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A ISIS Caliphate in South East Asia? An analysis

Is it plausible for ISIS to establish a new caliphate in the Southeast Asian region?. While the number of terrorist-related incidents has decreased over the years, the threat remains significant for ASEAN member states. These countries are already grappling with various regional security challenges, including the political turmoil in Myanmar, insurgency in Southern Thailand, growing radicalisation, and the South China Sea dispute. Dr. Rahul Mishra and Syaneeza Shaharizal comment.

In March 2019, the world witnessed a significant turning point in the battle against terrorism as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) saw its self-declared caliphate in Baghouz, Syria, crumble. This marked a decisive blow to the infamous terrorist organisation, with its top leaders, including Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi, meeting their end in elite counter-terror operations orchestrated by US and Iraqi forces in Idlib, Syria.

In contrast to Al-Qaeda, whose aim is to reunify the global Islamic community (the Ummah), ISIS had a different agenda. It sought to establish a territorial caliphate as the epicentre of its power, intending to serve as a hub for the so-called ‘purification’ of Islam. Its ultimate objective was global expansion.

Following their defeat in Syria, many foreign fighters who had joined the ranks of ISIS returned to their home countries, including in Southeast Asia. This region, especially in the Malay Archipelago, encompasses Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, and the southern Philippines and boasts one of the world’s largest Muslim populations.

Soon after their return, videos emerged featuring militants from the Islamic State of East Asia pledging allegiance to the organisation in the Philippines. Subsequently, numerous suicide bombings occurred in the months and years that followed, raising concerns about the potential resurgence of terrorism in Southeast Asia.

This brings us to the looming question of whether it is plausible for ISIS to establish a new caliphate in the Southeast Asian region. While the number of terrorist-related incidents has decreased over the years, the threat remains significant for ASEAN member states. These countries are already grappling with various regional security challenges, including the political turmoil in Myanmar, insurgency in Southern Thailand, growing radicalization, and the South China Sea dispute. The feasibility of an ISIS caliphate in Southeast Asia hinges on several factors, including its influence over the Islamic community in the region and its tactical alignment with the characteristics of an ideal caliphate.

Firstly, it’s crucial to understand why the ISIS network was so fixated on creating a caliphate. This requires comprehension of the caliph’s role as perceived by devout Muslims. The caliph is viewed as a ruler with integrity and authority who implements Sharia Law and the strict teachings of Islam. To wield this power, a caliphate necessitates control over a territory and a compliant community.

For ISIS militants, the historical caliphs of the Ottoman Empire did not meet their criteria because they were not of Quraysh descent—the Arabian clan of the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, when Baghdadi, who was of Quraysh descent, was sworn in as the caliph of the Islamic State, he wasted no time in seeking territory to exert his authority, using religion and ethnocentric tools to create a state-like apparatus to serve his purposes.

Secondly, a caliphate enforces strict Islamic jurisprudence based on Sharia Law, with non-compliance potentially leading to excommunication. This, in theory, may be appealing to devout Muslims, even though the reality on the ground in ISIS-held territory was vastly different.

Third, a caliphate aspires to create a society of devout believers from local and foreign backgrounds, supporting its ideology and goals. ISIS aims to establish a global Islamic state in the long term, actively recruiting new members through physical and online channels, often managed by women who employ social media platforms to attract vulnerable individuals with false jihadist propaganda.

Fourthly, ISIS managed to establish caliphates in disputed regions on the Iraq-Syria border, taking advantage of insurgent groups rising against failed states, foreign interventions, and existing border conflicts involving various ethnic groups along the borders like the Kurds, the endless feuds among different actors provide. These factors provided an enabling environment for the Islamic State troops to feed on.

In Southeast Asia, ISIS-affiliated terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf are not new entities. Despite reduced aggression post-pandemic, local groups like Jemaah Islamiyah maintain strategic organization, operating in separate “Mantiqis” (settlements) across the Malay Archipelago. They engage in various activities, including fundraising, suicide attacks in Indonesia, and serving as training grounds in the east of Malaysia and the Philippines. In each Mantiqi, numerous underground cells operate independently, making them challenging targets for counterterrorism efforts led by ASEAN and its member states.

At a conceptual level, a caliphate in Southeast Asia could be plausible due to the region’s substantial Sunni Muslim population, particularly in Southern Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Southern Thailand. Moreover, a significant number of foreign fighters joined ISIS from this region during its peak recruitment years in 2016-2017 when up to almost 500 Malaysian and Indonesian nationals travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the Katibah Nusantara, creating. This created an existing network for further recruitment.

Additionally, Southeast Asia’s political insecurities, both internal and external, make it vulnerable to increased terrorist and radicalization activities. ISIS can tap into its existing active and dormant networks to recruit more followers. This is exacerbated by the fact that terrorist activities and insurgency are ongoing in disputed areas of the region.

However, creating a caliphate is easier said than done. Firstly, a caliphate requires a caliph, a position that has remained vacant since the death of Abu Zacharia, the emir of the ISIS-Southeast Asian wing, during a Philippine counter-terrorism operation in Marawi island. Additionally, Malaysia and Indonesia, while home to large Muslim populations, do not strictly implement Sharia Law, as they accommodate their pluralistic populations of diverse backgrounds and religions.

Furthermore, even if ISIS-affiliated groups attempt to convince the Muslim population in the region of their manipulative tactics, their methods contradict the normative values of ASEAN and the national cultures of its member states, which emphasize non-aggression and mutual respect, in contrast to ISIS’s claim of being the only legitimate global government.

Lastly, barring Myanmar, ASEAN member states are not failed states; their authorities remain committed to countering terrorism with robust national and regional policies and international cooperation.

While it is reasonable to question the feasibility of a Southeast Asian caliphate, it is premature to definitively claim its infeasibility, especially in light of the ongoing threats posed by IS-linked terrorist groups, particularly in the southern region of the Philippines, notably in Mindanao. Despite significant losses experienced by numerous insurgent groups due to the deaths of their militant forces and leaders in the aftermath of the conclusion of the Marawi siege in 2017, they remain active, with some prominent leaders still operating within the country.

Furthermore, the success of the accord between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government in creating the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) has led to a complex situation. The United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), the newly-formed political party of MILF, faces resistance and a lack of widespread local support.

As the UBJP approaches the 2025 election, failure to secure votes in the upcoming local elections in late October this year could potentially exacerbate hostilities in local communities, rendering the autonomous region vulnerable to possible terrorist attacks from IS-backed groups like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and insurgent groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), who have been opposed to the agreement between MILF and the government from the outset.

Should such a scenario unfold, the efforts between the former insurgent group, MILF, and the Philippine authorities would turn futile, potentially plunging the country into a renewed spiral of terrorism and insecurity.

The terrorist threat remains a contemporary global challenge, particularly in regions like Southeast Asia, where calls for the establishment of caliphates are periodically voiced. Ongoing vigilance and proactive measures by authorities and policymakers are essential to prevent its resurgence in this strategically significant, multi-religious, yet vulnerable region.

Dr Rahul Mishra is the principal investigator of the Indo-Pacific Research and Outreach programme, and coordinator of the European Studies Programme, at Universiti Malaya, Malaysia.

Syaneeza Shaharizal is a project assistant in Indo-Pacific Research and Outreach programme, at Universiti Malaya, Malaysia.