Small Wars Journal

Ignored in Asia: The ISIL Threat

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 12:11am

Ignored in Asia: The ISIL Threat

David L. Edwards


In February 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of a caliphate, known commonly as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  This was a significant pronouncement in the Islamic faith, as a caliphate is traditionally known as the formation of a sovereign state to lead the devote Muslims.  Since February 2014, ISIL has acquired large swaths of Iraq and Syria, killed and misplaced thousands of people, forged alliances, obtained substantial numbers of recruits and financing, and wreaked havoc across the globe.  In September 2014, then Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew G. Olson, stated that “ISIL views itself as the new leader of the global jihad” (2014).  While ISIL supporters are emerging across the world, absent is a focus on the organization’s presence and activities in Asia.  As a result, particular attention should be paid to the Asia Pacific.

The Asia Pacific region possesses a significant Muslim population, to include the world’s most populous Muslim nation-state: Indonesia.  Additionally, between 1979-1989, Asia observed its citizens travel to the Middle East to participate in terrorist activity during the Soviet Union occupation of Afghanistan.  Furthermore, a substantial number of organizations and individuals within the Asia Pacific region have pledged allegiance to ISIL.  The most notorious of the allegiance pledging organizations include Abu Bakar Bashir, a leader of Jemaah Islamayah; Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, two Filipino terrorist groups. Therefore, a strong connection exists between Asian extremism and ISIL. 

What role will ISIL play in the United States Pacific Command area of responsibility?  Asian support for ISIL will largely be based in Southeast Asia, which possesses the largest Muslim population in the region and will manifest through Asian nationals traveling to the Middle East, the secondary effects of these travels, and finally through a resurgence of terrorist activity in the Asia Pacific region.  To suppress the Asian-ISIL influence requires the formation of a combatant command coordinating council, an increase in regional partnerships, and an increase in Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and intelligence sharing.   

Asian Nationals Travel to the Middle East

The most immediate reality of Asian support for ISIL is the traveling of its citizenry to the Middle East.  These individuals are providing sizeable contributions to the organization’s activities.  As this activity crosses various geographic combatant commands, the formulation of a combatant command coordinating council is necessary to properly address and combat this issue. 

Many from Asia are traveling to support ISIL in the Middle East.  In July 2014, Veryan Khan, editorial director of Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, reported that approximately 500 fighters had traveled to the Middle East from the Asia Pacific region (Regencia 2014).  In September 2014, Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of the United States Pacific Command (PACOM), estimated that 1,000 fighters had traveled to Iraq and Syria from the Indo-Asia Pacific.  He continued, “That number could get larger as we go forward” (Locklear 2014).  In the span of only two months, the number of fighters from the Asia Pacific doubled.  Since September, ISIL has received numerous pledges of allegiance from both individuals and organizations, to include Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Egypt’s Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, Libya’s Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam, and the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.  In late October 2014, the United Nations (UN) published a report that declared, “Numbers since 2010 are now many times the size of the cumulative numbers of foreign terrorists fighters between 1990 and 2010 – and are growing” (Ackerman 2014).  Given the expanded nature of public support across the globe for ISIL since September, and this most recent UN report, it may be assumed that the number of Asian fighters traveling to the Middle East continues to climb.    

The Asian ISIL fighters are actively engaged in the organization’s activities.  In May 2014, Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, a Malaysian member of ISIL, led a suicide bombing mission in Iraq that killed 25 Iraqi soldiers and himself; another Malaysian died while fighting in Syria and was proclaimed a martyr by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party; three Malaysian women allegedly traveled to Syria to provide sexual support to the ISIL fighters; Robert “Musa” Cerantonio, an Australian, traveled to the Philippines to recruit for ISIL.  Cerantonio is also very active on social media and as of July 2014 he had over 6,700 followers on Twitter and YouTube.  He also maintained a Facebook page, which, prior to its deletion by Facebook personnel, had over 3,000 likes - making Cerantonio the “third most ‘liked’ person online among ‘western jihadists in Syria’” (Regencia 2014).  Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, a Singaporean, left his family and traveled to Syria to join ISIL, while another Singaporean, traveled to the region to join her husband and two teenage children already in the Middle East (Ibid.).  Numerous accounts identify Asian nationals fighting alongside ISIL from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Australia.       

