13 August 2019

“The Archipelago Caliphate” – ISIL’s expansion into South and South-East Asia

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

A D.S.M piece published at beginning of May 2019 predicted that “South Asia will be another area in which ISIL-affiliated groups will try to gain ground. Before the bloody attack in Sri Lanka, Southern Asian countries had very little exposure to Islamist terrorist groups. Such a moment happened in 2016, when a bakery was attacked in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In that incident, young suicide attackers, from well-educated and rich families, killed 29 people. Despite the terrorist attacks claimed in the name of ISIL, the organization has no groups affiliated in the region’s immediate proximity, with the exception of Afghanistan, which has the Islamic State of the Khorasan Province (ISKP). But, demographically, every country in South Asia has very deep ties with the Middle East, especially with the extended Gulf region, due to countrymen who emigrated in search of work.” Starting from this estimation and taking into account the recent evolutions in the area, we will analyse the recent action courses of ISIL in Asia, more specifically, Pakistan, South Asia and South-East Asia.

Image source: Mediafax

ISIL has mostly collapsed in Syria and Iraq, but groups in South and South-East Asia which have supported or sworn allegiance to ISIL’s leader are still active, and in their vision their current mission is to continue the fight “at home”. As the ISIL leader specified, in his video message on April 29, 2019, the organization must “expand, connect with affiliated groups or other Salafist-jihadi groups and wear the enemy out in a war of attrition”. In simpler terms, ISIL is trying to enfranchise its brand in Asia through actions specific for guerrilla warfare, executed by local cells formed of ISIL members who returned from the area of the “Caliphate” and are augmented with local groups or locals (“lone wolves”) who support or sympathize with the group’s ideology.

Following the established objective, on May 10 and 15, 2019, ISIL officially announced the creation of two wilayah (provinces) in Pakistan and India. The announcement was made through its own Amaq news agency. The official announcement establishing the two provinces was made immediately after ISIL claimed responsibility for attacks on security forces in the district of Shopian, in Indian Kashmir, and was made by reorganizing the “Khorasan province” (the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan), in which ISKP activates. The “province” was established in January 2015, and ISKP led the entire ISIL activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was the source of terrorist-jihadi activities the organization carried out in India.

As part of the campaign to obtain the public support necessary for its survival, ISIL is exploiting local ethnical and religious disputes in its favour, using them to promote its extremist ideology and to receive sympathy or support from a majority of the population. Maybe this aspect should be the first priority of the political classes and security forces in Asian countries.


One month before the Pakistan wilayah was created, ISKP carried out a bomb attack in the Hazarjangi square in Quetta, the capital of the Balochistan province, killing 20. The attack targeted the Hazara Shiite ethnical group which, along with the local Christian community, was regularly targeted by ISIL and its affiliates, in accordance with the strategic objective to religiously cleanse the future territory on which the organization will establish a caliphate. The Hazara community in Pakistan is a predilect target for ISIL because of their easily-identifiable physical traits, inherited from their Uzbek and Turkmen forefathers, and also because of the “habit” to religiously persecute this community started more than two centuries ago.

The presence of already marginalized religious communities, combined with the prolonged volatility of the security situation in Balochistan – caused by the Balochi separatist movement, terrorist-jihadi violence and ongoing military operations – make the province an ideal ground for ISIL. In this manner, ISIL saw in Balochistan a gateway towards South Asia.

The increase of ISIL activity in the Pakistani provinces of Balochistan and Sindh was predicted by numerous analysts and military experts; despite this, the Pakistani Defence Ministry vehemently denies any ISIL presence in the regions. However, sources from within the Pakistani Army stated under anonymity that the attacks claimed by ISIL are executed by some local groups who have created an alliance with ISIL, such as Al-Alami, a faction which split from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) group. At the same time, also under anonymity, high-ranked military officials recognized that ISIL and LeJ sympathizers exist even among the Pakistani terrestrial forces.

The international community continues to express its concern over Islamabad’s use of terrorist-jihadi organizations and their protection by the army, in the purpose of promoting strategical Pakistani objectives in the region. Corroborating this with the fact that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, and that they found themselves many times near an “atomic pitfall”, we can state that, by establishing the two wilayahs, ISIL is multiplying the potential of threats in the region.


