The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has ramped up its activities in Southeast Asia so effectively that there is now an entire military unit of terrorists recruited from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, according to Singapore’s prime minister.
“Southeast Asia is a key recruitment center for ISIS,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the Shangri-La Dialogue here in Singapore Friday. He noted that this included more than 500 Indonesians and dozens of Malaysians. “ISIS has so many Indonesian and Malaysia fighters that they form a unit by themselves — the Katibah Nusantara — Malay Archipelago Combat Unit,” he added.
Even in the small and tightly controlled city-state of Singapore, “a few” young men have gone to Syria to join the Islamic State ranks, and even more were intercepted trying to leave, Lee disclosed. He said the Singaporean authorities had recently arrested two students, one 17 and one 19, the latter of whom had planned to assassinate Singaporean government officials if he was unable to reach the Middle East.
“This is why Singapore takes terrorism, and in particular ISIS, very seriously,” Lee said. “The threat is no longer over there, it is over here.”
Lee revealed that the Islamic State has posted a propaganda and recruitment video showing Malay-speaking children training with weapons inside territory controlled by the terror group, and that two Malaysians were identified in a separate video carrying out the beheading of a Syrian man.
Lee also said that the Malaysian police have arrested several people who were planning to go to Syria to join the terrorist group, including some members of the Malaysian armed forces. Some were planning attacks inside Malaysia. Meanwhile, several jihadist groups in Southeast Asia have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, including Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, whose leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, announced his allegiance from his prison cell last year.
The Islamic State has said it intends to establish a province of its “caliphate” in Southeast Asia. Lee said the idea was a “grandiose, pie-in-the sky dream.” But he warned that it’s entirely feasible that the group could take advantage of some ungoverned spaces to establish a foothold from which to expand recruiting and plan attacks in the new host countries. “That would pose a serious threat to the whole of Southeast Asia,” Lee said.
Starting Friday, Singapore will contribute a KC-135 tanker plane to the international coalition fighting against Islamic State forces in the Middle East. The deployment is symbolic, but Lee emphasized that the fight against Islamic extremism was just beginning, and like the Cold War, would surely take decades to win. “50 years from now, I doubt the scourge of extremist terrorism will have entirely disappeared,” he told the forum. “Remember that Soviet Communism, another historical dead end, took 70 years to collapse, and that was a non-religious ideology.”
Terrorism in Southeast Asia is not new. More than 200 people died in the Bali bombings in 2002. Jemaah Islamiyah almost succeeded in a plot to bomb diplomatic offices in Singapore just after Sept. 11, 2001. But the development that Southeast Asian terror groups are now flying the black Islamic State flag — and that young men from the region are saluting — is a huge problem.
The current U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State is largely limited to the Middle East. But the jihadists’ approach to fighting the West has no geographic boundaries. Unless the anti-Islamic State coalition does more to cooperate with countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, the terror group will just expand its recruiting and attacks across the globe.
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Josh Rogin at firstname.lastname@example.org