These developments cause consternation for the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) and Central Command (CENTCOM).  ISIL has engendered the support of organizations across the globe, which crosses all of the geographic combatant commands.  To properly combat such an issue requires the formation of a combatant command coordinating council, which will at a minimum include the geographic combatant commanders and will fall under the auspices of the National Command Authority.  This body will serve as a forum to bring the combatant commanders together to discuss transnational issues, such as terrorism, piracy, illicit trafficking, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and others that span multiple combatant commands.  Additional organizations or agencies can be brought in as necessitated topically.  For example, for countering terrorism, the National Counterterrorism Center; Special Operations Command, which has the operational lead for combating terrorism; Transportation Command; and Strategic Command, would be likely members of the coordinating council.  This council would ensure a holistic approach to each transnational issue and access to all Defense Department assets.      

Secondary Effects

Historicity paints a daunting picture of the Asian landscape upon the return of the ISIL experienced Asian fighters.  The emergence of a single enemy to the Asian Pacific community provides a unique opportunity for partnership building to placate the region of this existential threat.        

The Asia Pacific region is rightly concerned about the number of fighters traveling to the Middle East, as these individuals will return with unique firsthand knowledge of terrorist activities, logistics, recruiting tactics, economic support, networking, and methodologies.  Between 1979-1989, Asia supplied the Middle East with nearly 800 fighters during the Soviet occupation.  Subsequent to the 800 fighters’ return, those combat experienced Asian fighters, “form[ed] extremist groups of their own, including the notorious al Qaeda-linked organization Jemaah Islamiyah,” stated Southeast Asian expert Joseph Chinyong Liow (Liow 2014).  Jemaah Islamiyah was responsible for the Bali bombing in 2002 and the Australian Embassy bombing in Indonesia in 2004.  Additionally, Filipinos that traveled to the Middle East in the 1980s for the same purpose returned to the Philippines and formed the terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf, which is known for its violence (Regencia 2014).  These terrorist organizations remain active to date and are the by-product of a mere 800 fighters.  As of September 2014, the estimated number of Asian fighters that have traveled to support ISIL was in excess of 1,000–with numbers likely rising.  What will be the by-product of this generation of Asian fighter? 

This threat provides fertile soil for the growth of partnership building.  In his most recent posture statement, Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of PACOM, stated, “A sustained effort to build and enhance the capacity of our allies and partners is the cornerstone of our counter terrorism strategy in South and Southeast Asia” (2014).  Recent PACOM activity has demonstrated the importance of leveraging existing forums for partnership building, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  The most important proposed activity for partnership building is a follow-on to the ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting (ADMM) Counter-Terrorism Exercise, which was conducted in September 2013 and brought together the ten ASEAN nations and the eight “Plus” countries.  This engagement served as a substantial leap forward in partnership building, yet the formal realization of ISIL did not occur until February 2014.  As such, a follow-up engagement that highlights existing realities is necessary.  Furthermore, an increase in International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) where ISIL threats exist, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore will demonstrate U.S. support to the region and inculcate combating terrorism expertise in the region.  The ADMM Counter-Terrorism Exercise, IMET, and FMF will concurrently provide the greatest opportunities to build partner capacity in Asia Pacific and lead to combating secondary effects of Asian ISIL fighters returning to the region.               

Resurgence in Asia Proper Terrorist Activity

In addition to the threat of Asians traveling to the Middle East and those returning home with newfound skill sets, ISIL has experienced support from Asia proper.  Many nations have witnessed their citizens supporting ISIL while remaining in-country.  This presents an interesting dilemma where ISR and intelligence sharing prove salient solutions.    

