Q&A: ISIS in Southeast Asia

Maria A. Ressa

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Q&A: ISIS in Southeast Asia


'Al-Qaeda is a kindergarten group compared to ISIS,' and it has a 'significant and growing presence in Southeast Asia,' says Gunaratna.


ISIS, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, also known as IS, Da’esch (a loose Arab acronym), or ISIL, is the latest and most virulent reincarnation of what I called the jihadi virus in From Bin Laden to Facebook, which I wrote in 2011 foretelling its evolution on social media. The same virulent ideology behind al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks has only grown more violent. ISIS’ recruitment efforts on social media is targeting the world’s youth – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – in one of the most sophisticated campaigns globally.

 In May this year, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Southeast Asia is a key recruitment center for ISIS,” including more than 500 Indonesians and dozens of Malaysians like Malaysia’s first suicide bomber and members who have been featured in ISIS beheading videos.  Their numbers are low largely because or proactive policies from regional security forces, who dealt with the threat of returning Afghan veterans in the 1990s who became core members of Jemaah Islamiyah, once al-Qaeda’s arm in Southeast Asia.

“ISIS has so many Indonesian and Malaysia fighters that they form a unit by themselves,” added Lee.  It’s a company of Bahasa-speaking Southeast Asians within ISIS called Katibah Nusantara, what Lee called the Malay Archipelago Combat Unit.  It’s something, analysts say, that requires government and public attention because it could exploit fault lines for recruitment and violence within our societies.  

For the Philippines, the potential failure of the Bangsamoro Law to pass Congress could trigger negative ripples that may create another safe haven for terrorists, much like what happened with Jemaah Islamiyah in the 1990s.

While history can provide some lessons, the threat today moves at a faster pace. Earlier this year, the US estimated at least 20,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS in a little more than 3 years, far more than the 10,000 who fought in Afghanistan in a decade of conflict that spawned al-Qaeda.

“This terrorist threat has no precedent,” said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. “It is new, and the terrorism that we confront today is very diffused and is everywhere, and recruit people who are born and grew up among us.”

Rohan Gunaratna chronicled the rise of al-Qaeda in his seminal 2002 book, Inside Al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror.  Shortly after that, he moved to Singapore and helped create the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research within the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University. 

Here’s the full transcript of my interview with Gunaratna:

MARIA RESSA: Could you tell us the state of ISIS in Southeast Asia?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: ISIS presents unprecedented global threat, ISIS is a hyper-powered organization. We have not seen a group of the scale and magnitude of ISIS. Certainly, ISIS has very significant and a growing presence in Southeast Asia. There are 22 groups that have pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or expressed support to ISIS currently operating in Southeast Asia. Many of the groups in Malaysia have been dismantled, but the groups in the Philippines and Indonesia are active and it is these groups that are disseminating the propaganda and facilitating the travel of Southeast Asian Muslims to the co-area of Iraq and Syria.

MARIA RESSA: And how are authorities dealing with this?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: Govts have uneven response, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia have responded decisively; the Indonesian legislation is problematic. In the case of the Philippines, government needs added capability to be more decisive to dismantle their domestic including those groups with links to ISIS.

MARIA RESSA: We don’t have any evidence Filipinos have traveled to Syria (and Iraq), is that correct, why?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: At this point, there is no information – both in the open source and classified literature – that Filipinos have traveled to Syria and Iraq. Certainly Filipinos have tried to travel and some have been arrested, but at this point there is no verifiable information that Filipinos are participating in the conflict in Syria and Iraq. This may change because there are a lot of propaganda and there are financiers, ideologues, who are emerging in Southeast Asia including the Philippines linked to ISIS.

MARIA RESSA: Should authorities pay attention to it?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: Governments must contain eliminate and isolate the ISIS influence in Southeast Asia to prevent ISIS declaring a vilayat* or a province either in the Philippines or in Indonesia.

