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What are the reasons behind the expansion of Jihadist groups in East Asia?
Despite counter-terrorism efforts, transnational and local jihadism in Southeast Asia is on the rise. Although groups in the area differ in their dynamics and operations, their presence and propaganda are still an element of risk and security threat. In some cases, we see a fusion between local insurgency of separatist Muslim groups and transnational jihadism, as in the Philippines and Indonesia, in other areas, instead, there is a rapprochement or influence of some factions but no established link, as in the southern provinces of Thailand. In any case, both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are trying to expand their operations in the area, although to date their operations are more on a propaganda level. The areas of interest in this overview, which will show more and less active groups, are Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar.
Jihadist organizations in Indonesia, due to effective law enforcement and counter-terrorism operations that have resulted in widespread arrests and structural weakening, are increasingly taking the form of small groups acting independently of the larger jihadist organizations, but often linked to them, and especially ideological changes that favour “one-off”, targeted killings or small-scale, low-cost attacks. The Indonesian groups in recent years have concentrated on building a consensus base among the population, on “local enemies” and greater willingness to ally with non-jihadist groups.
Jemaah Islamiyah Jamaah (JI)
This is Indonesia’s best known jihadist Salafist terrorist organization. Before most of JI’s leaders were arrested or killed by the Indonesian Counter-Terrorism Detachment 88 team, it had links and branches in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. JI’s goal has always been to create an Islamic caliphate in Southeast Asia. JI is convinced that only armed struggle and terrorist actions can lead to the establishment of a caliphate governed by Shari’a. JI has a special assassination unit that targets prominent politicians, judges, police and military officers who run counter-terrorism operations. JI is currently divided into two factions, one that continues to carry out terrorist activities and armed struggle and the other that deals with religious preaching. Until his arrest in 2011, JI’s spiritual leader was one of the founders of the organization and a prominent Indonesian jihadist Salafist cleric Abu Bakar Bashir (In 2008 he founded a secessionist group of JI, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid Mujahidin - JAT and in 2014 swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. Leading to the split of JAT). JI has between 1000-and 3000 militants, all Indonesian. In recent years, operations have declined sharply and, therefore, the veterans of JI are mainly concerned with recruitment, indoctrination of new members, organization and financing. Within the organization, and this enables its resilience, there are a strong family and kinship ties. The organization is highly hierarchical, at the head of which is the emir (the last emir of JI is Para Wijayanto, who was arrested by the Indonesian authorities in June 2019 and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment in July 2020). Although the group’s leadership has been significantly deteriorated by the activities of counter-terrorism forces, JI remains an active organization with a highly complex structure. Under the emir, four councils deal with management, religion, discipline and jurisprudence. Subsequently, several divisions deal with financing, training, recruitment and military operations. The JI divides the areas of operation into territorial zones called Mantik. Each Mantik is in turn subdivided into underground or dormant terrorist cells of four to five people. After the arrest of the Emir, JI chose to partially decentralize the individual Mantiks and cells, which can operate independently, thus making anti-terrorist operations against them more difficult. For years, the Jemaah Islamiyah has been infiltrating the Indonesian state apparatus, civil society, and academia. On 16 November 2021, the Indonesian National Police launched a counter-terrorism operation that revealed that the group was operating under the guise of a political party, the Indonesian People’s Da’wah Party trying to infiltrate the Indonesian political system. The JI also founded and runs a network of religious schools (pesantren). The JI has always been very close to al-Qaeda, to the Filipino group Abu Sayyaf and dozens of its fighters have operated in Syria with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid Mujahidin (JAT)
Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, is a Salafi jihadist group, separated from JI, founded in Solo in Java in 2008 by Abu Bakar Bashir after he was removed as JI emir. JAT has an umbrella structure with nine branches in different territorial areas: West Java, East Java, Central Java, Banten, Jakarta, East Nusa Tenggara, Sumatra, Aceh and Makassar.
JAT is not hierarchical and many of the territorial branches do not answer to the leader of the organization but move independently. The organization has about 3,000 members and its declared goal is the creation of a caliphate in Indonesia. Most of its operations focus on targeting Indonesia's political class and security forces. To achieve its goals, JAT in addition to armed struggle organizes public seminars and rallies, publishes books and exploits the media.
In the summer of 2014, JAT suffered a split due to Abu Bakar Bashir's decision to pledge allegiance to former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. His two sons, Abdul Rahim and Abdul Rosyid Ridho, who disagreed with their father’s decision to affiliate with IS, were expelled. They, along with many members of the group, including key leaders, founded a new group called Jamaah Ansharusy Syariah (JAS).
Jamaah Ansharusy Syariah (JAS)
As mentioned, from the split of JAT, JAS was born in August 2014. The goals and ideology of JAS are directed towards the creation of a caliphate governed by Shari'a and the complete Islamization of Indonesia. JAS has rejected any kind of support for the Islamic State organization because according to them “it is far from the original Islamic concept”.
