The Islamic State’s al-Naba news agency recently announced a major re-organization. Within Iraq and Syria, IS’s 22 wilayat (provinces) were reorganized into just two, a reflection of the fact that they had lost more than 80 percent of the territory they claimed in those countries.
And they appear – though there is some conflicting information – to have added a new province in Southeast Asia: Wilayat Sharq Asiyya. This was a long time coming and something that Southeast Asian pro-IS militants had long clamored for.
The first Southeast Asian militants declared bai’at (allegiance) to Islamic State (IS) in mid-2014. Among the first taking the oath were Isnilon Hapilon of the Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf Group, and Santoso of the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT).
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (who had quit the Moro Islamic Liberation Front), Ansar Khalifa Philippines (AKP; also known as Ansar al-Khilafah), and the Maute Group all followed suit.
In Indonesia, Abu Bakar Bashir, the former spiritual leader of pro-al Qaeda Jemaaah Islamiyah (JI), and Aman Abdurrahman, declared bai’at from prison, causing another rift amongst Indonesian militants.
The rise of Islamic State, which swept across Iraq and Syria four years ago, played a fundamental role in revitalizing terrorist networks throughout Southeast Asia.
JI was largely leaderless and divided over strategy and tactics. In the late oughts, there was an intense debate over targeting: One faction wanted to emulate the radicalism of al-Qaeda in Iraq and intensify their targeting of the West. Others opposed that strategy, not as ethically wrong, but as counterproductive, leading to mass incarcerations. They advocated a return to sectarian bloodletting, but failed to deliver.
Neither side emerged the winner. An attempt was made in 2009-10 to bridge the divide, but Indonesian security forces disrupted it and killed or arrested more than 120 JI members, including Bashir.
Security forces gave JI space to exist, through its mosques and madrassas, as long as it remained focused on dawah activities. Any attempts to regroup or recruit a new generation of leaders were largely thwarted by the difficulty of operating in such a hostile environment: Indonesian security forces had effectively dismembered the group.
In the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf, which tends to vacillate between ideologically motivated terrorism and abject criminality, was back to kidnapping for ransom, leaving little marks. Most of the Moro groups had failed to gain traction, as the peace process between the government and the MILF was in full swing.
Only after the peace process was suspended following the botched Mamasapano raid in January 2015, did these fringe groups increase their recruitment and make their mark.
So the emergence of Islamic State provided a new raison d’etre and, more important, a marketing tool. Militants could latch on to a seemingly unstoppable force. They focused more on sectarianism and the brutality of IS militants.
While the crackdowns continued at home, a new generation traveled to Iraq and Syria to “join the caravan.”
By late 2014, there was a sufficient number of Southeast Asians in Syria to form a Bahasa language company, Khatibah Nusantara. From cannon fodder, Khatibah Nusantara began to prove its worth in battle against the Kurdish Peshmerga.
And IS’s slick social media was tailor-made for wired Southeast Asian youths. By the fall of 2014, IS was featuring Southeast Asians in their propaganda and increasing their Bahasa language publications and multi-media.
More recruitment videos emerged and a weekly e-zine, al-Fatihin, began production in July 2016. Pro-IS channels on Telegram proliferated. By late 2014, there were suggestions that IS would establish a province in Asia.
More than 1,000 Southeast Asians traveled to Iraq and Syria, though only a few hundred were militants; the rest were women, children and those who served as humanitarian workers. Many were promised good salaries and jobs in the caliphate. Most were duped, while women were often treated as chattel. Many more were deported by Turkish authorities.
But Southeast Asian militants failed to get the recognition they had hoped for from the IS leadership.
Perhaps it was because pro-IS militants in Southeast Asia did not have a fantastic track record at first. The first major IS attack was an attack on a Jakarta Starbucks in January 2016. There are reports of the Southeast Asian leadership being reprimanded for being online jihadists, unable to orchestrate significant attacks.
In early 2016, IS finally recognized the pledge of bai’at from several Southeast Asian militant organizations, declaring the Abu Sayyaf’s Hapilon to be the regional emir and other pro-IS groups to be “brigades.”
Flush with success and busy trying to build their caliphate project in the Middle East, Southeast Asia was too far away and less of a priority. But it is possible that IS was simply waiting to see which groups or leaders emerged on top.
The AKP, for example, was thought to have some of the best bona fides, but with the death of their leader, the group fell into a tailspin. The Mautes, by contrast, came out of nowhere.
IS propaganda did try to demonstrate the Philippine groups and foreign fighters coming together and conducting joint trainings. But, it is important to note, IS never declared Southeast Asia to be a wilayat.
Even with the Marawi siege, from May to October 2017, IS did not a wilayat in the region. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that Hapilon and the Mautes saw the siege of a major population center as something that they could then take to the IS leadership to justify the declaration of a wilayat, which, of course, would help to consolidate their own authority.
The Marawi siege came as IS was losing much of its own territory in Iraq and Syria. This had two immediate effects: Southeast Asian supporters were encouraged to travel to fight in Mindanao, rather than Iraq or Syria.
This is significant because outside militants often were able to bridge the parochial divides and get groups in the Philippines to cooperate with one another. Individually many of these groups are fringe, but they can really challenge the government when they cooperate, as we saw in Marawi.
Second, Southeast Asia became more important in terms of the IS central media as the group began to shift its strategy to a global insurgency. An IS central media organ produced a slick documentary on Marawi, as part of its “Inside the Caliphate” series.
Toward global insurgency
As IS has shifted its strategy fully to a global insurgency, Southeast Asia takes on added significance. This is not to say that there will be more attacks in Southeast Asia, but there will be more pressure on the militants there to do so. They have been pushing for this for about four years.
It raises certain questions: will more resources flow to Southeast Asian groups? Will IS central media organs increase their coverage of them and local language media? Will IS leaders push for greater cooperation amongst the groups, or a more unified command and control?
But one also has to wonder if they have the capacity. The most important IS leaders, both in Syria and Southeast Asia, have been killed or are believed to be dead. These include Mohammed Lutfi Ariffin, Bahrun Naim, Bahrumsyah, Isnilon Hapilon, Salim Mubarak Attamimi (Abu Jandal), and the Maute brothers. Aman Abdurrahman was recently sentenced to death, and Abu Bakar Bashir remains in prison.
There are plenty of others in the wings, but Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean security forces have all stepped up their CT operations, armed with no powers and resources.
The Philippines clearly remains a weak link, but hopefully with the implementation of the peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, they will need to prove themselves by cracking down on pro-IS militants, who after all, challenge the MILF for leadership.
IS has made clear that it will not be abandoning their Caliphate, despite their territorial losses. The caliphate has simply morphed, and will likely include new areas and battlegrounds, including Southeast Asia.
But to be clear, not all seem to be on board with this even within the IS leadership, with some IS Telegram channels still not using the “wilayat” label in reference to Asia. Still, as IS fully adopts the insurgency model, we are reminded just how effectively insurgency has been waged in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.