Following fall in Syria, ISIS heading towards South Asia


Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

Islamic State (ISIS) has come to the limelight of the media in the world, particularly South Asia following the April-2019 Easter Sunday jihadist attacks in Sri Lanka. Although there already are alerts issued by the counter-terrorism and counter-militancy organizations in South Asia about the possible ISIS suicide attacks on the Buddhist and Hindu temples in India and Bangladesh, confession by recently arrested ISIS men in Malaysia proves, this jihadist outfit is plotting massive attacks on non-Muslim places of worship during the month of Ramadan.

ISIS plotting massive attacks during Ramadan:

While in Malaysia, four Islamist militants are arrested who belong to Daesh group and were in possession of explosives and planned to attack non-Muslim places of worship during the month of Ramadan; some of the Islamic State (ISIS) contacts in the region already are looking for ‘several’ jihadist suicide attacks during the month of Ramadan. Malaysia has been on high alert since Islamic State’s series of attacks in Indonesia in 2017.

The arrested four suspects are, two Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, an Indonesian and a Malaysian. Country’s national police chief Hamid Bador described them as an “Islamic State” sleeper cell and said they planned to assassinate high-profile individuals and attack Hindu, Christian and Buddhist places of worship.

One of the Rohingya admitted supporting the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militancy group blamed for attacks in Myanmar. The second Rohingya was a 25-year-old laborer who admitted to being militant with ties to Daesh. It may be mentioned here that, Rohingyas are an ethnic minority that have long faced persecution in their Buddhist homeland. There are currently 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Malaysian police are hunting for three more members of the suspected terror cell who planned to attack entertainment outlets in the country.

ISIS may use local controversies:

As part of getting public support, Islamic State (ISIS) may be using local controversies as platforms for its extremist ideology, and this should be the most worrying news for those counter-militancy organizations in the world. As an ISIS attack in South Asia has now become a reality, we need to remain vigilant about ISIS using any of the local issues with the ulterior motive of getting support or sympathy from the majority of the population. In Malaysia we have see, ISIS has engaged Rohingyas into jihadist activities, which clearly proves, ISIS can exploit foreigners as well to advance their notorious goals.

In Malaysia, ISIS will find an advantageous situation in expanding its activities and network because of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is known as the world for his anti-Semitic mindset. Any of the Muslim nations promoting or nourishing anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing would now be amongst the most suitable battle field of Islamic State. In Malaysia, ISIS soon will exploit government’s official policy of anti-Semitism in particular in promoting the concept of Caliphate. Same thing would happen in Indonesia and for sure, Indonesia’s Aceh Province remains most vulnerable to ISIS foothold.

Being a researcher on counter-militancy, I think, there already are dozens of similar ISIS sleeper cells in Malaysia. In this case, the government should proactively resolve racial and religious issues and Craft narratives of unity, harmony and coexistence. Organize more interfaith dialogue as well allocate more financial resources for programs to tackle extremism and terrorism.

Myanmar’s Rohingyas joining ISIS:

Never wanting to miss an opportunity, al Qaeda has used the occasion of renewed violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to release an unofficial call to arms: “The savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers in Arakan by the government of Myanmar under the guise of ‘fighting rebels’,” the statement went, “shall not pass without punishment, and the government of Myanmar shall be made to taste what our Muslim brothers have tasted in Arakan, with the permission of Allah.” The question is who is going to answer that call. Of particular interest to the international community will be the foreign fighters who used to belong to the Islamic State (ISIS) and could now be headed to fight on a new front.

The plight of the Rohingya, an Islamic minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, has evoked strong emotions across the Muslim world. Many countries have protested against the persecution of the community, following a violent crackdown by the Myanmar army that left hundreds dead and sparked an exodus of more than 700,000 people from Rakhine to Bangladesh. But as rights groups urge world leaders to impose sanctions on Myanmar’s military, which is accused of “ethnic cleansing”, a darker danger lies ahead. We need to remember, Rohingya crisis has attracted the attention of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as Muslim militants and hardliners in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Malaysia. This may result in another longstanding conflict in South and South-east Asia, following the recent siege in the southern Philippine city of Marawi by Islamist militants.

Islamic State (ISIS) has routinely, through its online publication Dabiq, claimed that it plans to establish a base in Bangladesh to launch revenge attacks on the Myanmar government over its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya.

Malaysian counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said that ISIS is exploiting the Rohingya crisis to recruit more fighters, particularly from South-east Asia.

There have been several reports in the media stating that a group of Malaysians had travelled to Myanmar, via Bangladesh and Thailand, to take on government troops there.

Malaysian police in Kelantan state, which shares a border with southern Thailand, told news agency Bernama that it has identified more than 100 “rat trails” used for smuggling, and has stepped up patrols there to prevent the illegal entry of Rohingya and “untoward incidents”.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) had called for “jihadists” to travel to Rakhine to fight on behalf of the Rohingya. The FPI has shown that it has the ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people, as seen in the many rallies it led against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese-Christian politician, for insulting Islam in 2017.

Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) spokesman Slamet Maarif was quoted by The Australian newspaper in 2017 as saying that the group is prepared to wage “jihad”, or a holy war, in Myanmar if the need arises. And now, after Myanmar’s failure or unwillingness in resolving the Rohingya crisis and letting the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees return from Bangladesh, most definitely ISIS and other jihadist forces will now opt for resolving the crisis through jihad, which not only pose massive threat to Bangladesh in particular but also to the region and the world.

