Written by Rohan Gunaratna.

The Islamic State (IS) is eclipsing the traditional influence of al-Qaeda in the Southeast Asian threat landscape. With the waning influence of al-Qaeda, the most potent threat to Southeast Asia comes from radicalised and militarised Muslims and groups associated with IS. The region’s largest and most violent group, Jemmah Asharut Tawheed (JAT), and another five dozen groups have either expressed support to IS or their leaders have pledged allegiance to its self-appointed Caliph, Ibrahim alias Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. After suffering gravely from Indonesia’s counter-terrorism force, Detachment 88, and Malaysia’s Special Branch Counterterrorism Division since 2001, the strategy of the Indonesian and Malaysian threat groups are likely to pursue a strategy of revival.

The Southeast Asian landscape is shifting from being al-Qaeda centric to being Islamic State-centric as those traveling to the Middle East seek not to join al-Qaeda associate Jabat al-Nusra rather than IS in Iraq and Syria.

IS has found support among a segment of Southeast Asian Muslims who propagate the implementation of Islamic law (sharia). In light of IS’s rhetoric of establishing a caliphate and enforcing sharia (and its temporal success), the threat groups exploit the sentiment of Islamists in the region to generate and inspire support for sending recruits to Syria and Iraq. Since 2012, more than 1,000 Southeast Asian fighters and their families have traveled to Syria and Iraq. While most traveled from their countries of origin, a few were recruited when studying in the Middle East; most had either served or were serving in threat groups. Having missed the opportunity for “martyrdom” in conflict zones, the Southeast Asian veterans of Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Indonesia (Poso and Ambon) seek to travel to Syria and Iraq. The end of time prophecy makes “martyrdom” in the Levant the most attractive battlefield.

Making Sense of Terrorist Networks

Initially, Southeast Asians joined three principal Iraqi and Syrian threat groups: IS, Jabat al-Nusra, and Ajnad al-Sham. The brutality of the Assad regime galvanized and generated support throughout Southeast Asia including for terrorist and extremist groups. Fundraising campaigns were conducted by the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia (Council of Indonesian Mujahidin), JAT, and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).  With the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013 and the pronouncement of the Caliphate in June 2014, the Southeast Asian jihadist fraternity fractured. The long-time JI and JAT leader Ustaz Abu Bakar Ba’asyir switched his allegiance from al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra to IS.

The infighting between al-Nusra and IS has continued to spread across the region, affecting cooperation between Southeast Asian terrorist and extremist groups. The Southeast Asian landscape is shifting from being al-Qaeda centric to being Islamic State-centric as those traveling to the Middle East seek not to join al-Qaeda associate Jabat al-Nusra rather than IS in Iraq and Syria.

The Development of the Terrorist Threat in Southeast Asia

More than 60 groups in Southeast Asia have pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, underlining the growing clout of IS and its security threat to the region. The January 2016 Jakarta attacks, the grenade attack in a nightclub in Punchong, Malaysia, and a number of botched attacks in the Philippines signify the dangerous implications of IS presence in the region. At the forefront of indoctrinating and facilitating a pro-ISIS environment in Southeast Asia are individuals such as Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, Aman Abdurahman, Iwan Dharmawan (alias Rois), Siswanto, Amin Mude, Pak Huda, and Ustaz Dani. These individuals have provided leadership and strategic guidance – in some cases, from inside prison – translating ideological texts into regional languages and serving as mentors to promote the Islamic State.

The most prominent ISIS platform, Forum Activis Syariat Islam (Islamic Sharia Activists’ Forum, or FAKSI), has drawn activists and supporters from a wide range of groups. Formed by the students of Jakarta attack mastermind Aman Abdurahman, FAKSI provides assistance through numerous channels to IS sympathisers who wish to join the group. Public meetings held in February 2014 by FAKSI in Indonesia generated further support for the then-ISIS. Those Indonesians already in Syria fueled the movement in facilitating the travel of friends and family to the region; a leading FAKSI figure and activist also notably left to join ISIS in Syria. By July 2014, the group was able to gather about 600 people at a ceremony at the Islamic State University of Ciputat, Jakarta to pledge allegiance to IS. Carefully choreographed, FAKSI’s seventh multaqad da’awi [talk show] titled “Welcoming the New Civilisation of Caliphate Ala Minhajin Nubuwwah [the earliest Islamic caliphate of Prophet Muhammad’s companions].”  While these events were taking place in Jakarta, a similar event occurred at Baitul Makmur Mosque in Solo, the centre of Islamic radicalism in Indonesia. Amir Mahmud, an Afghan veteran, declared the establishment of Forum Pendukung Daulah Islamiyah (Forum of Supporters of Islamic State, or FPDI) at Baitul Makmur Mosque in Solo. With more than 500 men in attendance, these ISIS supporters declared ba’iat (pledge of allegiance) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Islamic State has also made inroads in Malaysia and the Philippines. In Malaysia, Revolusi Islam and Jemmah ISIS Malaysia generated support for IS; Kumupulan Militan Malaysia (Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia) for Ajnad al Sham; and Jemmah Islamiyah for Jabat al Nusra. In the Philippines, in addition to groups of prisoners radicalised in jail and rural penitentiaries, Isnilon Hapilon faction of Abu Sayyaf Group and Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters were the first of the 16 groups to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. A handful of Filipinos operate in Iraq and Syria as well.

IS has suffered major setbacks in the epicentre of Syria and Iraq because of the airstrikes from the US-led coalition and Russian military operations. This is creating change in the group’s strategy, whereby more attacks are being encouraged in the group’s wilayat (governorates) around the world, including Southeast Asia. It is likely that a blow-back will be experienced from IS operated cells in the region. Additionally, IS’s message is finding traction among potential radicals because of the group’s impressive use of cyberspace. As such, the security threat of terrorist groups in Southeast Asia is serious.


The Muslims in Southeast Asia have lived under the shadow of large non-Muslim communities. They value moderation and toleration and understand the importance of coexistence with other faiths and communities. This co-existence is under threat from the extremist groups who wish to use violence to divide communities and disturb harmony and propagate their brand of Islam.  With the transformation of IS from a caliphate-building group to a global insurgent and terrorist movement, IS influence and operational capabilities will continue to expand and grow in Southeast Asia in 2017 and beyond.

Rohan Gunaratna is professor of security studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technology University. He tweets at @rohangunaratna. Professor Gunaratna would like to gratefully acknowledge the research assistance of Shahzeb Ali Rathore and editorial support of Lauren Dickey. Image credit: CC by U.S. Department of Defence/Flickr.