JAS has about 2,000 members and operates in the areas of Jakarta, West Java, Central Java, East Java and Nusa Tenggara. The organization has a strong Internet presence, with its website, Facebook page, YouTube and Instagram accounts, all of which are regularly active and widely followed. JAS is also highly active publicly with its “Service Community” called Yanmas.
Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD)
Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) was founded in Indonesia in 2015 as an umbrella organization of Indonesian jihadist groups that swore allegiance to the then Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and are still linked to IS today. The ideological and spiritual leader of JAD is Aman Abdurrahman (now in prison). JAD is a highly decentralized organization composed of numerous independent cells, often not in contact with each other in the various provinces and with little or no coordination with the leadership. Because of this strong autonomy, multiple attacks by JAD cells are likely to occur almost at the same time in different areas of the country, or even the activation of cells with a domino effect after an attack by one of them. JAD operates in different areas of Indonesia, particularly in Jakarta, West Java, East Java and West Nusa Tenggara.
One feature of JAD is family and personal ties. By using the family as a unit of attack, JAD exploits direct communication and is, therefore, able to minimize online communication, and consequently detection by counter-terrorism forces. In addition, operating in this way strengthens relationships between members and ideological and operational commitment.
Mujahideen Indonesia Timur (MIT)
Also known as the East Indonesia Mujahideen, the MIT was formed between 2010 and 2011 at the initiative of JI and leader Abu Warda Santoso. It consists of local militants involved in the religious conflict in Poso in Sulawesi. The objective of the MIT is to create a caliphate governed by Sharia law. Abu Warda Santoso and MIT have declared their support for IS.
MIT is operational in the Java and Sulawesi areas, as well as units scattered throughout the country, and conducts mainly small-scale operations at its base in Poso, Central Sulawesi targeting low-profile civil servants and police officers. The group has around 200-300 members. Despite losses sustained in counter-terrorism actions by Indonesian forces, the MIT continues to succeed in recruiting new fighters, most of whom are trained in pesantren (Islamic colleges).
The Philippine political transition that led to the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has deprived Filipino jihadist organizations of some of their propaganda appeal. This, coupled with the Philippine Army's counter-terrorism operations and the pandemic, has put pressure on jihadist groups, forcing them to disperse into different areas and losing their links with each other. However, in some areas, jihadist groups remain resilient and continue to operate, particularly in the southern Philippines, especially in the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Maguindanao, Sulu and Basilan.
Islamic State East Asia (ISEAP)
The primary objective of ISEAP, the official province of the Islamic State, which renewed its oath of allegiance to the new leader of the Islamic State, Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in March 2022, is primarily the establishment of an Islamic State governed by Sharia law in the Philippines. Its secondary objective is the expansion of the Islamic State beyond the Philippines into a wider area including Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.To achieve its goals, ISEAP continues to conduct terrorist attacks against military and civilian targets in the Philippines. Tactics employed include armed assaults, assassinations, and attacks, including suicide bombings. In 2021, ISEAP conducted and claimed 16 attacks in the Philippines and four with its cells in Indonesia. On 18 February 2022, they also claimed their first attack related to the “economic warfare” strategy, destroying an electrical tower. From January to April 2022, ISEAP conducted 6 attacks in the Philippines, the last one claimed on 29 April.
The Islamic State of East Asia consists of at least two major cells, both operating in the southern Philippines, but is connected to numerous groups or factions of them that provide support, militants and leaders such as the Maute Group, Abu Sayyaf, a faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Ansharul Khilafah Philippines, Dawlatul Islamiyah-Maguindanao, Dawlatul Islamiyah Waliyatul Masrik and Dawlatul Islamiyah-Torayfe Group. Since the conclusion of the Marawi conflict in October 2017, the group has gone through a long and difficult phase of readjustment. To date, it conducts its attacks specifically against Philippine security forces or targets that serve to cause local sectarian clashes, as well as conducting kidnappings for ransom and local extortion to generate funding.
The leader of ISEAP was Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan (aka Abu Abdallah), while today it appears that the leadership has been assigned to Abu Zacariah, former leader of the Maute Group. Among the prominent leaders of ISEAP, the key to the group in its role as facilitator and financier, is undoubtedly Saifullah, of Indonesian nationality, who in addition to dealing with recruitment, financing and weapons, manages close ties with the Indonesian JAD and the Afghan Islamic State Province (ISKP). The group has about 300-400 members, mostly Filipinos, but also Indonesians and Malaysians.
Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)
The Abu Sayyaf operates mainly in the Sulu archipelago, in the western part of the island of Jolo, in the southern Philippines. A branch of the Filipino separatist organization, the Isnilon Hapilon branch, declared its support for the Islamic State in 2014. Abu Sayyaf has about 200-400 fighters. ASG is a group that aims at the liberation and independence of the Moro minority. Abu Sayyaf engages in sabotage, occupation of territories, terrorist attacks with explosives, attacks against the police and the army, assassinations of officials and politicians, and kidnapping of foreigners and Christians.
In recent years Abu Sayyaf, partly due to counter-terrorism operations, has sharply decreased its military operations and has been mainly active in criminal activities: burglary, kidnapping for ransom, extortion and drug dealing, which makes it similar to organized crime groups. Abu Sayyaf is a network of cells rather than an established force, its structure exploiting inactive fighters, family ties, friendships and their relatives.
