Islamic State has its eyes on South and Southeast Asia. The threat is long-term, but should not be ignored.
The Islamic Caliphate is no longer virtual reality; it’s a tangible experience. Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) has the basic essentials that make it a serious threat. It has territory, it has the military capability to hold on to its territory, and it has a system of governance, however demented it may be. Of course, its barely contested march has now been stalled by air strikes, the recapture of the Baiji refinery has been hailed by Iraqis as a changing of the tide, and the Peshmerga are gradually coming into their own at Kobani. Still, with the exception of Baiji, there has as yet there has been no substantial reversal of the gains that the Islamic state has made.
The caliphate’s leadership is ambitious, ruthless and singularly focused on spreading its distorted vision of political Islam. Al-Qaeda, for decades the beacon for Islamists, has taken a different approach to jihad, with a strategy that has involved widely dispersed cells that provided ideological guidance, arranged funding, training and administrative support while allowing local jihadi leaderships to marshal the men for operations. In contrast, Islamic State – which has split from al-Qaeda, creating a schism in the global jihad – raises its own forces, selects its own objectives, funds its own operations, and controls execution. While Al-Qaeda’s methods drew strength from covert operations, the operations of Islamic State are akin to a conventional battlefield.
Al-Qaeda has also not employed violence as extensively as Islamic State has done. Islamic State clearly has no reservations on that score. It has regularly posted grisly decapitation clips to the Web. It has provided captured women to its rank and file. It has proposed that the enslavement of prisoners would be within the tenets of its faith. It has stoned women to death for sex outside marriage. It has, in short, engaged in an endless litany of cruelty.
An ambitious leader like Abu Baku al-Baghdadi can hardly be expected to limit the caliphate’s geographical ambitions to parts of Syria and Iraq. An Islamic State map of the caliphate covers North Africa and extends through West Asia, south of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea to stretch across the Central Asian republics, the entire Indian sub-continent and beyond to Malaysia and Indonesia. South and Southeast Asia offer the Islamic State many choices, made more appealing by the fact that some of these countries already have their own homegrown Islamist insurgent movements and terror groups.
Although Islamic State’s ultimate aspirations are unrealistic, some of its targets in Asia are vulnerable, most notably that cradle and crucible of terrorism on the continent, Pakistan. Bordering Afghanistan, where terrorist violence is already resurgent with NATO thinning out, Pakistan is a promising base for Islamic State in South Asia. It also offers a huge bonanza that Islamist movements would willingly bleed for: nuclear weapons.
Although Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are guarded by a professional army, the degree to which the Pakistan Army itself has been radicalized is not easily quantifiable. After all, this is the same Army that sends its officers for tenures in the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Whether these officers return to the army with or without any radical leanings is anyone’s guess.
Pakistan-based terror groups seem to be leaning more and more towards Islamic State. Tehrik-e-Taliban, Pakistan (TTP) is a fractured entity today. More and more of its members are openly declaring their allegiance to Islamic State. The recluse Taliban supremo, Mullah Omar, and the staid al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Jawahri are losing ground.
Afghanistan also offers fertile ground for terror. The Afghanistan Taliban shares with Islamic State a strategic approach in which both prefer control and domination of territory as the prime objective. However, the Afghanistan Taliban would like to retain its primacy in Afghanistan. It may not want to be an Islamic State surrogate. Its long association with al-Qaeda is another obstacle.
Afghanistan also offers contiguity with Iran, a Shia nation. With its virulent anti-Shia bias, Islamic State would obviously see Afghanistan as an attracting base for launching attacks. But of course Iran could conversely play a greater role in halting the Islamic State surge; the success of the nuclear deal being a pivotal issue.
Bangladesh has been fighting terrorism vigorously for some time. It is unlikely that Islamic State will find purchase there. Similarly, Myanmar is unlikely to be hospitable. The regime’s handling of its Rohingiya minority reflects its stance, and other insurgent groups in Myanmar are unlikely to provide support to a group that is both culturally and religiously alien.
Further east lies Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population in the world, with a history of terror groups trying to expand their presence and a state apparatus that has fought them relentlessly. Sizeable numbers of Indonesian youth have gone to join the Islamic State. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Indonesia in October 2014 and emphasized the steps to be taken to ensure Islamic State does not draw fighters and funds from the region.
Malaysia, with its history of insurgencies, would also be on Islamic State’s radar. In August 2014, Malaysian police arrested 19 suspects on charges of plotting multiple attacks. Their vision was a Southeast Asian caliphate to include Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. There are reports of Malaysian youth joining the Islamic State and even a few women travelling to Syria to serve as comfort women. While Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has denounced the movement, the undercurrent of sympathy for the terrorist outfit is certainly there.
As for India, it is home to the world’s third largest Muslim population. Kashmir has long been a festering issue. Although Indian forces have effectively broken the back of terrorist groups in Kashmir, these groups enjoy cross-border patronage, funding and support from Pakistan. With TTP displaying signs of another split there are distinct possibilities of sub-groups ready to provide a base in Pakistan for Islamic State to ultimately launch operations in India. To do that, however, the Islamic State will need to have arrangements with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the favored terror group of the ISI. Indian groups like Students Islamic Movement of India and Indian Mujahideen would surely offer support for Islamic State.
Every state in South and Southeast Asia with terror movements, either simmering or operational, is at risk of an upsurge in terrorist activity. Even the Uyghurs in China could find inspiration. Though Islamic State does not have the wherewithal to be expanding its operations so early, it would be unwise to ignore the potential threat.
The longer Islamic State is able to maintain its caliphate and fly its flag, the more acute the threat becomes. The flag inspires radicals to arms and spreads the message that ruthless violence is the most effective method for spreading the caliphate’s ideology and territory.
One important steps Asian countries could take to stymie the ambitions of Islamic State is to share intelligence. Regional governments must also come down heavily on the narcotics trade, which continues in the region and finances terror organizations.
It’s time for West Asian donor regimes that have for decades funded the growth of radical Islam to realize that their own survival is at risk. For some high net-worth people in these countries, funding political Islam is a combination of sport and atonement for having deviated from their own religious tenets. Large numbers of jihadi commanders meet with these billionaires and leave with millions of dollars to spread instability well beyond the Gulf. With Islamic State now at their gates, couple with American pressure, perhaps these financiers might be willing to scale back their funding.
Extreme poverty fans radicalism. The denial of basic human rights, disastrous economic conditions, and deprivation help to convert young people into radicals and terrorists. States will have to address such issues as the corruption that blocks government spending from reaching the targeted populace.
The most likely point of entry for the Islamic State into South and Southeast Asia is Pakistan, a nation already enflamed. The leading Pakistan newspaper Dawn recently published an editorial, “Miss the warning signs now, or fail to deny it space within Pakistan, ….” Space beyond Pakistan, too.
There is also a rationale for imposing sanctions on states that export terror or fund the growth of radicalism and intolerance. Until and unless the free world buries its differences and nations work together as partners in the quest to defeat radical Islamists then the fight against terrorism will only be at best a matter of shifting battlefields, without ever truly defeating radicalization and terror globally.
SK Chatterji is a Brigadier (Retired) of the Indian Army. He writes on national defense and international security.