Trans-Asian networks and Islamic militancy in the new era – reflections from South-East Asia
Practitioner Chair, Professor Michael Semple
Islamic State affiliated militants in Indonesia have declared that the chaotic final withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan proves that jihadists in their region can eventually triumph. They have appealed to volunteers to travel to Afghanistan and serve with the “Islamic State of Khorasan Province”. This is just one way in which ripples from the Taliban’s re-establishment of their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have reached as far as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
The developments over the past year have illustrated the potency of long-distance networks in the exchange of ideas and people across the Asian continent. But, in trying to understand the inter-action of militancy in West and South-East Asia, we need to take account of the transition of era which has taken place over the past two years– the Zeitenwende as Olaf Scholz latterly named it. Indonesian, Philippino and Malaysian Muslims first travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan in large numbers in the final decade of the Cold War and operated in Afghanistan and then Syria during Global War on Terror (GWOT). Global actors have now made the transition from the GWOT to the era of global challenges and new strategic competition, largely diverting attention from militancy in Asia. I recently had an opportunity to travel to South-East Asia for a UN-sponsored conference, to take stock of the Islamist militant networks that span the continent. The conference coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Bali bombings. These thoughts are inspired by the conference and my travels in the region.
Islamist militancy continues to pose a security threat in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia despite the Zeitenwende and re-ordering of global priorities. Indonesia hosts the region’s largest militant networks. The Jamaah Ansharut Daulah functions as the main affiliate of Islamic State. It calls for extending the Caliphate to Indonesia and has been responsible for a string of terrorist incidents in the country in recent years. Jamaah Islamiah, however, has a longer pedigree. It has roots in the anti-colonial movement, pioneered Indonesian participation in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and is affiliated with Al Qaeda. The peak of its notoriety came with the 2002 Bali bombings. In recent years, JI has paused its terrorist attacks and concentrated on rebuilding its transnational network for the struggle ahead. The scale of militancy in Indonesia is hinted at from the caseload of Indonesians captured in Syria. Some 1,250 Indonesian nationals are held in the Syrian democratic Forces camps in northern Syria.
In the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) militants acted as one component of the long-running insurgency in Mindanao until the Comprehensive Agreement between the Philippines government and the main Moro groups in 2014. But the effect of the Islamic State’s idea of a Caliphate on militant ambition in Philippines was illustrated by the five-month long siege of Marawi in 2017. A militant coalition including ASG with newly developed links to IS took over and tried to hold a major urban centre.
Malaysia has mainly served as a transit point for the militants but has also been impacted by militant attacks. Malaysia’s Sabah province in Borneo has become one of the main hubs for militants in the region. The first person I met in the street in Sabah was one of the many immigrants who have crossed the sea from Mindanao. Locals in Lahad Datu gave testimony about the effect of kidnappings, piracy and smuggling conducted along the coast by criminal-linked militants operating from Philippines and Indonesia. In the Sulu Sea, territory of all three countries lies within a radius of 100 km. The Malaysian security response has included posting military personnel on 14 of Sabah’s offshore islands, to protect the valuable tourist trade.
My research in Afghanistan suggests five actual or potential linkages between the conflict there and militancy in South-East Asia – the inspiration effect, sanctuary, military training and organisation, material assistance and trafficking and finance.
So far the inspiration effect has worked through “looking in” rather than “Iooking out” . It is ironic that Indonesia’s IS-linked propagandists have taken the lead in citing Taliban victory to recruit people to join their struggle for the Caliphate, given that Islamic State does not actually hold territory in Afghanistan and is at war with the Taliban. Meanwhile, JI, with its history of linkage to the Taliban’s Al Qaeda allies has not actively tried to exploit the re-establishment of the Emirate.
Taliban-ruled Afghanistan clearly has against become a sanctuary for international militants, including those from SE Asia. But the rules governing this sanctuary are different from the one which operated in the nineties. In the first Islamic Emirate, the Amir, Mullah Omar, actively patronised the coalition of militants from multiple countries, allowing them to operate military camps and research laboratories and to deploy military units in the Afghan civil war. Under the restored Islamic Emirate, the Taliban’s intelligence agency has been tasked with keeping tabs on militants. This entails Taliban intelligence helping militants find housing, paying stipends and ensuring they keep a much lower profile than in the old days. In today’s Afghanistan, foreign militants can rent a house and drive around with armed bodyguards. But the Taliban still claim that they are not free to run operations outside Afghanistan. It remains to see how this contradiction evolves.
During the Taliban’s insurgency, the most active foreign militants served as advanced military trainers and “engineers” who helped in technical and tactical innovation. Some of them were the most formidable fabricators of advanced Improvised Explosive Devices. This terrorist training capacity and the men who provided it are intact in Afghanistan. The foreign militants’ Afghan counterparts now occupy senior positions in the Islamic Emirate security apparatus. Afghanistan has proven capacity to train militants for operations elsewhere in Asia, but it remains to be seen whether the Taliban will actually tolerate this, or indeed if there is a demand.
The Taliban, now that they are responsible for a whole state, have generally struggled to finance their own operations. There seems little prospect of them funding militancy outside the country in the way that Islamic State did when it held territory in Iraq and Syria. However, the return of the Taliban to power has boosted regional criminal networks focused on Afghanistan, with a rise in kidnapping, armed crime and the production and trafficking of opium, heroin, crystal meth and marijuana. Any international terrorist financial linkages to Afghanistan are likely to involve funds raised in this criminal economy rather than direct financing by the Taliban.
In terms of Afghanistan’s impact on regional security, the elephant in the room is arms and narcotics trafficking. The Taliban took control of a vast stock of US military equipment in 2021. Items from this inventory are being acquired by the globally-networked arms dealers who worked closely with the Taliban during the insurgency. There is a real threat of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s arms dealers supplying items such as US Army M4 rifles to any group fighting in Indonesia or the Philippines. And the Taliban’s reinforced links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have boosted the movement’s control over Afghanistan’s most globally significant export commodity – heroin. The heroin trade is the Taliban controlled activity in Afghanistan with most potential to fund militancy elsewhere in Asia.
Scholars are still probing the operating principles of this era of global challenges and new strategic competition. We know that the US has de-prioritised global terrorism, as symbolised by its withdrawal from Afghanistan. But men who have spent a lifetime training and inspiring jihadi fighters now find themselves in power in Afghanistan and still linked to the global jihadists of Al Qaeda. It remains to be seen just how far the Taliban will be prepared to go in supporting militant causes outside Afghanistan. At least some of the consequences of the Taliban’s decision on whether to impose boundaries on their jihad will continue to ripple as far as the three countries around the Sulu Sea.