The returning jihad: ISIL in Southeast Asia

As ISIL loses territory in Iraq and Syria, the nature of the threat in Southeast Asia is set to change.

Malaysians take part in a demonstration demanding to end the indiscriminate killings, the oppression, and the ''Zionist imperialism'' [Getty]
Malaysians take part in a demonstration demanding an end to indiscriminate killings, oppression and 'Zionist imperialism' [Getty]

Until recently much of the violence caused by extremists in Southeast Asia has been as much about local conditions as Islamist ideology. The return of local jihadists from the Middle East threatens to change this.

As the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group continues to lose territory as it battles on all fronts in Iraq and Syria, so the nature of the threat in Southeast Asia is set to change.

Evidence of this came last week when Malay police, investigating a hand-grenade attack on a bar on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, announced that ISIL (also known as ISIS) had carried out their first successful attack in the country.

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Malaysia’s chief of police, Inspector-General Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, confirmed that the attack had been carried out by locals under the direct command of a Malay national based and fighting in Syria.

Simplistic nature

Despite its simplistic nature – police initially dismissed it as a dispute between business rivals – it serves to highlight the threat ISIL poses to the wider region.

While the figures are not exact, it is thought that about 1,000 individuals have travelled from Southeast Asia to join ISIL, with the majority coming from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

READ MORE: A very secular jihad

Such sizeable contributions have allowed for the formation of regional groupings, such as the Malay-speaking Katibah Nusantara (Malay Archipelago Combat Unit).

While the figures are not exact, it is thought that about 1,000 individuals have travelled from Southeast Asia to join ISIL, with the majority coming from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.


Similarly, individual volunteers have also taken part in high-profile attacks, including two Malay suicide bombers who killed up to 30 people in separate incidents in Iraq and Syria earlier this year.

While these numbers need to be seen in context – 6,000 volunteers have been drawn from Tunisia’s population of 11 million, while only hundreds have come from Indonesia’s Muslim population of 217 million – they still demonstrate the ability of ISIL to attract foreign adherents even at the expense of other long-established Islamist militant groups closer to home.

Violent Islamist groups have long played a small but important part in the political landscape of Southeast Asia. Often originating out of former anti-colonial or separatist movements as their individual fortunes waxed and waned, so too has the threat level they pose changed accordingly. 

Their arrival on the world stage, however, really came when the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah carried out the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings which killed 202 people.

Numerous other groups

Although Jemaah Islamiyah’s capabilities have since been eroded, particularly by the actions of Indonesia’s anti-terrorism unit Detachment-88, there remain numerous other groups across the region.


Inevitably, given their number, their stated ideologies are as complex as the affiliations that link them. Yet some 30 have now pledged allegiance to ISIL, including the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf group, which carried out the world’s deadliest terrorist attack at sea when it bombed the SuperFerry 14 in 2004, killing 116.

What this oath of allegiance – or bayat – actually entails remains unclear. Previously, groups that pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda did so with the understanding that they would receive funding and some form of training in exchange for a degree of strategic control. 

Yet while ISIL may aspire to claim control over a regional province, much like they do through Boko Haram in Nigeria, their newly found local adherents’ motives are probably more self-interested.

READ MORE: ISIL’s grand plan in Asia

For some of the groups this oath of allegiance may be little more than a means of generating publicity and an enhanced aura of fear about their activities. This may be of particular value to groups such as Abu Sayyaf, which are looking to give a veneer of legitimacy to their criminal activities as well as bolster the ransom demands for their many hostages.

However, even if those groups declaring allegiance to ISIL may not be committed to its regional aspirations there is no reason to suggest that those volunteers who left to fight in Syria are not.

Hardened and radicalised

Just as many of the foreigners who went to fight against the Russians in Afghanistan during the 1980s returned home trained, hardened and radicalised, so too do regional governments in Southeast Asia fear the return of their own nationals from Syria. 

Although it is by no means certain that those returnees would wish to continue the fight, even if only a handful are able to link up with and radicalise indigenous extremist groups, then events such as last week’s hand-grenade attack, or January’s ISIL-inspired shooting in Jakarta, will become far more likely. 

Similarly, their arrival may also herald a shift in tactics with an increase in the use of suicide attacks or the targeting of Shia Muslims.

While regional governments no doubt welcome ISIL’s recent setbacks in its home territory of Iraq and Syria, so too are they fearful of the ensuing local implications. Success in one theatre of the campaign could be about to bring the threat much closer to home.

Crispian Cuss is a former British Army officer who lives and works in Southeast Asia. He currently acts as a defence and security consultant.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.