Southeast Asian countries fighting the influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) armed group in the region lauded the killing of its leader but said security forces were preparing for a long battle to thwart the armed group’s ideology.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia – home to some of Asia’s most organised fighters – said on Monday they were braced for retaliation by ISIL loyalists, including “lone wolf” attacks by locals radicalised by the group’s powerful online propaganda.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself in a tunnel in northwest Syria by detonating a suicide vest as US forces closed in, according to US President Donald Trump.
Though his death will unsettle ISIL, it remains capable and dangerous, said Delfin Lorenzana, defence secretary of the Philippines, where the group’s influence has taken hold among unschooled Muslim youth in its troubled Mindanao region.
“This is a blow to the organisation considering al-Baghdadi’s stature as a leader. But this is just a momentary setback considering the depth and reach of the organisation worldwide,” Lorenzana said. “Somebody will take his place.”
Southeast Asia has long been an important focus for ISIL, which has inspired fighters in West Africa, across the Middle East and Asia, through to Indonesia and the Philippines.
The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are concerned ISIL supporters from the region and those fleeing Iraq and Syria could exploit the porous borders, lawlessness, and abundant arms found in Mindanao to take refuge in its far-flung villages.
ISIL has claimed responsibility for four suicide bombings since July last year in the Philippines, which fought its toughest battle since World War II in 2017 when fighters seeking to establish an “Islamic state” laid siege to Marawi City and occupied it through five months of air-and-ground assaults.
Fighters from at least seven countries took part, including Malaysia, which remains on high alert and has arrested 400 people suspected of links to armed groups.
Malaysian police counterterrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said the real concern was not ISIL’s leadership but the effect of its teachings.
“It’s good news, but his death will have little impact here as the main problem remains the spread of the Islamic State ideology,” he said.
“What we are most worried about now are ‘lone wolf’ attacks and those who are self-radicalised through the internet. We are still seeing the spread of IS teachings online. IS publications and magazines from years ago are being reproduced and re-shared,” he said.
Chatrooms in messaging applications such as Telegram showed defiant messages about al-Baghdadi’s death, according to a researcher who monitors activity by ISIL sympathisers.
“God Willing, whatever happens, Islamic jihad will not rely on any one individual, but will always stand tall on the orders of God and His Prophet,” read one posting under the handle Ansurul Ummah.
Another participant, Abu Abdullah Asy Syami, posted: “Jihad will never stop, even if our own caliph dies.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a similar observation, and said al-Baghdadi’s death was by no means the end.
“This is a many-headed monster… As you cut one off another one inevitably arises,” he told reporters.
Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, is grappling with a resurgence in militancy and has detained hundreds of suspects this year under tightened anti-terrorism laws.
Authorities believe thousands of Indonesians draw inspiration from ISIL and about 500 are thought to have joined the group in Syria.
Indonesia’s intelligence agency said it was ready for retaliation and though al-Baghdadi’s death would be a psychological blow, ISIL would have a successor in place.
“It is a war. Usually, there must be a counterattack or the like. When it comes to security, we are sure that we will secure this country,” said spokesman Wawan Purwanto.
Security analyst Rommel Banlaoi said al-Baghdadi’s demise and uncertainty about the leadership could undermine operations of ISIL loyalists seeking to regroup and establish their own territory in Southeast Asia.
“Pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines will surely re-examine their roles in the post-Baghdadi era,” he said.