Pakistan and the ISIS: Steering Islamic Militancy in the South East Asian Region, Post 2001

Pakistan has a history of nurturing non-state actors to fulfil its own strategic interests vis-a-vis India and Afghanistan, making it a germane ground for hardcore Islamist militants. Mention can be made of hardcore al Qaeda militants, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who is a Pakistani and according to the 9/11 commission report, is tagged as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks.” It is a known fact that following the devastating terrorist attack on the U.S. mainland in September 2001, Pakistan (under the Military rule of Musharraf) despite joining the U.S. led war on terror, did not make any sound and effective reversal in its policy of nurturing and courting militants. It has shown its counter-terror efforts by just capturing top al Qaeda leaders such as Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, murderer of Wall Street Journal Correspondent, Daniel Pearl in 2002; Abu Zubaydah and a few others. Whenever Pakistan acted in the direction of countering terrorism, it has mainly been due the presence of an international pressure. Going back into the history, in the aftermath of the 9/11, in the consecutive months, Pakistan’s sponsored anti-India terrorist groups- Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) carried out brutal terrorist attacks in India including on the Indian Parliament. Henceforth, only under the intense U.S. and Indian pressure to prevent the heated up warlike situation in the South Asian region, Musharraf on January 12, 2002, banned militant organisations including LeT, JeM, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and Tehreek-e-Jafaria Pakistan (TJP). It was only a tactical move as these militant organisations re-emerged under different names or started working as charity organisations. The anti-India militant groups along with the Taliban and the Haqqani network continue to flourish in Pakistan with not only massive state support but also with an expansive societal reinforcement. It has also been a host to the chief of al Qaeda- Osama bin Laden for years unknown.
In the recent times, there has not only been wide acknowledgement of Pakistan sponsoring terrorism, but also an increased international pressure to eliminate terrorism by stop making a distinction between the good and bad militants. To evade international criticism and pressure, Pakistan banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD/LeT-involved in 2008 brutal Mumbai terrorist attacks), and its charitable arm- Falah-i-Insaniyat (FIF) and the Haqqani network in 2015. Such measures have remained an empty rhetoric as the militant organisations and their affiliates continue to flourish in Pakistan. It is evident from the fact that recently in 2018, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF-an intergovernmental body to combat money laundering, terrorist financing, and other related threats to the integrity of an international financial system), placed Pakistan on the grey list. The reason is being- its failure to curb the anti-terror financing and to constrict the funding of militant groups including JuD and its affiliates. Pakistan’s lack of seriousness in dealing with its militant groups has once again come to the fore. The newly elected Imran Khan’s civilian dispensation has overlooked and ignored the expiration of an ordinance that has proscribed militant groups like JuD and FIF under a UN resolution. Resultantly, these militant organisations are no longer on the list of banned outfits. It clearly signifies Pakistan’s lack of will and intention to get over the scourge of terrorism.
Such ill-willed and dual policy of dealing with terrorism has resulted in continuation of Pakistan being a hotbed of Islamic radicalism and militancy. The homegrown radicals and Islamist militants have not only backfired at Pakistan, but also posed an imminent transnational and global threat. Being the only state in the South Asian region, which sponsors terrorism as its official policy, has always been and continues to be a gravitational force for Islamist militants across the globe sharing the broader ideological goal of ordering the world along the “true Islamic lines” based on Sharia. It became evident with the presence of savage ISIS in Pakistan, immediately after the proclamation of Islamic Caliphate by the ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June 2014 in Iraq. It is alleged that its presence openly came to the fore for the first time, when women and girls from a radical and militant mosque Lal Masjid’s madrasa, Jamia Hafsa, consigned a message to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It stated- “the caliph, and to our brothers, the mujahideen…we pray for you every night here in the land of Pakistan…Oh Allah, establish the Islamic Caliphate in Pakistan and everywhere.” A faction of notorious militant organisation of Pakistan, Tehreek-e-Pakistan (TTP), Jundullah pledged its allegiance to the Islamic state. Also, a cooperative relationship got established between ISIS and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami (a sectarian militant outfit). It brings to the fore an easy convergence between various Islamist militant groups in Pakistan and beyond based on similar ideological affiliations and goals. For instance, as the ISIS consolidated its position, the head of the TTP’s Orakzai zone was officially appointed as the chief of ISIS’s Waliyat-e-Khurasan in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region in January 2015. A report mentions the estimates provided by a London based think tank, Royal United Services Institute, that ISIS had recruited around 2000 to 3000 persons in Pakistan. Thence, Pakistan is the motherboard of Islamic militancy witnessing strong connections between Islamist militant groups inclusive of the ISIS and the growing transnational ferocious nature of the ISIS has impacted the security landscape of the South East Asian region.