Dr. Rodger Shanahan, an international relations expert at Lowy Institute for International Policy, stated that ISIL poses a serious threat to the democratic governments of Indonesia and Malaysia (2014).  In addition to Asian jihadists traveling to the Middle East, there is a large contingent of local Asian supporters that have pledged their allegiance to ISIL, to include Abu Bakar Bashir, a leader of Jemaah Islamayah; and two Filipino organizations: Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.  In addition, the Malaysian government arrested 19 individuals that plotted to bomb several pubs and a brewery outside of Kuala Lumpur (Regencia 2014).  ISIL affiliates also issued bomb threats to the largest Buddhist temple in the world, in Java, Indonesia. A myriad of individuals, such as Firman Hidayat Silalahi, from Indonesia, have been arrested for demonstrating their support of ISIL by flying ISIL flags.  Videos on YouTube demonstrate various Filipino groups’ support of ISIL.  A plethora of groups and individuals, the largest from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore, have pledged their support to ISIL, which poses significant threats to the region.

These threats are real and require action.  For such an effort, the role of ISR stands paramount.  PACOM’s ISR capabilities should be leveraged to ensure sufficient response times to potential dangers.  Admiral Locklear stated, “USPACOM’s success depends on our ability to accurately assess the theater security environment with penetrating and persistent ISR and domain awareness…[and] assured means for sharing critical information with our allies, partners, and our forces [emphasis added]” (2014).  Admiral Locklear also stated the desire to enhance military to military engagements with partner nations.  ISR provides another means through which these military to military engagements may be incorporated as a component of building partner capacity.  ISR and intelligence sharing will provide PACOM and U.S. allies an asset through which Asian terrorist activity may be mitigated.               

Contrarian View

Alternate arguments include the claim that Southeast Asian nation economies are much stronger today than they were during the Soviet occupation in the Middle East, which garnered significant Asian support and will counterbalance a robust Asian response in the present conflict.  Additionally, the cultural distinctions between Asian and Middle Eastern Muslims is sizeable and includes fluency in Arabic and overarching religious fervor, which will make the two groups incompatible. 

Despite the veracity of the aforementioned claims, ISIL has attained a minimum of 1,000 Asian jihadists traveling to the Middle East, while the previous conflict with the Soviet Union achieved only 800.  Additionally, Asian extremist organizations have already pledged allegiance to ISIL.  Neither economic prowess nor cultural ambiguities have impeded the response from Asia.     


ISIL is playing a significant role in the PACOM area of responsibility.  Asian fighters are traveling to Iraq and Syria, secondary effects of these travels present serious risks, and Asia proper is witnessing increasing support of ISIL.  The following actions will assist in mitigating said threats: the formulation of a combatant command coordinating council will facilitate the countering of threats posed by those traveling to the Middle East, building partner capacity will reduce the risk of secondary effects, and ISR and intelligence sharing will minimize potential terrorist activity in Asia proper.  The threats in Asia are real and merit the attention and action necessary to quell ISIL’s footprint in the region.   


Ackerman, Spencer. “Foreign jihadists flocking to Iraq and Syria on ‘unprecedented scale’ – UN.” The Guardian. October 30, 2014. (accessed October 31, 2014).

Liow, Joseph Chinyong. “ISIS Goes to Asia.” Foreign Affairs. September 19, 2014. (accessed October 17, 2014).  

Locklear, Samuel J. “Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on U.S. Pacific Command Posture.” House Armed Services Committee. March 5, 2014.

Locklear, Samuel J. “Department of Defense Press Briefing on U.S. Pacific Command's Area of Responsibility by Admiral Locklear in the Pentagon Briefing Room.” September 25, 2014. (accessed October 17, 2014).  

Olson, Matthew G. “Prepared Statement at Brookings Institution.” National Counterterrorism Center. September 3, 2014. (accessed October 17, 2014).  

