Indonesian police said Friday they were keeping an eye on any citizens planning to join Islamic State’s Afghan branch after United Nations counterterror officials warned that IS was now focusing on recruiting Southeast Asian fighters for its operations in Afghanistan.
The U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee, in a report to the world body last week, said Islamic State’s efforts to recruit militants from Southeast Asia was “reported to be shifting from a focus on travel to Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic to joining ISIL-K [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in Afghanistan – Khorasan].”
“The police have known this for some time and we continue to watch out for any Indonesians who may try to travel to Khorasan,” national police spokesman Asep Adi Saputra told BenarNews, referring to IS’s self-proclaimed wilayat (province) in Afghanistan.
In Kuala Lumpur, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the chief of the national police’s counter-terrorist wing, said his division had not noticed a new trend in Malaysian militants gravitating toward Afghanistan.
Decades ago that country was a magnet for Muslim extremists from around the globe, including Southeast Asians, who fought in past conflicts or were trained there by al-Qaeda.
“We do not see any change in the trend so far involving Malaysians. We will continue monitoring individuals believed to be supporting Islamic State,” Ayob told BenarNews.
“This ISIL-K is not that popular among Malaysian, Indonesian or Philippine fighters. Most of its members are those hailing from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India,” he said.
The U.N. committee’s report, published on Jan. 31, updated the Security Council about the worldwide threat from IS after the group’s last bastion in Syria fell in March 2019 and its top leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed during a raid by U.S. Special Forces last October.
“The issue of foreign terrorist fighters remains acute, with Member States continuing to assess that between one half and two thirds of the more than 40,000 who joined the ‘caliphate’ are still alive,” the report said. “This is expected to aggravate the global threat posed by ISIL, and possibly [al-Qaeda] for years to come.”
Despite the geographical shift in IS’s recruitment efforts targeting Southeast Asians, “groups affiliated with ISIL especially remain a persistent and growing threat to the region,” the report said, using another acronym for Islamic State.
“Returnees to the region from Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic are especially dangerous, as they may improve the capabilities of groups and change the methodology of attacks,” the report added.
A great majority of fighters entering the volatile southern Philippines were from elsewhere in Southeast Asia, it said. In 2017, pro-IS fighters took over the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months until government forces flushed them out in a battle that destroyed the city.
After Islamic State burst onto the scene in 2014, hundreds of fighters and their families from Southeast Asia left their home countries to join the IS ranks.
Yet nearly a year after the Syrian town of Baghouz - IS’s last Mid-East bastion - fell to Syrian Kurdish forces, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments still are wrestling with the question of whether to repatriate scores of their citizens who have languished in camps across the region in the wake of IS’s territorial defeat. Over the years, however, a relatively small number have been allowed to come home.
Officials with Indonesia’s National Counterterrorist Agency (BNPT) and military officials in the Philippines declined BenarNews requests for comment on the U.N. report’s findings on the recruitment of Southeast Asian fighters toward the IS branch in Afghanistan.
ISIL-K, which was established by former Taliban fighters, announced its formation in an online video in January 2015, U.N. officials said. The group has since carried out bombings and attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Khorasan wilayat that IS established originally encompassed India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta think-tank.
“Previously, the name Khorasan covered all these areas, but after May 2019, it only refers to Afghanistan,” she said.
According to a researcher at the Institute for International Peace Building in Jakarta, Thayep Malik, “since there was a replacement for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, there has never been an announcement of a move to Khorasan.”
Some Indonesian militants nonetheless have traveled to Afghanistan, he said.
“They might be looking for a safe area for their base. But the Taliban will not stay idle because it considers [IS] an enemy,” he told BenarNews.
“It is not easy to establish a base in Afghanistan again because they will face the Taliban.”