As the Islamic State group, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, continues its armed campaign in Iraq and Syria, its notoriety is drawing fans and fighters from as far as Asia and the Pacific.
Authorities and experts have warned that the growing popularity of the armed group in the Far East, driven in part by social media, could pose a long-term security threat to a region that has already been battling home-grown armed groups for decades.
“The security threat from Muslims travelling to fight in the Levant is already with us,” said Rodger Shanahan, national security and Middle East expert at the Australian National University.
“The longer term threat will come from the linkages that these fighters establish with disparate groups,” he told Al Jazeera. “In the future, we may see the existence of another global jihadist network of people who made connections in Syria and Iraq.”
Veryan Khan, editorial director of Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), told Al Jazeera that there are already some 500 fighters from the Asia Pacific region in the Middle East.
On July 11, Philippine and Australian police arrested Robert “Musa” Cerantonio, a former Catholic of Irish-Italian background who converted to Islam at 17. The Melbourne native is accused of trying to incite Muslim men in the Philippines to fight in the Middle East.
The 29-year-old man reportedly visited the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where most of the country’s 10.3 million Muslim population live. Mindanao is home to the al-Qaeda affiliate Abu Sayyaf Group, which has been involved in bloody attacks and kidnappings in the Philippines and Malaysia.
‘New skills and extremist outlooks’
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appeared to dismiss Cerantonio, calling him a “fraud” for claiming on Twitter that he had arrived in Syria, when he was in fact holed up in the Philippines.
|Cerantonio has over 6,700 followers on Twitter, and several videos on YouTube [Video screen grab/Al Jazeera]|
But his tweets were enough for Australian authorities to pursue him in the central Philippine island of Cebu. In one tweet posted in June he declared, “May we be loyal soldiers of the Islamic State until we return to our Lord.”
Following Cerantonio’s arrest, Bishop vowed to stop her countrymen from fighting abroad, becoming “radicalised” and then returning home with “new skills and extremist outlooks”.
What is worrying for authorities is that Cerantonio’s arrest may have, for some, burnished his “credibility” on social media.
Described by the Guardian as the third most “liked” person online among “western jihadists in Syria”, Cerantonio’s Twitter account, emblazoned with an Islamic State banner, has thousands of followers. A Facebook page created after his arrest has already gained almost 3,000 “likes”; his previous page was shut down by Facebook for allegedly abetting violence.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has discovered video clips posted to YouTube of armed men, their faces covered, speaking in Filipino and Arabic pledging allegiance before a flag used by the Islamic State group. So far, no known local armed rebel has been identified as their leader.
In another video, dozens of Filipino prisoners, also speaking in the local language and Arabic, gathered in a jail hall, shouting slogans in front of a black flag with white lettering and vowing loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group.
It is not known how many Filipinos have joined the fight in Iraq and Syria. Filipinos fought alongside other Southeast Asian fighters in the 1979-89 Afghan war against Russia – and when that war ended, they returned home to organise the Abu Sayyaf Group in Mindanao. Their Indonesian counterparts founded the Jemaah Islamiyah, which was later linked to the Bali bombing in 2002.
Studying the tactics used by the new generation of armed fighters, TRAC security expert Veryan Khan said that they are trying to “consolidate” their support using social media.
In its latest report published on July 16, the TRAC research organisation concluded that the Islamic State group “seems to have won the vote of the young jihadists, the generation that will determine the future of jihadist terrorist organisations”.
Southeast Asian fighters
Southeast Asian men are already fighting in the Middle East, according to Nor Asizan Bin Idris, a professor on national security at the National University of Malaysia.
“For now, they are focused on fighting in the Middle East, but in the future they could target Asia,” he told Al Jazeera.
Channel News Asia has identified one Islamic Group recruit as 26-year-old Malaysian Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, who reportedly drove a military vehicle carrying explosives into Iraq’s special forces headquarters in Anbar province, killing 25 soldiers and himself on May 26.
For now, they are focused on fighting in the Middle East, but in the future they could target Asia.
In recent months, the Malaysia Royal Police have arrested 15 men for their alleged links to the Islamic State group. One of the suspects was a 30-year-old naval officer who had been in service for 10 years.
In Singapore, the country’s deputy prime minister, Teo Chee Hean, told parliament just last week that a handful of Singaporeans had gone to fight in Syria, adding: “The presence of former foreign fighters in our region – whether they originate from Southeast Asia or elsewhere – is a security threat to us.”
One was identified as Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, a naturalised citizen, who left his wife and three children for Syria. Another is a Singaporean woman who joined her husband and two teenage children. Several others were stopped before leaving.
Meanwhile in Indonesia, a prominent preacher serving a 15-year prison sentence at a maximum security facility near Java has also reportedly urged his followers to fight alongside the Islamic State group.
According to the Jakarta Post, Abu Bakar Bashir sent his message of support through the leader of the Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid, a group designated a terrorist organisation by the US. His group has reportedly continued to raise funds to send fighters abroad.
There are at least 50 known Indonesian armed men who have joined the Islamic State group. One 19-year-old fighter identified by Jakarta Post as Wildan Mukahallad, who previously fought in Syria, died in a suicide attack in Baghdad.
“The seeds of quite a few security issues are being sown in Syria and Iraq at the moment,” Shanahan, of Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy,said.
Back in the Philippines, the Australian national, Cerantonio, will reportedly be deported in the coming days.
Since his arrest, Cerantonio has refused to speak to authorities. But his Filipino girlfriend, who had been living with him, told local reporters that he is innocent, adding he “can’t even kill an ant”.
Follow Ted Regencia on Twitter: @tedregencia