Southeast Asia Anxious As Strike Against Last ISIS Stronghold Begins

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The campaign to retake the Islamic State’s last bastion in Iraq is underway, and when the dust settles, hundreds of the group’s foreign fighters may disperse.

Malaysia said Tuesday that Southeast Asian states need to step up its counter terrorism measures in preparation for a wave of returning foreign ISIS fighters after the group is ousted from Mosul, its last stronghold in Iraq, reports the South China Morning Post.

Malaysia’s Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Monday that he was told to “keep an eye on the development in Iraq and Syria because we are worried that ISIS fighters might come here and it won’t be a small number.” Malaysia experienced its first ISIS-linked attack in June, when a pro-ISIS fighter tossed a live grenade into a bar, injuring eight people.

The Soufan Group estimates that there may be as many as 700 Indonesians and 100 Malaysians fighting alongside ISIS. There may also be a decent-sized Filipino force in the region as well.

If the Middle Eastern caliphate falls, the jihadis are likely to seek out new sanctuaries elsewhere. Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are ideal choices. These countries are already home to pro-ISIS groups and fighters.

ISIS reportedly has a Southeast Asian affiliate called the Katibah Nusantara. It is said to be lead by Muhammad Buhrun Naim, the man who masterminded the first ISIS-linked attack in Southeast Asia, an assault on a commercial district in Jakarta.

There is a growing fear that returning ISIS fighters will carry out attacks, as well as radicalize a new generation of jihadis.

Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said last year that the foreign fighter issue will be a “threat for decades.”

“I think this is going to be an imminent threat,” University of Indonesia counterterrorism expert Ridlwan Habib told the SCMP. “When the fighters return to countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, they will build a kind of alumni network, like the fighters from Afghanistan nearly two decades ago,” he added.

“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,” 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.

The fall of Mosul and the potential for foreign fighters to disperse to distant lands is likely to have “major security implications for Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Northeast Asia,” argued Singapore-based international terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna. How state leaders and counterterrorism units respond may define security in the region for years to come.

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