The political game between New Delhi and Islamabad, materialized among others by support for the separatist groups in Balochistan, as well as Jammu and Kashmir, offers ISIL a recruitment pool and an opportunity to strengthen its presence in the latter region. At the same time, ISIL wants to consolidate its presence in South India, in the state of Kerala. Kerala Police Officials estimate that approximately 100 of the state’s residents joined ISIL in the past couple of years, while approximately 3,000 have been “de-radicalized” and are currently under the supervision of security forces.

“The Indian Mujahideen” (IM) is the main group tied to ISIL from India. Its former Shafi Armar is known as one the former ISIL media chiefs in Syria. At the same time, Shafi Armar was the leader of Ansar-ut Tawhid fi Bilad al-hind, another India group inspired by ISIL. He also recruited fighters through social media for Junood-ul Khilafa-Fil-Hind (JKF), a group which tried to affiliate with ISIL and establish a caliphate in India. At the middle of 2018, Indian security forces announced that JKF was attempting to establish cells in Mumbai, New Delhi, Lucknow, Bengaluru, Chennai and Allahabad.

Alongside the ISIL threat, India is also facing the spread of Wahhabi ideology. Several madrasas (schools) in Kerala are still preaching Wahhabi Islam to children. These madrasas indoctrinate children with the idea of the necessity to establish a global caliphate, an idea also promoted by ISIL ideology. Promoting this ideology is not only a threat to the Hindu population, but is also a threat for Sunni, Shiites and Christians.

The Philippines

When the fight for the city of Marawi between terrorists and Philippine troops ended, in October 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte declared victory over ISIL. Despite this, later events showed that the statement was only political, as attacks continued throughout the following year.

Despite the April 2019 announcement of the death of the leader of Maute – a group affiliated to ISIL – and also the self-proclaimed leader of ISIL in South-East Asia, Abu Dar, terrorist-jihadi threats in the Mindanao Isle (South Philippines), especially in the provinces of Sulu and Maguindanao remain a concern for authorities.

Currently, ISIL member and sympathizers in the Philippines dream of establishing a caliphate on Mindanao, which would include the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, an objective which is aimed to be accomplished with the help of “comrades” from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Indonesia and Malaysia

In Indonesia, the terrorist threat caused by ISIL has evolved through the typology of attackers and weapons used in the attacks. Following counterterrorist operations successfully carried out by Indonesian authorities, attacks are currently carried out by either “lone wolves”, the women of ISIL members or sympathizers or even entire families. At the same time, ISIL is advising them to not seek or be restrained by the availability of firearms or explosive devices when they plan their attacks, but to use whatever they have at their disposal – knives to stab as many people as possible, personal vehicles to ram into crowds.

Alongside these aspects, jihadism is growing in Indonesia – the most populous Islamic country in the world, with a constitution which recognizes five different official religions – mainly due to prison overcrowding. The 477 prisons have become recruitment and radicalization centres, as common offenders are incarcerated next to those sentenced for terrorism. One of the promoters of radicalization in prison is cleric Abu Bakar Bashir (the “mastermind” behind the 2002 Bali attacks).

From the point of view of the model in which Islam is interpreted, the semi-autonomous Aceh province remains the most vulnerable to ISIL’s expansion, because of its strict manner of applying Islamic law, especially in the classification and sentencing of offences.

In Malaysia, ISIL’s enlargement is favoured by the anti-Semite attitude of Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. Any Muslim nation which promotes or fuels anti-Semitism favours the actions of ISIL and promote the concept of the caliphate. Although it is a modern country, in economic ascension, Malaysia will most probably also remain a financial centre to fund terrorist activities in the region, thanks to its porous borders and its capacity to attract foreign investments. We cannot definitely exclude some violent actions which will be revendicated by ISIL, as from 2013 and until now, 23 attacks have already been outplayed in the country, including an attack planned during the closing ceremony of a South-East Asian sports competition (Kuala Lumpur, 2017).

The Maldives and Bangladesh

More than 200 citizens from the Maldives (out of a population of 400,000) travelled to Syria to join ISIL, making this country the biggest contributor to ISIL relative to its number of residents. Although no attacks were carried out by ISIL until now, social problems, organized crime and violence could contribute to the radicalization of some individuals.

