Small Wars Journal

Foreign Fighter Returnees in Southeast Asia: Multiple Challenges, Limited Options

Mon, 01/15/2018 - 12:34am

Foreign Fighter Returnees in Southeast Asia: Multiple Challenges, Limited Options

Noah B. Cooper

Culmination, in traditional military parlance, implies that a military force is approaching or has reached a point of operational exhaustion, or simply stated it is no longer capable of continuing operations and, as it logically follows, of attaining its objectives. As the coalition of military forces continue to regain territory in Iraq and Syria lost to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) following the group’s 2014 onslaught and its subsequent declaration of a caliphate, culmination is likely to emerge as the phrase of choice to describe the organization’s current operational status. Nonetheless, the question arises, how does one ascribe such a linear term to a global group, whose brand other extremist and terrorist organizations have eagerly embraced? Obviously, the international scope of ISIS presents tremendous difficulties to counterterrorism efforts, particularly as the organization’s inevitable defeat in Iraq and Syria does not signify the complete dissolution of the group. Thus, the more profound question that emerges as the caliphate constricts is, what are the potential consequences of ISIS’s loss of its zones of control in the Middle East and where is the likely next counter-ISIS battleground? The answer to this question is neither definitive or assured, as any semblance of organizational rationality is buried within the ample rhetoric and the apocalyptic visions espoused by the group.

Nonetheless, one can conclude that organizational survival is an intrinsic goal of ISIS and thus as the caliphate shrinks, the group will seek to intensify its operations in other portions of the globe to remain relevant. Southeast Asia, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, presents an optimal location for the group to continue its operations as it provides a fertile ground for ISIS to propagate its extremist ideology further. Moreover, the significant population of Muslims and the historical presence of Islamist elements in this region provides an ideal alternative headquarters for ISIS’s activities. Indeed, the Marawi siege in the Philippines provides a stark example that confirms this assertion. It follows then that as ISIS loses ground in the Middle East and seeks to relocate in Southeast Asia, troubling consequences for this region will emerge, specifically the repercussions associated to the return of foreign fighters.

Fertile Grounds

Militancy has been a part of the Southeast Asia threat landscape for many years. Starting with Darul Islam, which formed in response to the secularization of Indonesia’s government in the 1960s to the current ISIS incarnation in the form of the conglomeration of groups that comprise ISIS – Philippines. In addition to the Islamist threat, numerous other extremist organizations infect this region, each possessing goals unique to their origin and their country. For instance, Thailand contends with a Muslim-majority separatist movement, which has contributed to decades of violence. Simultaneously, the Philippines struggles with a communist based political movement and insurgency in the form of the New People’s Army, as well as myriad Islamist organizations such as the Abu Sayyaf Group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the Maute Group to name a few. Malaysia, though it does not have a history of an Islamist threat, because of its strategic geography along the Straits of Malacca and its porous borders, serves as a hub for terrorists transiting throughout the region.

Foreign Fighters: A Complex Problem

Militant returnees from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria threaten to augment the capabilities of extremist organizations in the region through the sharing of their militant battlefield tactics and to inflame the anti-government sentiments of the restive Muslim populations in Southeast Asian countries through the proliferation of the ISIS ideology. To date, only an estimated 60 of the over 1600 Southeast Asian foreign fighters have returned to their countries of origin. However, as ISIS continues to lose ground in the Middle East, it is quite probable to expect the return of an increasing number of these combatants. To address this concern, the options available for governments are limited and include possible trial and imprisonment, attempts to decradicalize these individuals, or to allow their unimpeded return to their community. None of the aforementioned actions conducted either in isolation or in parallel are appealing choices.

First, a trial may prove legally challenging, absent any direct corroboration or first-hand testimony of a fighter’s ISIS association. Even without a thorough understanding of the legal system of the returnee’s home nation, it is reasonable to conclude that the fighter will not freely attest to association with a militant organization and will probably deny any affiliation. Though an unsecured social media account may undermine such statements and evidence the contrary, declarations via Facebook, Twitter, or other outlets alone place prosecutors in challenging legal positions, as obtaining a guilty ruling based solely on a social media postings may prove legally problematic.

There are still several pitfalls associated to the incarceration of a former militant if the prosecution of a foreign fighter results in a conviction and a subsequent prison sentence. Namely, recent history has demonstrated that prisons are idealized venues for the radicalization of others. A likely significant element of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s (the leader of ISIS) growth as a terrorist leader was his internments at the infamously recognized Abu Ghraib prison and Camp Bucca. This is just one of what is likely an incalculable number of cases.

