When Islamic State (IS) launched its so-called caliphate in 2014 it had seized territory in Iraq and Syria. However over the last 18 months, militants claiming allegiance to the group have carried out attacks in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, while the group also has sympathisers in India and Pakistan.
IS has “recognised” a number of existing Islamist terrorist groups in the Philippines, though it has stopped short of announcing a wilayet – or province – there, as it has within Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and the Northern Caucasus. Last year the group issued a 20-minute video encouraging viewers who could not travel to the Middle East to “go to the Philippines”.
So is IS losing interest in the Middle East?
IS has been losing territory in Iraq and Syria for more than a year, as a result of co-ordinated military action. In addition, US-led forces have been working to ensure the group cannot establish a base in Libya to which it could retreat. So it has changed tack: instead of attracting fighters from around the globe to its so-called “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, it wants to assert its presence globally through isolated “lone wolf” attacks – as we have seen in Europe – and more co-ordinated tactics by franchises, or organisations that affiliate themselves with the group, such as the Maute group or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. IS only claims responsibility for “successful” attacks that boost its propaganda agenda. The 20 June attack on Brussels Central Station, which ended in the death only of the perpetrator, did not elicit any such claim by IS.
Why is IS claiming a presence in Asia?
IS isn’t focusing exclusively on Asia, but the dissemination of an increasingly radical form of Islam in a number of Asian countries is creating a ready supply of recruits. IS is exploiting and fomenting existing grievances in Asia to co-opt existing terrorists and radicalise potential new members. The oppression and mass displacement of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority is also believed to be a push factor for joining an extremist group.
Why does IS have so much support in the Philippines?
The southern island of Mindanao has long been the location of an armed Islamist separatist insurgency, and recently that has attracted fighters from Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as countries such as Morocco. Malaysian intelligence sources said last year that around 200 IS fighters in Syria and Iraq came from Malaysia and Indonesia, and security experts have warned that they expect returning IS fighters to regroup in Mindanao and other nearby islands as IS loses territory in the Middle East.
Instability borne of chronic conflict, the availability of weapons, the jungles of Mindanao, and the porous maritime borders between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia make it easier for insurgents to evade capture. Earlier this month, Indonesia’s military chief, General Gatot Nurmantyo, said this ease of travel had contributed to IS having a presence in nearly all the country’s provinces. In addition, local terrorist groups know Mindanao’s each and every small island and islet far better than many soldiers and policemen deployed there from other regions.
How big a threat does IS pose to Filipino Christians?
All Filipinos are put at risk by any terrorist violence, and in the Mindanao city of Marawi, where security forces are battling IS-affiliated militants from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups, thousands of residents – Christian and Muslim – have fled. However, there appears to be some targeting of Christians. A Catholic priest in Marawi and several worshippers have been abducted by the Islamists, and a cathedral and a church in the city destroyed.
Last year there were a number of “lone wolf” attacks on Christians in Asia. In June 2016, an elderly Christian shopkeeper was knifed to death after Sunday prayers near a church in north-west Bangladesh, in an attack for which IS claimed responsibility. In August 2016, an 18-year-old carrying a homemade IS flag stabbed a priest and attempted to detonate a bomb during mass in Medan, the capital of Indonesia’s North Sumatra province. Three months later a young man killed a toddler and injured three others when he threw a grenade into the grounds of a church in Samarinda, capital of East Kalimantan province.
IS affiliates have taken Christians hostage or killed them at checkpoints. Other attacks have targeted Westerners.
Thomas Muller, an analyst at Open Doors’ World Watch Research unit, said: “These IS affiliates have adopted a shock-and-awe strategy to create widespread fear quickly. Radicalised Muslims could rally under IS’s black flag, but this does not mean that they would succeed in taking and keeping hold of territory in Asia, as IS did in northern Iraq, where IS exploited weak infrastructure.
“[Philippines] President Rodrigo Duterte’s 23 May declaration of martial law in Mindanao shows how seriously his government is taking the threat the jihadists pose. So it is unlikely that the jihadists will succeed in seizing territory, and more likely that isolated attacks like the ones in Selangor [in Malaysia], Medan and Samarinda will continue.”
The more widespread threat to Asian Christians
Muller added that a greater threat to Asian Christians is the growing intolerance of non-Muslims seen in the mass protests against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as “Ahok”, an ethnic Chinese Christian. Ahok’s conviction last month for blasphemy, which coincided with his failed bid for re-election, followed mass protests against him that showed the power of the hardliners to stir up widespread anger and vilify a democratically elected leader. The Jakarta Post in April described the election campaign waged by Ahok’s opponents as “the dirtiest, most polarising and most divisive the nation has ever seen”.
Muller said the election marked a turning-point in Indonesian politics. “From now on, no member of a religious or ethnic minority will have any chance of standing for a nationally important political office. Also, we can expect the Islamic card to be used in the future to gain votes just like in any other Muslim country in the world. Indonesia has now lost its innocence in this respect,” he said.