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ISIS Is Scoring Big Victories In Its Newest Battlefield, Far From The Middle East

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has secured a foothold in Southeast Asia and is spreading violence and terror throughout the region.

Multiple ISIS-linked incidents have occurred in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines over the past week.

The Maute Group, which has ties to ISIS, raided a prison and freed around two dozen inmates in the Philippines last Saturday. A church in Indonesia saw an attempted suicide bombing by an ISIS-crazed teen Aug. 29. Three ISIS militants were arrested in Malaysia for a planned attack during the nation’s Independence Day celebrations Tuesday. Abu Sayyaf, another group with ISIS connections, detonated a bomb Friday at a night market in the Philippines. The latter was the latest salvo in an ongoing war against ISIS-linked militants that has left hundreds dead or injured and displaced thousands of Filipino citizens.

Southeast Asia has all the right conditions for the expansion of ISIS. The southern Philippines is predominantly Muslim, Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, and the vast majority of Malaysia’s population is Muslim. Southeast Asia is also already home to Muslim militant groups and radical extremists.

“ISIS intends, in the long term, to spread the caliphate to all Muslim lands. It is therefore unsurprising that they have prioritized expansion into the Muslim areas of Southeast Asia. ISIS is also competing with al-Qaeda for control of the global Salafi-jihadi movement, meaning that it is attempting to convince pre-existing militant groups around the world to rally around the ISIS flag,” Melissa Pavlik, a Research Fellow with the Counterterrorism Team at the Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“Terrorism is not a new phenomenon in the region,” explained Joseph Chinyong Liow, the Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies at the Brookings Institution, in a testimony before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Intelligence on the Islamic State’s reach in Southeast Asia in April.

Since 9/11, Southeast Asia has experienced several deadly attacks by Muslim militant groups associated with al-Qaida. These include the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2003 Jakarta hotel bombing, the 2004 ferry bombing in the Philippines, the 2004 Australian embassy bombings in Indonesia, the 2005 Bali bombings, and the 2009 Jakarta hotel bombings. ISIS is working to recruit regional radicals to fight under its banner.

ISIS first made its presence known in Southeast Asia when four attackers used bombs and small arms in an assault against a commercial district in Jakarta, Indonesia, Jan. 14. Since then, ISIS has continued to make waves in the region.

Southeast Asia has witnessed many assassinations, kidnappings, beheadings, and bombings, as well as open combat with armed forces, over the past few months since the first ISIS-linked attack in Jakarta. Regional attacks have all been relatively small though.

Seasoned militant groups and individuals enthralled with the idea of a caliphate carry out the majority of these attacks. They generally lack the resources and discipline to carry out large-scale attacks similar to those seen in Europe.

“No ISIS-aligned group has developed the capability to mount catastrophic, mass casualty attacks in the region,” Liow explained during his testimony.

While these groups may currently be unable to execute massive attacks, this does not eliminate the possibility for escalation, especially if ISIS formally launches a full-scale campaign in Southeast Asia. “The IS threat has increased across the region but from a relatively low base,” Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict told Military.com. “We are seeing more connections. The likelihood of communications across national boundaries is higher. We need to be open to the possibility that both the method and the professionalism of attacks could increase,” she added.

How ISIS manifests itself in the region tends to vary from country to country. “ISIS has a regional strategy, but there are country-specific factors which affect ISIS activity across nations,” Pavlik told TheDCNF.

The Mindanao region in the Philippines has long been a hotbed of separatist Muslim militant activity. A number of different Islamist groups have been vying for autonomy in this part of the country for decades. As the government has limited control over the Mindanao region, it has served as a safe haven for jihadi organizations. Just as al-Qaeda did, ISIS is exploiting the tense relationship between the majority Muslim southern Philippines and the rest of the country and co-opting established Muslim militant groups.

The Islamist militant groups that march under the standard black flag of ISIS in the Philippines include Abu Sayyaf, Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines, the Jund at-Tawhid Battlion, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Ranao, and the Maute Group.

In Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, ISIS is not simply targeting pre-existing militant organizations; rather, it is recruiting individuals, specifically security personnel. Liow suggested that in Malaysia, as well as Singapore, “it has mostly been the eschatological ideology and theology of ISIS that has attracted followers.” In Indonesia, the landscape for jihadi activities tends to be much more diverse and complex. Indonesia does have pro-ISIS groups, such as the East Indonesia Mujahideen, but these groups tend to be smaller than those in the Philippines.

ISIS launched its first successful attack against Malaysia, a grenade attack in Kuala Lampur, on June 28. There were no fatalities; however, several people were injured. Singapore is on high alert after foiling several ISIS plots.

“[ISIS-linked] groups are not close to creating regional chaos like what we see in Syria,” Pavlik explained to TheDCNF. They simply do not have the same capabilities right now. Still, there is definite cause for concern. “The emergence of the phenomenon of ISIS in Southeast Asia and the traction it appears to have garnered is illustrative of how resilient but also evolutionary the threat of terrorism has become. Because of this, regional governments must remain vigilant to ISIS-related developments,” Liow cautions.

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Ryan Pickrell