The presence of violent jihadist that espouse a pernicious ideology in a prison environment is a recipe to fuel the radicalization of criminal elements that reside on the fringes of society. Statistics concerning the number of Islamists incarcerated in Southeast Asia are either not readily accessible or not tracked; however, prison overcrowding in nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines, where the criminal population far exceeds the prison capacity (the Indonesian prison system occupancy is 182 percent and the Philippines is at an astounding 436 percent of capacity), strains the ability of prison administrators to segregate foreign fighter returnees from the general inmate population. Such an environment will not prompt an Islamist to renounce his beliefs, but rather will likely serve to embitter him further. This situation, coupled with the lack of comprehensive efforts to reform former militants, provides an ideal incubator for the radicalization of other inmates. Though the radicalization of other prisoners is not an assured outcome, it is quite likely that foreign fighter returnees will prey on the susceptible inmate population.

Deradicalization programs have met with some success, though there are several challenges associated to the effectiveness of such programs. Primarily, to expunge an infectious ideology is a resource intensive process that is difficult to measure. Moreover, the risk of recidivism, or when an individual becomes re-radicalized through engagement with extremist elements, is high. Despite these obstacles, Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) conducts deradicalization seminars that highlight the experiences of former terrorists as a component of its rehabilitation program. The BNPT also provides vocational training as a means to integrate them back into society. However, Indonesian counterterrorism officials have claimed that deradicalization does not work, as jihadist continue to remain loyal to their organization and its goals.

Conversely, Malaysia has implemented an impressive deradicalization program, which yields a “95 percent success rate” that consist of a dual approach of deradicalization and rehabilitation and that continues monitoring efforts after an individual’s release. Notwithstanding this success, ISIS fighters (for example, members of Katibah Nusantara) that demonstrated a willingness to depart their home nation for the unfamiliar terrain of Iraq and Syria to fight for an organization that holds the use of extreme violence as a core tenet, will test this program.

Allowing a foreign fighter to return to his community with some degree of government oversight, may prove to be the most effective approach to reduce the threat posed by these individuals. First, the positive psychological effects of a homecoming, precipitated largely by reconnection with family members and friends, do not eliminate completely, but can act as a catalyst to temper jihadist tendencies. However, there is still a significant concern of the returnee contaminating the community with the ISIS ideology and encouraging susceptible youths by recounting their battlefield experiences. Second, not all fighters return home for the same reasons. Some likely have become disillusioned with the ISIS organization and are contrite for the actions and others may have recognized their limited opportunities as the group continues to degrade. Conversely, others may return at the direction of ISIS leadership to serve as regional agents, responsible for the establishment of sleeper cells, recruitment, and attacks. The prospect of allowing the unimpeded return of foreign fighters likely invokes a strong sense of nervousness among government authorities, particularly as the intentions of these returnees are not all honorable.


The inevitable defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the return of foreign fighters to their countries of origin poses a threat to Southeast Asia, particularly if they become agents to establish an increasingly larger foothold in the region to expand the global ISIS network. In addition to counterterrorism and policing actions, the options available to the governments of Southeast Asia are limited. The incarceration of these returnees, though a viable option, has the consequence of placing them in an environment surrounded by individuals that if radicalized, become even more dangerous. Deradicalization efforts, though noble, require greater investment in terms of the rehabilitation and monitoring of returnees. In some cases, allowing former militants to return to their families and communities may prove to be the most effective option. Addressing the return of foreign fighters to Southeast Asia is not an intractable problem; nonetheless, it will require diligence by government officials to lessen the risk posed by these individuals.

About the Author(s)

Major Noah Cooper in an active duty U.S. Army officer.



Wed, 01/17/2018 - 6:37am

MAJ Cooper,

This is well written and highlights the major dilemmas associated with returning foreign fighters and de-radicalization programs. Countering violent extremism is a complex problem set and requires a diverse mix of capabilities and resources. The Malaysia approach looks like an effective model for analysis and experimentation elsewhere. Belgium also developed multi-faceted approaches to mitigating this on-going problem.

Next, the legal assessment is valid and relates to a recent situation in the Republic of Georgia. Insufficient evidence was cited by a variety of countries for a high-value ISIS leader of Chechen origin.

Other cases in Europe involve improper persons of interest vetting and tracking that ultimately enabled high profile attacks. In many cases the use of biometrics and biometric data sharing is a key enabler for law enforcement to maintain awareness of transnational threat actors. These means support the overall dual capability of "de-radicalization and rehabilitation monitoring efforts after an individual’s release".


"direction of ISIS leadership to serve as regional agents, responsible for the establishment of sleeper cells, recruitment, and attacks."


This is also a valid point and illustrates the encouragement of "lone mujahid" and "lone jihad legion" proliferated through jihadist publications and on-line forums like AQAP Inspire 2013, Dar Al Islam 2015,and Knights of Lone Jihad 2017.

EUROPOL Report excerpt:

"The 6th part of the Knights of Lone Jihad series uses the recent London attack2 to inspire lone-wolves to conduct further bomb attacks on the public transport systems and additionally promote the use of Remotely-controlled IEDs concealed in backpacks. Links to the message were distributed on pro-IS Telegram chat groups and channels on 18/09/2017.