The threat of the Islamic State (IS) in Asia has reached a new high after the fall of the physical Caliphate, with the loss of Baghouz, Syria on March 23 this year. Although IS lost its territorial control, its leadership—headed by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi—is alive. It is entering a new phase to spread its influence and operations worldwide.
With 63 percent of Muslims living in Asia, the region is a big target for IS, in both the Asian physical and cyber space. Asian governments are underprepared or unprepared to fight the threat. With its losses in Iraq and Syria, IS decentralized by dispatching nearly 100 operatives, both Iraqi and foreign, to its wilayahs (provinces) and other countries with support networks.
Afghanistan: IS Will Soon Make it an Important Base
Throughout Asia, both IS central and its decentralized structures are directing, enabling and inspiring attacks. The leadership is also relying more on Afghanistan as a forward headquarters. The drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan will create a vacuum that will allow for IS growth not only in Afghanistan but in Central, South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.
IS in Afghanistan is attempting to infiltrate tribal Pakistan and then mainland Pakistan.
Historically, the rise of Islamist groups in Asia is traced to the anti-Soviet multinational Afghan mujahidin campaign beginning in the 1980s. After the defeat of the Soviets, the foreign fighters remained in tribal Pakistan and Afghanistan. They formed Al Qaeda in 1988 and the Afghan Taliban in 1995. With the rise of IS after 2014, the Taliban, a group aligned with al Qaeda, opposed IS.
The Taliban remains the dominant player, but IS in Afghanistan created a wilayah, Khorasan, and is gaining strength because it is well organized and presents a growing threat to both the Afghan government and the Taliban. In the coming years, IS will diminish in Syria and Iraq, but will expand in South Asia.
In the eastern provinces of Afghanistan, IS has become strong militarily to the extent that it is displacing the Afghan Taliban in fighting. Its current strength in Afghanistan is estimated at between 2,000 and 2,500 fighters. With Pakistani security forces hunting IS actively on its soil, IS fighters of Pakistani origin are largely located in Afghanistan.
The emergence of IS led to a split in the largest Pakistani Taliban group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), from within and dislodged the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has relocated to Afghanistan, from the Taliban-al-Qaeda league. Such divisions provide IS with the opportunity to form alliances, be an unpredictable security threat and rival the Taliban.
IS Threat Will Grow in Asia
In Asia, the epicenter of terrorism is spreading to Afghanistan, the likely headquarters of IS external operations in Asia. In the last six months, IS killed or injured 875 in 180 attacks in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, it killed or injured 20 in 12 attacks. In Sri Lanka, the IS attack against churches and hotels killed and injured nearly 800. The threat in South Asia included attacks in India and Bangladesh, demonstrating a significant rise in operations.
With IS entering a new phase, Asian governments should manage the extent of the emerging threat through their own security and intelligence agencies.
Worldwide IS not only focused on killing, maiming and injuring but destroying and damaging property and vehicles. IS restructured its wilayah in South Asia by appointing new leaders or declaring new provinces following attacks in Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh: three countries with a combined 300 million Muslims.
The IS threat will continue to grow in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. IS in Afghanistan is also attempting to infiltrate tribal Pakistan and then mainland Pakistan. Although Pakistani authorities are fighting back, IS now targets civilian and government officers in Pakistan. The threat will increase with the drawdown of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
There are early signs that at least a segment of the nationalist insurgency in the subcontinent and beyond is gradually transforming into an Islamist campaign. A wave of political, religious and cultural radicalization is driving hate and terrorism throughout Asia. With IS entering a new phase, Asian governments should manage the extent of the emerging threat through their own security and intelligence agencies.
What Indonesia Can Teach the Rest of Asia About Countering IS
The Indonesian Minister of Defense Riyamizard Riyacudu has succeeded in getting defense intelligence agencies in the region to collaborate. A total of 691 Indonesians and their family members travelled to Iraq and Syria. About 900 terrorists were arrested in Indonesia during the same period. The partnership between Southeast Asian military and police forces and the US has largely helped keep the region safe from attacks.
He helped create ASEAN Our Eyes (AOE) to share strategic intelligence to confront regional terrorist networks. In the future, AOE collaboration will include five streams of intelligence at strategic, operational and tactical levels. The first stream is defense intelligence, the second military intelligence, the third law enforcement intelligence, the fourth national security intelligence, and the fifth open source intelligence, especially social media intelligence.
Like the world’s largest intelligence sharing and exchange platform, Five Eyes (involving the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK), Our Eyes should expand its membership beyond ASEAN to other Asian and non-Asian countries to secure both Asia and the world. Superpower and geopolitical rivalry are hurting global peace and stability. With the globalization of the IS threat and the likelihood of its collaboration with al Qaeda, governments should shed their geopolitical egos and work together to fight IS and al Qaeda.
Asian Co-operation is the Way Forward
Working with governments where IS has seeded a presence, the international coalition will need to contain, isolate and eliminate the IS leadership at the core and periphery. Similarly, governments will need to broaden their strategies, especially in building partnerships with civil society to reach out to Muslim communities to prevent radicalization.
Governments should shed their geopolitical egos and work together to fight IS and al Qaeda.
Tackling the new phase of threat will require a shift in the mindset of government thinking. To thwart IS worldwide, governments should move from a whole-of-nation to a whole-of-region and whole-of-world response. Managing the emerging wave of exclusivism, extremism and terrorism will require a multidimensional, multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional and multinational response. Rather than get trapped in superpower and geopolitical rivalry, Asian governments should build sub-regional, regional and global partnerships to fight back.
(Rohan Gunaratna is Professor of Security Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is a counter terrorism trainer for military forces, law enforcement authorities and national security agencies. He is co-author of Three Pillars of Radicalization: Needs, Networks and Narratives (Oxford University Press, 2019. He tweets @RohanGunaratna. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)