Regencia, Ted. “Islamic State’s Support Spreads into Asia.” Aljazeera. July 19, 2014. (accessed on October 30, 2014).

Shanahan, Rodger. “’Islamic State’ poses ‘serious threat’ to Asia’s Muslim countries.” DW. August 12, 2014. (accessed October 30, 2014).

About the Author(s)

David L. Edwards is a Plans and Policy Analyst at the Defense Language and National Security Education Office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  In this capacity, he authors, drafts, reviews, and analyzes language, regional, and cultural policies and strategies.  He previously served as a foreign language and culture analyst in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Manpower and Reserve Affairs).



Mon, 02/02/2015 - 8:57pm

In reply to by Bill C.

I have little real expertise on those conflicts beyond the basics; certainly not enough to reach conclusions.

I do have some expertise on sectarian conflicts in modern SE Asia. It might be possible to find similarities among these conflicts if you look through a wide enough lens, but the conclusions would be so broad and so general that they would have little if any utility. Possibly an interesting exercise for those who enjoy tucking items into hypothetical pigeon-holes, but I don't see it really enhancing understanding of the individual conflicts, or leading toward solutions.

The problem with broad theories is that once people adopt one, they have a tendency to shoehorn the specifics of a given situation into the theory, rather than adjusting the theory to fit reality. That does not generally help.

Bill C.

Mon, 02/02/2015 - 12:59pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Likewise nothing to be gained by looking at our American Civil and Indian Wars in a more-broad and generalized manner?

For example: From the perspective of expansion, transformation, incorporation, utilization, assimilation, power, influence and control. Thus, through the more-broad and generalized lens of national security?

(Herein, our American Civil and Indian Wars certainly having very different, individual and unique characteristics of their own.)


Sat, 01/31/2015 - 9:22pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Each of these local conflicts is unique, and I see nothing to be gained by trying to shoehorn them into some broad and generalized box. Better to study them and understand them for what they are.

Bill C.

Sat, 01/31/2015 - 11:11am

In reply to by Dayuhan


Would it be fair to say that these local conflicts often have something in common with the international conflicts now before us; this being, for example, an "our values, attitudes, beliefs and way-of-life -- versus -- your values, attitudes, beliefs and way-of-life" aspect?

Thus, to understand "ungoverned spaces" and/or "disaffected populaces" -- nationally and internationally -- more in these "us v. them" terms?

Herein, "bringing people within the rule of law" being understood by these folks -- much as it was by the American Southerners and the American Indians -- as forced assimilation.

In this light, to understand "common cause?"


Wed, 01/28/2015 - 7:52pm

In reply to by GHD

That extensively experienced civilian you mentioned... that would be me, though I'm not associated with DoD, or likely to be.

Americans have the habit of looking at this issue through a focus on international terrorist groups, and often seem more concerned with tracking international connections than in understanding the history and local dynamics of the local conflicts that provide international terrorists with an entry point. Essentially these are domestic conflicts with primarily domestic drivers and domestic solutions. They have been to some extent exploited and manipulated by international terrorists, though the connection has often been exaggerated, but they remain local conflicts.

In the Philippine context in particular I have noted in the past that Americans seem fond of trying to break these armed movements into neatly defined groups, each with an established hierarchy, a defined ideology, and a measurable membership and territory. This shows a real and crippling ignorance of the actual dynamics in the field, where clan, family, tribal affiliation and money determine allegiances, not ideology or group "membership". A village descried as a BIFF "camp" is not necessarily a place where people support ISIS and subscribe to a radical Islamist ideology, it's more likely a pace where the leading clans are related by blood to someone with a direct connection to the BIFF leadership. A breakaway group acting as a spoiler is less likely to be driven by ideology or international affiliation than by tribal distrust, anger over a deal gone bad, or the perception that they are being cut out of the spoils of an expected deal.