Islamist militant groups in Indonesia including Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a local terrorist network with ties to ISIS have previously exploited the Rohingya crisis for their cause, notably in 2012 and 2015, but this current conflict has drawn wider attention.

We need to note, ISIS, after losing much of its territory in the Middle East is now trying to expand its hold in South Asia and South-east Asia. Myanmar’s proximity to Malaysia would encourage ISIS to tap the conflict in Rakhine. Myanmar is closer to Malaysia than Syria and the southern Philippines… and now Rakhine has become their latest destination for ‘jihad’.

On the other hand, the resurgent Al-Qaeda, which was behind the Sept 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, has also started to make its move, issuing a statement on September 12, 2017 calling for attacks against the Myanmar government over the Rohingya.

Counter-terrorism organizations in South Asia in particular need to remember, while most of the attention by security agencies has been on ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and its affiliate in the Indian subcontinent known by the acronym AQIS, for example is equally dangerous. There are possibilities of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, Joish-e-Mohammad, Sipah Sahaba etc or Bangladesh-based Jamaatul Mujahedin Bangladesh, Hizbut Tahrir,  Ansar Al Islam etc also joining the conglomerate of jihadists in their battle in Myanmar.

Countering militancy is no kid’s-game:

Strategies of countering militancy are not only a complicated issue but it also is one of the most sensitive matters, especially in Muslim nations. Slightest mistake in adopting any policy in countering militancy or creating public awareness against militancy and religious extremism would not only blow-back, but it would even open opportunity to Islamic militancy groups in dramatically getting support and sympathy from the masses and spread the seeds of radical Islam even at much faster pace than imagined.

Most importantly, counter-militancy organizations in the Muslim nations need to realize, jihadist notions are not only spreading on the ground, but it also is spreading through the internet. In this case, greater vigilance against the threat of ISIS in cyberspace is crucial. It is important to note, ISIS keeps the virtual form of caliphate alive through the diabolical language of hatred. We need to remember, the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq was not the end of its terror threat and cyberspace was now a new battle ground.

Cyber-attacks can be very complicated to deal with and requires totally new doctrine for us to counter it effectively. Cyber defence is not about physical strength, but wit and sharpness. We need new types of soldiers, one with sound knowledge in information technology. Threats posed by ISIS are now greater due to the advancement of technology. Combating terrorism requires better cooperative security strategies in various forms, be it hard or soft approaches.

It is also important to note, there is no ‘one size fits all’ in terms of violent extremist or terrorist profile, set of motivations, level of radicalization and extremism, and their trajectories. Similarly, counter terrorism responses and solutions. It is fundamental that we be united to fight against terrorism effectively.

Don’t trust the ISIS brides:

I am surprised seeing few reports in the international media saying, the women [ISIS brides] say it was misguided religious faith, naivete, a search for something to believe in or youthful rebellion. Whatever it was, it led them to travel across the world to join the Islamic State group. Now after the fall of the last stronghold of the group’s “caliphate,” they say they regret it and want to come home.

Here is the blunder those news outlets are making, which might even mislead the people and finally help those ISIS brides return to their home countries and melt in the societies and of course, continue their notoriety as they are taught by the jihadist masters. These brides are ruthless, ferocious, and cunning and nothing can liberate them from the brainwash they have received during the stay with the ISIS men and women. Each of them is returning with a similar agenda – killing the non-Muslims, more precisely, Jews and Christians, for the “cause of Allah”. Such mindset has transformed them into predators, which only looks for the blood of the ‘enemies of Allah’.

What is next for South Asia?

In my personal opinion, counter-terrorism or counter-militancy strategies of the South Asian nations, particularly of Bangladesh and India are grossly wrong or misdirected. Just recently, India’s intelligence Bureau or IB has exposed its naivety by copying a report about ISIS attacks on the Buddhist temples 10 days after the report was published. Meaning, they were sitting tight for over a week and the entire intelligence establishment of the country were also not even aware of the matter. This particular case has clearly proved the very ability and capacity of the Indian counter-militancy or counter-terrorism forces as well as its intelligence establishments. Most definitely, India’s only hope is the cooperation and intelligence alerts it has been receiving from its key ally – the State of Israel, which helps India in saving the people from jihadist attacks.

Indian intelligence agencies are spending significantly in mass awareness against militancy and thanks to the contributions of the Bollywood film industry, which also has been playing crucial role in creating mass opinion against militancy and religious extremism.

Bangladesh, although is facing challenges posed by Islamic State especially because of Rohingyas and ARSA joining hands with ISIS is still either legging much behind in its efforts in creating mass awareness and public opinion against militancy and religious extremism or are simply putting such responsibility of creating mass awareness into wrong hands, which ultimately would generate catastrophe for the country and give further boost to the jihadist forces.

While Bangladesh has always been denying existence of ISIS or Al Qaeda in the county, it needs to note, despite not having an organizational foothold in Sri Lanka, the attacks conducted by National Thowheed Jamath on behalf of or by pure allegiance toward the Islamic State highlight a franchised form of terrorism that is going to offer a fresh set of challenges for counter-terrorism policies. The Islamic State functions as a brand name nowadays, with those adopting its image creating instant narratives, gaining immediate attention, and reaching the front pages around the world. A lax approach after the territorial defeat of the Islamic State is no longer an option—instead, nations worldwide have to adapt to battle a hydra-headed insurgency.

Are we really capable of doing that?

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is the editor of Blitz. Follow him on Twitter at @Salah_Shoaib

Related items:

ISIS announces a province in India

Islamic State in South Asia

South Asia, the new front of ISIS

Specter of ISIS over South Asia

ISIS in South Asia: A regional threat

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