In Bangladesh, a new generation of “jihadists” appeared starting with 2016. For them, attacks against minorities and those who do not share the same ideology have taken a backseat in favour of the dream to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. In this way, ISIL has gradually taken the place of Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). The cells created by the new generation of jihadists are much more decentralized, non-hierarchical and are mostly based on online communication. This type of organization and operation favours ISIL, as the allotted funds are diminishing, and adapting to the pressure generated by security forces can be done rapidly. Last but not least, online communication on social media networks or through some messaging apps makes following the activity of this cells harder, if not impossible. Propaganda, video or audio motivational materials, tutorials on how to carry out an attack or on how to build IEDs, together with magazines and other electronic materials are the main assets for ISIL’s recruitment drive in South Asia. In this way, there is no coercion to join the “Jihadi cause”, but also no financial reward. Everything is based on manipulating the conscience and self-radicalization. ISIL only offers a framework which, placed over certain vulnerabilities, offers some individuals the capacity to self-model, educate and inspire themselves.

Based on these transformations, the terrorist group “Hizb-ut Tawhid” (HT) re-emerged in Bangladesh, after previously having a limited activity. Since the beginning of this year, HT started organizing meeting in several cities throughout Bangladesh. According to a video clip from June 13, 2019, a leader of this group encouraged its members to continue the “Jihad” and the fight against Christians and Hebrews. HT also has a YouTube channel.

Previously, in 2014, HT formed an alliance with Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), with the latter becoming an ISIL affiliate in 2015.

The recent appointment by ISIL of Abu Muhammed al-Bengali as “Emir of Bangladesh”, corroborated with ideological similarities between HT, JMB and ISIL, indicates a possible intensification of terrorist activities in the region. Counterterrorism experts estimate that it possible that the ARSA group (ARAKAN Rohingya and Salvation Army) will join this coalition, if it hasn’t already.


ISIL did not miss the opportunity offered by the “ethnic cleansing” campaign carried out by Myanmar’s government on the Rohingya Muslim minority to make an unofficial call to arms and orient their members and other foreign fighters to “a new frontline”. The Rohingya crisis gained the attention of ISIL and other terrorist-jihadi groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.

This state of facts can generate a long-term conflict in South and South-East Asia, similar to the siege of Marawi in the Philippines, which would involve Islamic militants. This estimate is based on:

  • ISIL’s public statement, made through its Dabiq online publication, according to which it intends to establish a base in Bangladesh from where it could launch attacks on Myanmar’s government, as revenge for killing the Rohingya Muslims;
  • the news report which stated that a group of Malaysians travelled through Myanmar, Bangladesh and Thailand to gain revenge for the acts of cruelty executed by the government against the Rohingya minority;
  • in Indonesia, the Islam Defender’s Front (IDF) requested “jihadists” to travel to the Rakhine province (in Myanmar) to fight in the name of the Rohingyas;
  • IDF spokesperson Slamet Maarif said in 2017 that the group is ready to carry out a “holy war” in Myanmar, if the situation requests it;
  • Islamist groups in Indonesia, including Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a local terrorist group with ties to ISIL, have previously explored the Rohingya crisis in their benefit, especially in 2012 and 2015, but their actions never attracted international attention.

Rohingya Muslims have established several terrorist organizations themselves, including the “Rohingya Solidarity Organization”, “Harkat-al Yaqin”, “Arakan Rohingya and Salvation Army” (ARSA), which aim to found an independent Muslim country.

In these conditions, the failure and lack of will from the Myanmar government to resolve the problem of the Rohingya community and to allow those over 1.1 million Rohingya refugees to return from Bangladesh offers the opportunity for ISIL or other local terrorist-jihadi forces to opt for resolving the problem through violence. This is a significant threat for Myanmar but, especially, for countries in the region (Bangladesh) and, why not, for the international community. Will the Rakhine become the following “terrorist-jihadi front”?


Because of the increase in the influence of ISIL’s ideology, the entire region of South and South-East Asia is facing a second terrorist wave. The first wave was launched by the 2002 Bali attack and ended in 2008. Later, in 2016 and 2017, South-East Asia recorded a 36% increase in the number of deaths caused by terrorism. The members of terrorist-jihadi organizations responsible for these attacks originated from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. While, at the time, the respective organizations had different agendas, most of them are currently converting to the ISIL brand, and benefit from a larger perspective due to financing, operational and ideologic training, as well as promotion of their image.

The “Archipelago Caliphate” is the old dream of radical ideologists in the region, who wish to make it into reality by linking the forces, ideology and finances of ISIL with those of local groups, a perspective which would equal with South and South-East Asia waking to a nightmare.

Translated by Ionut Preda