The extent of connection between ISIS and Philippine groups is a bit overrated by the author, I think. Yes, there are videos, and declarations, and they get publicity, which is what they are meant to do. These groups have limited reach and capacity: ASG is at this point less a group than a franchise, with various leaders appropriating the name as they see fit and pursuing a mainly financial agenda. BIFF is marginally more organized but is confined to a limited area. Terror groups have at times tried to organize outside of Mindanao, most notably with the Rajah Solaiman movement and the Superferry bombing, but the Philippine security forces have been fairly effective at breaking these attempts down and denying them a sustained presence outside their inner Mindanao territories, just as the Indonesians have been fairly effective at cracking down on their own terrorist apparatus.

Locals have gone to fight with ISIS. The numbers seem questionable to me, but there may be a basis. The motivation probably ranges over a fair span, with boredom and testosterone well up in the mix. What these people might do on their return is a problem, though "existential threat" seems to me way exaggerated. Defining the threat as "ISIS" or "JI" or "AQ" is, I think, a mistake: the problem is less the international groups than the enduring local conflicts that provide ungoverned space and disaffected populaces that international groups can exploit.

In the Philippine case, the connections between local militants and international groups are probably less a worry than connections between militant groups and the government apparatus: collusion, corruption, cooperation in various illicit ventures and continued leakage of weapons and ammunition from government arsenals are depressingly common, as are human rights abuses and generally bad governance. At this point the abuses are more likely to involve private armed groups associated with government than the military (though not always) but the end result is the same: continued disaffection, anger, and fertile ground for advocates of terror. First order of business for the government is not suppressing international terrorists or bringing the rebels under the rule of law, but bringing its own people under the rule of law.

What role the US has to play in all this is debatable: these are sovereign states with their own capacities and they need to confront their own issues. Training helps, as does intel sharing. I would personally like to see the US be a bit more forthright in urging governments to confront and acknowledge their internal problems... but that of course is easy for an outsider to say.

In short, I don't see what PACOM needs to do beyond what they are already doing. I'm not even sure "more of the same" is desirable, as an extended or expanded US presence poses potential liabilities as well.


Tue, 01/27/2015 - 8:07am

In reply to by GHD

GHD - many thanks for your comment. It is true that the emphasis for this paper was focused on a U.S. response, but with the intent to generate awareness and partnerships in the PACOM AOR - particularly in the area of intelligence, which was illustrated in the Resurgence in Asia Proper section. President Obama'a recent trip to India this week has initiated such a response from President Modi's government. U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes stated this week that India could greatly assist with intelligence gathering in varying aspects, to include the flow of money. The long term approach will of course yield enhanced results.

While the author correctly points out some of the main players in a potential ISIS threat to the PACOM AOR, this is not a new concern. Jemaah Islamiyah, et al, has threatened a Super Caliphate in the SE Asia for years. This would include Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, S. Thailand, & S. Philippines (ARMM), with an eye on eventual expansion (arguably already happening). To suggest further involvement by the U.S. military shows a misunderstanding of the regional pulse & a typical American short-sighted approach. What needs to happen is to establish long-term initiatives in these areas led by civilians who have extensive experience as an Asia hand & who have a deep understanding of the geopolitics of the area (whether DOD civilians or contractors remains to be seen) IOT establish relations with these countries & develop personal relationships with the key players at all levels...NOT, some ticket-punching adventure, which seems to be currently happening. The British Foreign Service utilized this concept to some degree of success in governing their colonies pre-WWII, by becoming immersed in an area, learning the language, & directly representing their country's interest. By placing U.S. civilians amongst certain areas of the populace, with a mandate to develop relationships, keep a finger on the pulse, provide routine reports, & work with host country programs to further both regional & U.S. interests outside the fence line or protected walls of the embassy, this long-term endeavor would breed success over the years, as there would be no direct U.S. military involvement, which seems to be an agitator, & the trust built up over the years would be priceless...similar to what missionaries accomplish, but with a different goal in mind.