Ansar Al-Khilafa Philippines (AKP)
Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines is a small group founded in 2014 by the late leader Tokboy Maguid, in the town of Polomolok, South Cotabato province, where they linked up with the Nilong Group, a crime syndicate. The militants, who operate from the outskirts of Polomolok, have exploited the grievances of the people of Maguindanao to recruit young people while raising funds through criminal activities. The group has also announced its support for the Islamic State but is regarded by the Philippine authorities more as a criminal and bandit group. AKP also conducts kidnapping and ransomware activities. It operates in South Cotabato and Sarangani provinces.
Dawlah Islamiyah Lanao (DIL)
The DIL is the new name of the former Maute Group (also known as Islamic State Lanao), founded in 2012 and dissolved in 2019, among the main groups that participated in the 2017 Battle of Marawi, to create the new entity of Dawlah Islamiyah Lanao. As of 2019, the group ceased offensive operations and prioritized recruitment and reorganization. The group remains resilient, relatives of deceased fighters have assumed leadership, and militants have remained mobile, moving around the mountainous border of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur. The group focuses on recruiting and training fighters in the mountains of Lanao. The leader is Abu Zachariah, who has also recently become the new leader of ISEAP, which has extended DIL networks throughout Mindanao.
In Thailand, however, it is more a matter of separatist and radical Islamist groups supporting the creation of an independent Islamic State in southern Thailand, in the areas bordering Malaysia, particularly in the predominantly Malay and Islamic southern border province of Pattani and the provinces of Yala and Narathiwat. These groups are not involved in transnational and international jihadism and have no links to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Many Thai rebels, however, have received religious training in madrassas in Pakistan and military training in Taliban camps. The main military targets of the Thai groups are police, soldiers, Buddhist monks, teachers, tourists and moderate Muslims, who are considered 'collaborators and traitors'. The main terrorist groups active in Thailand are:
- Barisan Revolusi Nasional - Koordinasi (BRN-K): is the most powerful militant group. It counts between 200 thousand and 400 thousand Moslems, of Salafist ideology. BRN-K recruits members through mosques and Islamic schools. The main targets are the police, the army and non-Muslim civilians.
- Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK): is the armed wing of BRN-K. Made up of very young fighters, they target soldiers and civilians, set fires, and install booby traps on roads and explosive devices in crowded places. They usually take refuge in Malaysian territory.
- Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (who have links to BRN-K): They are linked to the BRNK but operate in villages.
- GMIP (Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani), a group close to the ideas of al-Qaeda, unlike the others would like to create an Islamic State that would expand its borders beyond southern Thailand.
- PULO (United Organization of Liberation Patani): they aim to create an Islamic Caliphate in the entire area of independent Patani. Composed mainly of young Salafists.
Katibah al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan (KMBA)
In November 2020, a jihadist group, with a Rohingya majority, called Katibah al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan (KMBA) emerged, which through its spokesman Abu Lut al-Muhajir, swore allegiance to the former IS leader. The oath was published on the new group's media channels, Arrukn Media Center, and in the first issue of the group’s new English-language magazine “Arkan”. To date, the oath has not yet been accepted and the area has not been elevated to Wilayah. The KMBA’s explicitly stated aim in its propaganda is to “unite Muslims under the Wilayah of Arakan”.
The group promotes Jihad and asks Muslims to make hijrah (migration) to Myanmar. They argue that Muslims must fight where they reside or undertake hijrah to transform the “land of Kufr (infidels)” into the “Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam)”. The group identifies the two enemies to be fought in Myanmar: Buddhists and the central government: accused of repressing and oppressing Muslims and Islamist groups and organizations: accused of being oriented toward nationalism. The KMBA operates in the north-western state of Rakhine, which is easily accessible and difficult to protect but is focusing all its operations on propaganda, education and training.
The evaluation of the security risk in South-East Asia can be analyzed only in the medium-long term. All the organizations aim the opening a new and larger front in South-East Asia, after the experience of the occupation of Marawi. The jihadist groups exploit the grievances of the various communities, which are often marginalized and poverty-stricken. It is therefore evident that jihadism will persist, contributing to the resilience of the groups. Jihadist groups are doing all they can to survive by winding down operations, only to re-emerge stronger. Therefore, the momentary pause or sharp decline in attacks should not be misunderstood as the absence of a threat.
Collaboration between jihadist groups, as happened during the siege of Marawi, no longer exists. IS has contacts with numerous groups, but it does not have the strength to expand beyond the Philippine areas in which it operates, and it does not have the strength to bring all groups together in a single front that includes multiple states. Nevertheless, jihadism will be difficult to eradicate in all the analyzed contexts of the region and will continue to operate both propagandistically and militarily, causing constant security problems.
Analysis published in Akhbar al-Aan Tv Media on 02/06/2022 - ما الأسباب وراء توسع الجماعات الجهادية في شرق آسيا؟ (akhbaralaan.net)
Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst on Jihadist terrorism and an expert in monitoring Jihadist media channels.
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