On April 29, the SITE Intelligence Group drew attention to the release of a video of the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It was the first evidence that he was still alive, and the first video or public sighting of him since 2014.
The video, which was released by Al Furqan, one of the Islamic State central media organs, showed him speaking to his aides and reviewing IS operations. The message to IS supporters was very clear: he's alive, he’s in charge, and though we have lost much of the caliphate, future attacks will be global in nature.
Baghdadi reinforced what was already assumed, that the Islamic State would adopt a global insurgency model. Sitting with his AK47 beside him, Baghdadi referenced the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250, read a report on global operations, had a report on a possible new province – wiliyat – in Turkey, and referenced two groups in Africa that had pledged allegiance.
The video was notable for another reason. In its work report about the IS organization, there was no mention of the Islamic State of East Asia – Wilayat Sharq Asiyya.
Was this simply an oversight? Perhaps.
But IS central has never had consistent messaging regarding Islamic State of East Asia (ISEA), which shows just how peripheral it is to them.
It is worth remembering that in 2014, as the Islamic State was sweeping across Iraq and Syria, groups were pledging allegiance to it at a dizzying rate. In Southeast Asia alone, the Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Maute Group, Ansarul Khilafa Philippines, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), Darul Islam Sabah, and many other groups or individual cells declared allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
The Islamic State did not recognize any of these groups in return for years, nor did it declare a regional province, even though since late 2014 there has been a Southeast Asian IS unit, Khatibah Nusantara, that was increasingly proving its worth on the battlefield in Syria. In July 2014, IS media released an important Bahasa-language recruiting video and in March 2015, IS released a video of a school for the children of Southeast Asian militants.
Why the delay? Perhaps the Islamic State was simply preoccupied with establishing the caliphate and consolidating its rule. Arguably its success in 2014-2016 relieved it of the pressure of needing more regional affiliates, especially along the periphery of the Muslim world.
There is also some evidence that the Islamic State was holding out on recognizing the Southeast Asian groups, waiting for one to assume primacy. Why bet on a losing horse? When no group emerged on top, despite a number of attacks, the Islamic State seemed to settle on the Abu Sayyaf, a group that appeared as thuggish as its members.
In early 2016, the Islamic State declared the founding of the East Asian wiliyat, with Isnilon Hapilon as the group’s emir. Other groups were declared “brigades” under the mythical claim of Hapilon’s command. And it was a risk, because never before had a Malaysian or an Indonesian jihadist accepted the leadership of a Filipino.
The focus on the Philippines was purely pragmatic: though cells existed across Indonesia and Malaysia, and had far more religious and ideological credentials, only in the Philippines was there a hope of controlling physical territory. You can’t be a state without territory. Although the MIT controlled some remote jungle territory in central Sulawesi, they had been under concerted attack from Indonesian security forces, and suffered severe losses.
More IS media featuring Southeast Asians and in Bahasa came out in 2016, including a June video featuring Malaysian Mohd Rafi Udin, an Indonesian and a Filipino executing a trio of prisoners in Syria. In July, Islamic State began publishing a magazine al-Fatihin – the Conquerors – with the tagline: “The newspaper for Malay-speaking migrants in the Islamic State.”
But there seemed to be some mixed messaging. As soon as IS central media declared the founding of ISEA, other IS media began to walk it back, again hinting at some ambivalence.
It also speaks to inherent racism and condescension toward Southeast Asian Muslims. As Abu Bakr Naji wrote in The Management of Savagery, the ideological treatise for both al-Qaeda and Islamic State:
Truly, every day we see helpers for the jihad coming forth from countries in Asia, like Malaysia and Indonesia, and from the countries of the former Soviet Union. ... They do not know the class of the great ulama or those mores which cause the deviation of the committed youth in some of the countries of the Arab world. They are like a white page, their innate nature and their genuine emotion motivating them to assist the religion. Naturally, there might be a negative effect, such as the lack of sharia discipline. However, it is our role to fill in this gap. Thus, these youth will not abandon jihad, by the grace of God. Innate human nature is found in them and they will respond to direction from any model or living exemplar of jihad.
This is as racist, condescending, and arrogant as it gets. IS has little respect for Southeast Asians, but sees them as useful.
In May 2017, Isnilon Hapilon teamed up with the Mautes and took over the Philippine city of Marawi. They held off the Philippine military (backed by U.S., Australian and Singaporean forces) for five months, a major propaganda victory.
At that point, ISEA looked really good for the Islamic State, which was starting to lose significant amounts of its own territory. IS central media focused on the siege, making a well-edited, fast-paced documentary on it as part of its “Inside the Caliphate” series in August 2017.
Not terribly successful
But with the loss of Marawi, the deaths of Hapilon, the Maute brothers and a handful of their successors, ISEA seems to have lost its luster.
IS cells have staged attacks around the region for which IS has taken credit, including the January 2016 attacks in Jakarta, a suicide bombing at a police station in Solo in July 2016, the Puchong grenade attack in June 2016, the May 2018 suicide bombings in Surabaya, the July 2018 suicide bombing in Basilan, and the January 2019 Jolo cathedral bombings.
There have been other attacks, but frankly, they have been rather amateurish. There have been many more attacks thwarted in both Indonesia and Malaysia, including some very large-scale attacks, if the amount of IEDs seized is any indication.
But the successful attacks have been sporadic, discordant, and uncoordinated. If ISEA is a thing, then it's not been a terribly successful thing. It’s actually accomplished little apart from Marawi. Indeed, there are interesting reports that Bahrun Naim was criticized by IS leaders for being proactive online, but delivering little.
It is also important to note that one by one, top Southeast Asians within the Islamic State have been killed, including Abu Jandal al-Yemeni al-Indonesia, Muhammad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi, Mohd Rafi Udin, Bahrun Naim, Bahrumsyah, and most recently Muhammad Saifuddin. Arguably that led to a loss of advocacy within the leadership.
In the end, local militants seem to care more about ISEA than IS does. Linking their parochial struggle to a global one is important for their messaging, and perhaps for recruiting and fundraising.
That does not mean we should write off ISEA. Baghdadi’s omission could have been an oversight. More importantly, as al-Baghdadi made clear, IS is adopting a global insurgency model. It will always seek new allies, new sectarian schisms to exploit, and new fronts to open, whether in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, or 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.