Islamic State (IS) has been expanding steadfastly beyond its heartland of Iraq and Syria since the declaration of a “caliphate” on June 29, 2014. Over half of the 50,000 foreign fighters drawn to Iraq and Syria have since perished. But the IS narrative has spread and its subculture has been seeded worldwide.
Today, the threat in South and Southeast Asian countries is not so much from returning foreign fighters, who are coming home demoralized and in small numbers. Rather, these countries are seeing domestic threat-groups coopted by IS, and their own citizens radicalized and militarized by IS propaganda. Some of these individuals and groups are being directed and influenced by the foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria who form part of the IS external operations wing.
Meanwhile, Southeast Asia is emerging as one of the battlefields of IS. IS has successfully mounted attacks in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
In a June 2016 IS video, a Filipino, an Indonesian and a Malaysian appeared together, urging Muslims in their native languages to fight in Syria or the Philippines. “If you cannot go to [Syria], join up and go to the Philippines,” Malaysian IS figure Rafi Udin said in the 20-minute video.
IS and its supporters now regard Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, as a part of its territory.
The two dozen foreign fighters operating in the Philippines include people from different parts of Asia as well as other continents. Among recent foreign fighters killed was Nadir Ali Ahmad (alias Abu Naila), a Belizean national. Together with his local wife, Kadija, they were killed in Maasim in the Sarangani province of the Philippines on Jan. 7, 2017.
Abu Naila was hosted by a local IS group Ansar Al-Khilafah Philippines (AKP) until its leader, Mohammad Jaafar Maguid (alias Tokboy), was killed on Jan. 5 at Angel Beach Resort in Sarangani province. Philippine National Police chief Gen. Ronald dela Rosa said Abu Naila “wanted to fight in Syria, but he first went here in the Philippines to train.”
In April 2016, Moroccan bomb-maker Mohammad Khattab was killed in Basilan, and his local wife, who was allegedly engaged in terrorist support activity, was captured.
“The Moroccan terrorist wanted to organize and unite all the kidnap-for ransom-groups to be affiliated with an international terrorist organization,” Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Hernando Iriberri said at the time.
The leader of the Philippine branch of IS, Isnilon Hapilon, was reportedly wounded by a military operation in Lanao del Sur last week.
While Philippines security forces are fighting a relentless battle against a dozen groups that pledged allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, neighboring countries are disrupting the flow of foreign fighters to Mindanao. A series of raids in mid-January in Malaysia led to four arrests and fears that its westernmost state, Sabah, has become a transit station for South and Southeast Asians seeking to join IS Philippines (ISP).
The first arrest, a 31-year-old Filipino watch seller, was made in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, on Jan 13. ISP had tasked the man with recruiting Malaysian, Indonesian, Bangladeshi and Rohingya fighters and bringing them for training to the southern Philippines.
He was offered 4,000 Malaysian ringgit (U.S. $903) per recruit by Dr Mahmud bin Ahmed, a 37-year-old former lecturer in comparative religion at Universiti Malaya and one of several Malaysians operating in the southern Philippines.
Also arrested in Kota Kinabalu was the prospective bride of the Filipino man, a 27-year-old Malaysian woman from Selangor recruited two months earlier through social media. They had planned to fly to Sandakan before entering Marawi City, Mindanao, and then linking up with Dr. Mahmud in Butig, Lanao del Sur.
The other arrests were two Bangladeshi salesmen in Kuala Lumpur, age 27 and 28, who were also to join Dr Mahmud in the southern Philippines.
Shifting to land
The initial IS inroads to the islands of Sulu, Basilan, and Tawi Tawi in Western Mindanao was through the Abu Sayyaf Group. But since President Rodrigo Duterte pressured his commanders to eliminate both ASG and IS and their associated groups, the threat groups are shifting to “land.”
ISP leadership moved to Central Mindanao and is working with Islamic State Lanao, led by the Maute brothers. With the IS base in Basilan shifting to Lanao del Norte, the unfamiliar terrain has made Hapilon and his associates more vulnerable.
The security forces will need the support of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a group that has entered the political mainstream but awaits a peace deal with Duterte. What is important for the Philippines is to work hard to engage threat groups that genuinely seek peace and fight the groups unwilling to enter the mainstream.
If conflict persists, both seasoned and newly recruited foreign fighters will use the Philippines as a base, threatening both national and international security.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.