Southeast Asia: The Islamic State’s Next War

Almost two weeks ago, ISIS-affiliated militants stormed Marawi, a city on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines, overrunning local security forces and shocking the country. Several hundred fighters from the Maute Group, who have pledged baya’a (allegiance) to the Islamic State, were able to quickly take control of most of the city on May 23. The fighters attacked the police station, stormed the prison and freed dozens of prisoners, stationed snipers on rooftops, and set up roadblocks and checkpoints to control movement in the city of 200,000 people. The fighters were prepared for a protracted battle, and still hold parts of the city more than three weeks later, despite the declaration of martial law by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and an airstrike campaign and ground offensive by the Philippine Army. Almost all the 200,000 residents have fled the city, and the battle has left around 180 people dead. According to a Filipino intelligence source, as many as 40 foreign ISIS fighters are involved in the offensive, signaling the likelihood of active planning by ISIS leaders in the Middle East to attempt to build strongholds and take control of territory in South East Asia. American Special Operations forces are now on the ground in Marawi to provide support and assistance.

In fact, the latest issue of Rumiyah, the flashy multi-language ISIS online magazine, focuses primarily on the new “East Asia” affiliate of the Islamic State. The fact that the Islamic State’s al-Hayat Media Center has chosen to feature their East Asia operations over the number of devastating ISIS attacks across the world in the beginning of Ramadan, including the attacks in the UK, is telling. In the issue, the Islamic State also repeats the disputed claim that an Islamic State fighter was responsible for an “inghimasi [suicide] attack on the Resorts World hotel in the city of Manila in the Philippines, killing at least 35 and injuring 70 others.” The attack, which Philippine authorities have largely (but somewhat inconsistently) characterized as a botched robbery, began when a lone gunman entered the casino at the resort and reportedly started fires and fired shots from a M-4 assault rifle. The attacker, identified by ISIS by the nom de guerre Abul-Khayr al-Arkhabili, killed more than 35 people, largely from smoke inhalation and suffocation, before he apparently killed himself by self-immolating in a hotel room. Despite the common conception that the Islamic State claims many attacks that they do not commit, claims made by ISIS central news agencies have actually proven to be relatively credible, and the Manila attack may be another example of the extent of the group in Southeast Asia.

Regardless of the veracity of the group’s Manila claim, the Islamic State has identified fertile ground for expansion in the Philippines, as well as in Indonesia, Malaysia, and other countries in Southeast Asia. Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic State aligned group also based in the Philippines, has been relatively successful in gaining influence and attacking the Philippine Army. ISIS has also made significant inroads in Indonesia and Malaysia, two countries with large Muslim populations that are experiencing a surge in radical Islamism. On May 24, the day after the assault on Marawi, two suicide bombers targeted a bus station in Jakarta, killing three police officers in an attack claimed by the Islamic State. Indonesia and the Philippines share a porous maritime border and thousands of islands, allowing militants to easily travel between the countries. Tumultuous political realities in South East Asia, geographic operational advantages, ineffective and preoccupied leadership in the region, and increased pressure in the shrinking ISIS territories in Iraq and Syria may lead to a continued influx of foreign fighters into the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. This potential opening for the group reinforces the unfortunate fact that the battle against ISIS is far from over, even when Mosul and Raqqa are finally reclaimed. Though we may not want to admit it, the threat posed by the Islamic State is not going away anytime soon.