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The Islamic State Meets Southeast Asia

ISIS Seeks New Outposts Across the Indian Ocean

Philippine government forces display high grade explosives and the ISIS flag recovered by troops from Marawi City, the Philippines, June 2017 REUTERS / Romeo Ranoco

On March 23, 2019, U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab militias captured the last territorial redoubt of the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. After a bloody, four-year campaign, a caliphate approximately the size of the United Kingdom had been reduced to a 1.5-square-kilometer village in eastern Syria—then wiped from the map entirely. 

Six months later, ISIS is still reeling from the shock. ISIS militants initially sheltered underground in enclaves throughout the Levant. They began a sustained campaign of assassinations and ambushes against political power brokers and security forces, particularly in Iraq. At the same time, the organization’s affiliate and franchise groups grew in importance and their territorial reach extended east.

Southeast Asia, in particular, has assumed a greater role in the terrorist group’s global strategy, despite having been overshadowed by higher-profile wilayats, or provinces, of the self-proclaimed caliphate in the past. The number of ISIS fighters, suicide bombers, organized training programs, and propaganda videos originating from the region has grown steadily in recent years. Without a claim to physical territory anymore, the group’s information operations have become even more critical to its success. The nature and spread of ISIS as an organization have changed as a result.

Southeast Asia may be the newest breeding ground for militant Islam. Deeply interconnected but hard to rule, the island-studded region lends itself to unconventional warfare. And since at least 2018, when it became increasingly difficult to travel to Iraq and Syria, foreign fighters from the region and farther abroad have flocked to the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia because of these countries’ growing reputation as emerging fronts for global jihad. The violence perpetrated by pro-ISIS groups in this region has been episodic and uncoordinated, but the underlying trend is clear—ISIS has shifted away from its initial concern with sovereignty over land and people, moving, in the process, toward a decentralized, global insurgency model.

FRESH FIELD, NOVEL GAME PLAN

ISIS first gained a foothold in Southeast Asia in 2014. As the group swept across Iraq and Syria

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