Southeast Asian recruits join jihadist ISIS

LATEST FLASHPOINT. Kurdish Peshmerga forces fire missiles during clashes with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria jihadist group in Jalawla in the Diyala province, Iraq, on June 14.

Photo by Rick Findler/AFP

MANILA, Philippines - A little more than a week after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began its march to capture Iraq’s capital, the UN warned Iraq’s crisis is "life-threatening."

This is only the latest flashpoint in a long-evolving, global threat exposed by the 9/11 attacks.

ISIS is the latest reincarnation of fighters from at least 2 al-Qaeda-linked groups that had become so brutal that, at one point, al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri distanced al-Qaeda from them.

The group traces its roots to al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by the ruthless Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who tried to ignite a sectarian war between Sunni and Shiite – and nearly succeeded.

The pullout of US troops in 2011 in Iraq, as well as the power vacuum in Syria, created conditions that one US official called “the Super Bowl of jihad.”

Watch this report below.

More than 12,000 Muslim extremists have travelled to Syria to fight in just 3 years, according to a report by the Soufan Group, a private security company. 

That’s more than the 10,000 estimated to have fought in Afghanistan in the late 80s, the conflict that spawned al-Qaeda.

“That’s why so much of the world is today focused on Iraq,” said US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg, who for 3 years, was Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “And why this has been a very troubling moment as ISIS, which went up into Syria to fight jihad there, are returning to Iraq to their roots with many foreign fighters in tow – including those who may be there from East Asia or other places in the world, including the United States," he told Rappler in an interview on Tuesday, June 17.

The FBI estimated last May that about 70 fighters from the US travelled to fight in Syria, including the first known American suicide bomber from Florida.

Intelligence sources disclosed that about 200 Australians, 50 Indonesians and about 20 Malaysians have gone to fight the jihad in Syria. Singapore said it’s investigating one Singaporean, while a Filipino intelligence source said at least one Filipino linked to Abu Sayyaf has gone to Syria.

Social media targets Indonesia

On June 9, the day ISIS began its march to capture Baghdad, a video of Indonesian men in Syria was posted on YouTube.

In a little more than 11 minutes, hooded men holding their Kalashnikovs, speak in Bahasa Indonesia with snippets of Arabic. They urge their countrymen to join ISIS: “Let us fight in the path of Allah because it is our duty to do jihad in the path of Allah.”

Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population, was the base of Jemaah Islamiyah or JI, once al-Qaeda’s arm in Southeast Asia. Indonesia felt the impact of Afghanistan in annual terrorist attacks from 2002-2005. Most of the 2002 Bali bombers, Asia’s 9/11, were Afghan veterans.

"They work underground even though we hit them hard," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told me. "They have the capability to consolidate, to reorganize, and try to find the opportunity to strike us again. There are many smaller organizations. There are many branches that developed, but actually the mainstream remains. Al-Qaeda is the big brother," Yudhoyono added.

The fear now is that Syria is functioning much like Afghanistan did in the late 80s.

Goldberg explained: “It’s a situation where Syria became a central focal point for these groups and for international jihadists. People just want to get to a fight – some of them not even understanding exactly what it is.”

That includes Southeast Asia and Australia, the countries where cells of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) were discovered after 9/11.

Philippines and involvement of Malaysians

On Friday, June 13, Malaysian police arrested 3 Malaysians, including a Royal Malaysian Navy officer, in an operation led by its Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division in Sandakan on the east coast of Sabah.

Police said they were members of a group linked to ISIS in Iraq and the Abu Sayyaf, a notorious group in the southern Philippines that has swung back and forth from its al-Qaeda roots to crime.

Malaysian authorities said they have arrested 15 other members of the same group since April 28.

The men, according to a Special Branch source, were planning to fight in Syria and then “launch suicide bombings in Iraq.”

They allegedly trained in the southern Philippines, where Southeast Asia's most wanted, JI leaders Malaysian Marwan and Singaporean Muawiyah, have found shelter and continue to train fighters.  

Intelligence sources in the Philippines told Rappler that may well be true. Although curtailed significantly in the past decade and dampened by a signed peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, once JI's main partner in the Philippines, training still continues.

The more extremist BIFF, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), continues to train and shelter members of JI, a charge the group denies.

Last week, the Philippine military and police wounded bomb-maker Abdul Basit Usman, a main link between JI and the Abu Sayyaf. He carries a $1 million reward for his capture under the US Rewards for Justice program.

Ground commander Lt. Col. Donald Hongitan said troops located a JI explosives manufacturing facility.

“During the raid Usman was there. He was wounded as per report from our operating troops in the field,” he said, adding that “This proves BIFF is not only coddling Jemaah Islamiyah but it seems they have strong ties.”

Although rarely publicly acknowledged, that has never been disputed.  The ties are traced and documented in my book, "From Bin Laden to Facebook."

On Saturday, June 14, The Star of Malaysia reported 27 year old Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki became “Malaysia’s first suicide bomber,” driving a military SUV full of tons of explosives into SWAT headquarters in al-Anbar on May 26. He killed 25 elite Iraq soldiers shortly before an ISIS attack.

On Sunday, June 15, members of Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) marched around and disrupted street musicians in the Indonesian city of Solo, waving ISIS flags and proudly displaying ISIS symbols. 

New generation of terrorists

“JAT is the new camouflage of JI,” Ansyaad Mbai, the chief of Indonesia’s National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT) told me. “It has the same leader, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, and most of the key figures of JAT are also JI so I call this the new jacket of JI.”

Like al-Qaeda, JI’s top and middle leadership has been degraded – arrested or killed by law enforcement.  The cells, however, remained and have mutated.

The first Indonesian jihadist to die in Syria, for example, went to school in the notorious Pondok Ngruki, founded by JI (now JAT) leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the school of many of the Bali 2002 bombers.

At least 16 out of 26 of the 2002 Bali bombers either attended or were associated with one of three JI-linked schools: Al-Mukmin in Pondok Ngruki, Lukmanul Hakim in Malaysia, and Al-Islam in East Java.  Association with Lukmanul Hakim "increases the probability by more than 23% that a jihadi will play a major role in an attack."

The names may change, but the social networks and virulent ideology remain the same.

The fear is that fighters from Syria – like the Bali bombers – will return home and carry out attacks using tactics they honed in battle. So far, there's only been one known instance of this happening: 3 weeks ago, a French-Algerian who had fought a year with ISIS in Syria was arrested for a deadly attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

"We were very concerned when we saw a video of an American who ended up in Syria and was involved in a suicide bombing," said Goldberg. "These are issues of concern because the same people who go in, if they're from European or American background can travel more easily if they're not identified or known.  So this has stirred quite a bit of concern in all corners, not just in Washington but around the world."

If history repeats itself, according to the Soufan report, then “the Syrian war is likely to be an incubator for a new generation of terrorists.” - Rappler.com

Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 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 and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.

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