Islamic State and Southeast Asia: Answering the Call for Jihad

30 Sep, 2014    ·   4676

Aparupa Bhattacherjee looks at why a growing number of Muslim youth from the region are choosing to join the IS

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer
On 23 July 2014, a video was posted on YouTube showed Isnilon Hapilon, a senior member of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and other members, pledging their support to the Islamic State (IS) through both financial and manpower support. Similarly, Mochammad Achwan, the chairman of Jemmah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) has delivered the message of their founder Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s support for IS and its self-proclaimed Caliphate of the State of Islam. There are already records of huge numbers of Southeast Asians - approximately like 12,000 - travelling to Iraq and Syria to fight for the IS.

Why are the numbers of Southeast Asians trying to join the IS growing? Why are the Southeast Asian terrorist organisations supporting IS?

The terrorist organisations have claimed that the reason for their support is that the war is being led by their Muslim “brothers” in Iraq and Syria. Another reason as claimed by these groups is the fact that the establishment of a Caliphate of the Islamic Kingdom is more or less a common goal. However the real motive for the support to the IS could also be the resurrection of their credibility and hold in Southeast Asia. ASG in was formed as a splinter group from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) is based in Philippines. Their collaboration with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and al Qaeda led to the establishment of this group as one of the most violent separatist groups in that region. Heavy crackdowns through the joint efforts of Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian anti-terrorist squads have led to the disintegration of the JI into numerous smaller and less powerful splinter groups and weakened the ASG whose terror attacks since 2005 have been limited to extortion and looting of local foreign tourists. Thus supporting the IS could be perceived the ASG an opportunity for them to revives their claim to fame.

The video that was posted on YouTube began with still photos of Isnilon Hapilon on US’ ‘most wanted’ posters in addition to the symbolic black flag. This suggests that Hapilon was trying to establish their notoriety. They have already kidnapped two German tourists and demanded that the German government not support the US in their war against the IS. JAT, founded by one of the initial founders of the JI, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, is one of the most powerful splinter group of JI in comparison to other groups such as Hisbah, Tawid Wal Jihad and the Negara Islam Indonesia (NII). JAT is considered a jacket for JI and for some as a re-emergence of JI.  However, JAT did not gain the stature of JI had attained till 2005. Support for the IS could thus be visualised by Ba’asyir to attain that stature. 

Employment Opportunities 
Both unemployment and poverty are factors for the growing number of Southeast Asian youth who are joining the IS. Muslim youth in rural Malaysia, Indonesia, southern Thailand and Philippines are mostly educated in the pasentrens or madrassas (Islamic schools), and many of them are unable to get mainstream jobs due to the poor standards of education. Fighting for the IS is therefore a job opportunity as they are provided with both salaries and food.  Further, many of the pasentrens in Indonesia are generally schools run by the former JI and members of other terrorist organisations preaching war strategies in the name of Islam.

Ideological Impact
Not all Southeast Asians joining the IS are doing so for money - for example, there are reports of a Malaysian navy officer travelling to Iraq to join the IS. Many Southeast Asians are spurred by the idea of fighting a war for the self-proclaimed Caliph and also to fight against the Shia majority (Shias are a minority in all the Southeast Asian countries). Recurring recruitment videos on YouTube also has an ideological impact on some Southeast Asian Muslims. In fact use of social media for recruitment is one of the biggest factors for the large numbers of Muslims from all over the world joining the IS.

Whatever may be the reasons, the fallout could be alarming. Both JI and ASG were organised by the Southeast Asian veterans of the Afghanistan war who had received training at al Qaeda camps. These organisations had not only developed these terror networks but had also contributed to the spread of a radical form of Islam - then a new phenomenon in Southeast Asia. History might repeat itself, and the return of the soldiers from Iraq and Syria might again lead to a development of the same pattern.