Southeast Asian nations have beefed up security to thwart possible “revenge attacks” after the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, officials said Monday, even as counter-terrorism agencies in the region felt his death would not dampen the resilience of local militants.
Al-Baghdadi, who became the world’s most-wanted terrorist after he declared a so-called caliphate in Mosul, Iraq, in 2014, killed himself and three of his children when he detonated a suicide vest during a raid by U.S. forces in northwest Syria’s Idlib region, President Donald Trump announced Sunday.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, officials warned of the possibility of attacks by local militants sympathetic to Baghdadi in a bid to avenge the death of the IS leader, who had led the jihadist group since 2010.
“All [militant] networks have been monitored by Densus 88,” Indonesian national police spokesman Asep Adi Saputra told BenarNews, referring to the country’s elite counter-terrorism strike force. “But, still, the recent event has prompted us to be more alert to anticipate possible revenge attacks by al-Baghdadi supporters.”
The first terrorist attack claimed by IS in Southeast Asia was in Indonesia, more than three years ago.
In January 2016, authorities blamed a local IS-linked group known as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) for a gun and bomb attack that killed eight people, including the four attackers, in Jakarta’s central business district.
JAD was also blamed for coordinated attacks in the Indonesian city of Surabaya in May 2018, when two families carried out suicide bombings on three churches and a police station. Twenty-four people were killed, including the attackers who used their children as young as 9 in the bombings.
Ridlwan Habib, a security analyst at the University Indonesia, said al-Baghdadi’s killing could prompt IS’s local supporters to launch revenge attacks, as he urged Jakarta to remain on alert, “because even though he is dead, the ideology is still alive.”
“It is possible that some followers are determined to avenge his death,” he told BenarNews. “Some may even be inspired by al-Baghdadi and blow themselves up with a bomb vest.”
Governments in Southeast Asia, home to more than 270 million Muslims, have been concerned over IS expanding its network in the region ever since the militant group lost control of its self-proclaimed caliphate – wide swaths of land covering an area as big as Great Britain – in parts of Syria and Iraq in March.
In the Philippines, where IS-linked local militants launched a major siege that devastated the southern city of Marawi two years ago, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he believed that al-Baghdadi’s death was “just a momentary setback” for IS, considering the militant group’s reach worldwide.
“Somebody will take his place to lead the IS. Maybe not as famous and well known,” Lorenzana told reporters.
Military officials placed troops in the restive southern Philippines on heightened alert Monday for possible “sympathy attacks.”
The precautionary move was taken just before the Catholic country was to shut down for annual All Souls’ and All Saints Day holiday this coming weekend, when millions of Filipinos were expected to visit cemeteries and pay respects to the dead.
Among IS-linked groups in southern Philippines is the Abu Sayyaf, which President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to crush after it was linked to deadly attacks on civilian and military targets, as well as numerous abductions, including foreigners.
A key Abu Sayyaf faction is led by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who has been identified as the new leader of the IS affiliate operating in the southern Philippines. He took over from Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed when Philippine government troops regained the city of Marawi two years ago.
Hapilon was believed to have led the IS in Southeast Asia before he was killed.
Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of Philippine Army’s Western Mindanao Command, told BenarNews that al-Baghdadi was not well-known among low-ranking members of militant groups in the Philippines.
“Here in the Philippines during my custodial debriefing from among those who have surrendered to us, they don’t really know about this [IS leader named] al-Baghdadi,” Sobejana said.
“I should say the impact is lesser in as far as if they want to project it as martyrdom,” he said. “Not that much, unless those who were commanding [local militants] will … motivate the followers to avenge.”
‘The terror threat will continue’
Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation of 33 million people has experienced one IS-linked attack so far but the nation was mostly concerned about “lone-wolf attacks” involving individuals radicalized through online propaganda, according to Malaysian police counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay.
“The terror threat will continue to exist if we fail to deal with the ideologies spread by IS or the other groups that hold onto the same ideologies,” he told BenarNews.
Malaysian authorities have arrested 495 people linked to alleged terror activities since 2013, according to government figures compiled by BenarNews. Dozens have been freed but no clear number is available.
Malaysia’s first IS-linked terror attack took place on June 26, 2016, when a grenade blast injured eight patrons at the Movida nightclub in Puchong town near Kuala Lumpur. Authorities blamed that attack on Islamic State.
But the nation also faces threats from local IS sympathizers and regional militant groups, including the Abu Sayyaf, whose suspected members had been arrested during police crackdowns in Sabah in recent months.
In Thailand, where a decades-long Muslim insurgency in the country’s Deep South has killed thousands, analysts do not expect Baghdadi’s death to have any influence on rebels.
Thai authorities earlier this month denied any connection between IS and the Deep South insurgents, despite the recent arrest of a Thai student in Egypt on suspicion of belonging to the terror group.
“Our enquiries have found no link between the people in the three southernmost provinces and the Islamic State,” Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters.
Security analyst Don Pathan told BenarNews that al-Baghdadi’s killing was not expected to have any impact on militant groups in Southeast Asia.
Trump said al-Baghdadi, who was believed to be 48, died Saturday when he detonated his suicide vest in a tunnel while being pursued by U.S. Special Forces. “There wasn’t much left,” Trump told reporters, referring to al-Baghdadi’s remains. "But there are still substantial pieces that they [special forces] brought back” for identification, he said.
Among the 31,500 foreign fighters who had joined IS in Syria, about 800 came from Asia, including 400 from Indonesia, Indonesia’s Defense chief Ryamizard Ryacudu told BenarNews in June last year, citing intelligence data from his government.
Al-Baghdadi’s ‘Inspirational approach’
Munira Mustaffa, a Malaysian terrorism researcher at American University in Washington told BenarNews that al-Baghdadi’s decision to kill himself using a suicide vest could be an “inspirational approach to signal to his followers to do the same.”
“I don’t think there's going to be much impact on Malaysian IS sympathizers given that he was pretty distant as a leader,” Munira said. “However, I would be cautious with making any assumptions on how it would resonate with Indonesians.”
Meanwhile, Bangladeshi Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan on Monday urged countries around the world to “work together to stop resurgence of such notorious outfit” as the IS.
“Islamic State (IS) has never been Islamic,” Khan told BenarNews. “This notorious militant outfit is synonymous with mass murder, genocide, slaughter, destruction, arson and all other notorious activities. … So, killing of its chief al-Baghdadi is good news for the world.”
Bangladesh has been targeted in terrorist attacks in recent years, most notably the July 2016 siege of a Dhaka café in which militants hacked to death 20 hostages. IS claimed responsibility for the attack, but Bangladeshi officials adamantly denied that it was linked to IS or that the group had a presence in the South Asian nation.
The Bangladeshi government had “apparently crushed” the local network of militants linked with the IS, such as the Neo-JMB, and it would be unlikely that Bangladesh would see retaliatory attacks as a result of al-Baghdadi’s killing, security analyst Sakhawat Hossain, a retired Army brigadier general, told BenarNews.
“As the law-enforcement agencies in Bangladesh are very aggressive, they would not be able to carry out attacks in the near future,” Hossain said.
But, he said, militants “would try to stage their capability at an opportune moment.”
“We may see violent attacks by the sleeper cells in different countries in retaliation of Baghdadi’s killing,” he said.
Dennis Jay Santos in Davao City, Philippines contributed to this report.