistan back in 2011. And though his role in the group may have been more symbolic over time as opposed to others who were more involved in operations and day-to-day management, his removal is nonetheless major blow for the Islamic State in the Middle East, following previous setbacks that the group has faced in recent years. That may in turn negatively affect the group’s attraction in other regions of the world, including in Southeast Asia.
Yet at the same time, any triumphalism for Southeast Asia’s broader struggle against IS and terrorism more generally would be premature. For one, it remains unclear how Baghdadi’s death will affect the organization of IS as well as its links to other groups, particularly amid other changing dynamics in the Middle East, including U.S. retrenchment, that could provide vacuums that IS and other groups could fill in the future. Previously, the death of individual leaders within IS has raised questions about how organizational changes could affect the future of the group, and whether it could splinter apart in ways that could create new challenges for how to manage it. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana captured this sense when he described in a statement Baghdadi’s death as only a “momentary setback” given the group’s depth and reach worldwide, noting that the focus would now shift to how someone would take his place, “maybe not as famous and well-known”.
For another, the cross-regional effects of such a development are still unclear. The default assumption may be that the death of a figure like Baghdadi could reduce the group’s attractiveness in other parts of the world. But in Southeast Asia, while certain groups or cells may have pledged allegiance to or have been inspired by IS, they tend to operate fairly autonomously and may in fact continue to carry out planned attacks. For instance, the recent attack on Indonesia’s chief security minister Wiranto earlier this month was initially traced back to Jamaah Ansharul Daulah, a pro-IS group but one which had been operating as independent cells. The impact of Baghdadi’s death can also cut both ways: it could also produce other secondary consequences that could affect regions such as Southeast Asia, such as the mounting of retaliatory attacks to demonstrate resilience following a setback or the further stimulation of a return of foreign fighters back to their countries of origin.
Furthermore, it bears noting that while Baghdadi’s death may be a blow to IS, the threat posed by IS is only part of Southeast Asia’s challenge in dealing with terrorism and insurgency. As I have noted previously, since there are other groups apart from IS that continue to pose issues for Southeast Asian security forces, including Jemaah Islamiyah, individuals could shift their allegiances to those groups. In addition, while Southeast Asian states have had some success in terms of thwarting attacks, the root causes and ground conditions for terrorism and violent extremism to incubate have still yet to be addressed. The southern Philippines continues to remain a potential breeding ground in this regard, while security officials continue to report that the ideological appeal of extremist groups remains a key issue for them to tackle. Indeed, Malaysia’s counterterrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told Reuters earlier this week that while Baghdadi’s death was good news, his death “will have little impact” because the main problem in Malaysia “remains the spread of the Islamic State ideology.”
All this is not to understate the significance of Baghdadi’s death, which is no doubt a landmark development in the global fight against terrorism in general and IS in particular. But it is to say that we should be cautious when forecasting this will play into Southeast Asia’s fight against terrorism, which is broader than just IS and is rooted as much in local and regional dynamics as it is in the death of a single terrorist leader.