Note: A wilayah in Arabic, velâyat in Persian, vilayet in Turkish or vilayat in Urdu, is an administrative division, usually translated as “province”

MARIA RESSA: Is the Philippines vulnerable?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: Yes the Philippines remains vulnerable because there are 3 groups close to ISIS ideologically although we have not yet seen operational links between those groups. Its a question of time if these groups are allowed to persist and if these links are not broken such relationships will be established. The same way MILF built a relationship with Al Qaeda, and subsequently Abu Sayyaf Group built a relationship with Al Qaeda.

MARIA RESSA: What happens if the Bangsamoro Law fails to pass?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: I believe that Philippine government must go out of their way to resolve this conflict to give whatever they can within certain limits to ensure that majority communities also meet the process to devolve out, but it is crucial, essential, for the growth and stability of the Philippines it accommodate the Moros that have joined the peace process.

MARIA RESSA: In Indonesia, how would you describe the threat today?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: Threat is very serious in Indonesia, ISIS is sprinting; government is crawling. There must be extraordinary leadership and will on the part of government to fight ISIS. ISIS is spreading like a cancer in the region including in Indonesia. Indonesia remains the heart of ISIS-linked groups at this point.

MARIA RESSA: The impression I get from what the Malaysians have done is that it has spread faster in Malaysia but they have been able to break up the groups. How would you describe the threat in Malaysia?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: Malaysian Special Branch is a highly capable group, although the ISA (Internal Security Act) was repealed, which was a huge mistake.  The Malaysian police have been able to detect and disrupt ISIS operations, including operations to kidnap their political leaders to conduct terrorist attacks, but certainly the Special Branch needs all the assistance to fight this threat. The Malaysian model for fighting terrorism is a very impressive one, but again it was a monumental mistake on the part of the political leadership of Malaysia to repeal the ISA. Without preventive detention, it is very difficult for any government in the world to fight terrorism today.

MARIA RESSA: In terms of how it has evolved from the threat that was Al Qaeda to this today, what’s the connection? Are there any connections? How do you see this threat having moved?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: Al Qaeda is a kindergarten group compared to ISIS. ISIS is a very powerful terrorist group. Al Qaeda at its peak had about 2,500 members but only about 400-600 active combatants. In the case of ISIS, they have over 30,000 fighters. ISIS is a super-power terrorist group and to dismantle ISIS, the international community needs to work together. Current and military, diplomatic and political, economic and informational measures by governments have not been successful to curb and curtail ISIS. ISIS should be contained and isolated and eliminated because ISIS presents a very long term strategic threat to governments worldwide especially in the Middle East and also Muslim governments, Muslim countries, Muslim populations in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

MARIA RESSA: Is this an evolution of Al Qaeda or a completely different group?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: ISIS originated from Al Qaeda, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from Zarqa in Jordan traveled with his mentor Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi to Afghanistan in the late 1990s. He received funding from Bin Laden and he created his own training camp – the Al Matar training camp in Herat. His own group evolved from al Tawhid Wal Jihad to Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Al Qaeda in Iraq evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq, and of course after Zarqawi’s death, it evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and now into the Islamic Caliphate State or Islamic State. There’s no fundamental difference between ISIS and Al Qaeda, but ISIS is more permissive, but their ideology and genesis are the same.

MARIA RESSA: In terms of Southeast Asia and Jemaah Islamiyah, how do you see them connecting?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: Jemaah Islamiyah has split because traditionally JI swore its allegiance and had most links to Al Qaeda. One part of JI is with ISIS, the other part is opposing ISIS. But certainly if either Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Ayman al-Zawahiri are killed, the Al Qaeda and ISIS will merge – that means the two world’s most dangerous terrorist groups will come together. That means these two groups will then pose a very serious threat to international security.

MARIA RESSA: Last question: how would you gauge the US response to ISIS so far?

ROHAN GUNARATNA: US has appointed a very able commander, General John Allen, to lead the coalition, but without boots on the ground it is impossible to disintegrate ISIS.

It is paramount for there to be greater will on the part of the western nations that have the world’s finest armies to work together with their Middle Eastern counterparts and also other countries to dismantle ISIS.

ISIS is not only a Middle Eastern group – it’s a global threat. The world must come together to fight ISIS. – Rappler.com

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Maria Ressa


Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than 37 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia, From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism, and How to Stand up to a Dictator.