Jakarta terror attacks: Will parts of Southeast Asia become ISIS’ satellite cities?

By Song Ningyu and Nadiya, Initium Media 

The terror attacks in Jakarta earlier this month have returned ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups to the forefront of world attention. The bloody strike in the capital’s downtown district on Jan. 14 left eight dead, including four civilians and four militants. 

Indonesian police say they received warning of the ISIS attack as far back as November. Anton Charliyan, a police spokesman, said the warning indicated the danger of a concerted terror attack on Indonesian soil.

Not long ago, the Indonesian security forces initiated a nationwide investigation and arrested a militant known as Santoso, He headed an extremist group that pledged loyalty to ISIS. He was collared along with several ISIS supporters who were planning local terror strikes.

However, looking around in Southeast Asia, Santoso was only one of a large number of “overseas jihadists” that had pledged loyalty to ISIS. Indonesia alone houses at least seven Islamist extremist groups that support ISIS. The largest regional terror groups are detailed in the map below: 

Islamic Militant Group in Southeast Asia

Notes: 1. Jemaah Islamiyah is one of the most influential Southeast Asian Islamist terrorist group, which is dedicated to the establishment of a Daulah Islamiyah (regional Islamic caliphate) in Southeast Asia. 2. Laskar Jihad is an Islamist and anti – Christian Indonesian militia which has more than 10,000 members. 3. Islamic Defenders Front was founded in 1998, with its members all over 22 Indonesian provinces. The majority of its leadership are of Arabic descent. 4. Abu Sayyaf is a small and violent group based in Philippines. It aims at regional independence. 5. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is the biggest terrorist group in Philippines. It has more than 35,000 members and is funded by Islamic extremist groups in Malaysia, Pakistan and Middle East.

Some analysts suggest that ISIS wants to establish satellite cities in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, which houses the world’s largest Muslim population.

Security forces and bodies in downtown Jakarta terror attacks

Security forces and bodies in downtown Jakarta terror attacks

Right now ISIS has not created branches in Southeast Asian countries, where there is a large Muslim population. Only a few hundred fighters from Southeast Asia have made their way to areas in Syria and Iraq that are now under ISIS’ control.

Nonetheless, ISIS has crafted a beneficial recruitment strategy in the region, especially in Indonesia. They cooperate with local extremist groups to recruit and train fighters, and then send them to Syria or Iraq, or keep them on call in the region.

Since local terror groups are very adept at mobilizing their forces, some worry that ISIS-trained fighters from Southeast Asia will return from the Middle East to organize extremist supporters in the region. This will allow them to mobilize large numbers of fighters to launch attacks.

New Southeast Asian terror front?

A report from USAID says that ISIS is yet to pose a significant security threat in Southeast Asia. But once ISIS loses momentum in Middle East (as appears to be the case), it could easily turn to Southeast Asia and the aforementioned countries to create a new front for its terror activities.

The most likely situation at this time is that some ISIS-trained extremists will be unable to reach the Middle East due to stepped up border security in that region. Stuck nearer to home, they could then carry out attacks on local governments, foreigners and civilians.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, recently issued a series of recordings, in the newest of which he claimed that jihadists in Southeast Asia were ready for revival.

It now seems that the world’s two main terror groups — ISIS and al-Qaeda — have come to the same conclusion that Southeast Asia is a key strategic region, and this region could well become  the next front line in the fight against global terror.

This article was first published in Chinese on Jan. 14, 2015 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.

Translated for Asia Times by Jiawen Guo.

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