The South East Asian (SEA) region constituting of around 270 million Muslims, is gnawed by the growing threat of extremism and militancy. In recent years, the violent strides carried out by the ISIS have brought to the fore the security challenges the SEA region is grappling with. This region has provided several hundred radical Islamist militants (around 1000), in particular from Indonesia and Malaysia, who travelled to Syria and Iraq to support an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, when it established its “true Islamic State” in 2014. To energise these Islamist militants in support of ISIS- Malay language was used to propagate ISIS agenda and Katibah Nusantara (the South East Asian fighting unit created by their calculated move by bringing together Malay and Indonesian- speaking militants) was created. This strategy of targeting the local audience in their respective regional languages who could not understand Arabic fared better by not only recruiting but also radicalising the populace at large. Furthermore, it is the radical Islamic schools in Indonesia, Malaysia and other South East Asian countries, which have received considerable amount of funds from the Salafi conservative groups. It has helped in making a dent in their overall culture by making it more radical, thereby conducive for the ISIS to exploit. In this context, a report mentions Fred R. von der Mehden stating that the Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (the Indonesian society for the propagation of Islam or DDII) promotes the extreme hard line views in Indonesia and is considered as the Saudi’s channel for the same. Likewise, a string of Islamic radical schools in and around Poso on the island of Sulawesi, Ngruki Islamic boarding school in Indonesia; and Islamic study groups known as usrah in Malaysia have become a soft centre stage for extremist groups including of the ISIS.
Not to mention, ISIS has been supplementing the already existing Islamic radicalism and extremism in South East Asia related to its separatist tendencies predominantly in the southern Philippines, southern Thailand, and communally strained Indonesia. It is also the established and the growing interconnections between Islamist militant groups, their separatist elements and the ISIS contributing to the heightening threats of Islamic militancy in the South East Asian region. For instance, the Muslim extremist groups- Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Maute group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in southern Philippines; and Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD), the largest terrorist group in Indonesia have declared their allegiance to the ISIS. In fact, the ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon was named as the ISIS emir in South East Asia in 2014.

The notoriety of ISIS was noticed in 2015, when it unsuccessfully tried to establish a mini state of its own in Indonesia’s regency of Poso on Julawesi Island. Many are of the opinion that ISIS was staunchly capable of having its transnational influence from 2013-2016 (at its peak), which had ultimately manifolded the recruitment of the Islamist militants across the globe. Thereafter, U.S.-allied forces supported by US airstrikes expelled ISIS from its self-proclaimed Islamic state of Raqqa (Syria) in 2017. Despite such efforts, the ISIS extremist ideology and terrorist activities continued to thrive worldwide. It is alleged that after ISIS lost its territory in the Middle East, it eyed the South East Asian region by pushing its control over the territory to make it as its alternative front for substituting its losses in the Middle East. According to one report, “ISIS has publicly accepted pledges from various groups in the Philippines and has called on followers in Southeast Asia to go to the Philippines if they cannot travel to Syria…Asia, and particularly South East Asia, will likely [also] provide key staging posts for the group.”
It was in mid 2017, ISIS- comprising mostly of the ASG and Maute militants, supported by the BIFF and AKP (Ansar Khilafah Philippines), seized the Marawi city located on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao under the leadership of Isnilon Hapilon. It is not surprising that in Marawi ISIS affiliated militants from other South East Asian nation- states as well as from Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Chechnya were involved. The ISIS in Philippines followed a strategy similar to the ISIS central by capturing a territory followed by a formal declaration of a Waliyah (province). It led to five-month siege by the militants marking open uncontrolled gun-battles on the streets, army targeted by the militant’s sniper fire, and in retaliation military’s air attacks that bulldozed almost the entire city. More than 1000 people lost their lives, and more than 3000 were forced to evacuate the region rendering them homeless, signalling the frightful ISIS presence and its expanding Islamic militant summons.
Nothing deterred ISIS and its affiliates in carrying out ferocious terror attacks in this region. To mention a few brutal terror incidents claimed by the ISIS includes- two suicide bombers blew themselves at the Jakarta Bus station in May 2017; car bomb attack outside a shopping mall in Southern Thailand in May 2017; family of six suicide bombers including children blew attacked three churches in Surabaya in May 2018; sword wielding ISIS militants attacked provincial police headquarters on the island of Sumatra in May 2018; attack on a military checkpoint in a suicide car bombing in Basilan, South Philippines in July 2018; double bomb attack on Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Southern Philippines in January 2019. There is no denial that physical acts of terror have immediate visible devastating effects incurring worldwide condemnation. Similar has been in the case of ISIS. However, one cannot overlook the ISIS threat posed by their contribution in sowing militant ideology and increasing radicalisation worldwide. ISIS transcendence and cross cutting of geographical national boundaries has been a result of massive exploitation of the modern technology. Being a dispersed global terror movement, ISIS through the digital and social media platforms has stimulated the visualisation of the “Caliphate”, invigorating radical, Islamic communities, solitary radicalised individuals, and sleeper cells by carrying out “online jihad” in SEA as well.
In a nutshell, the presence of the ISIS threat in the SEA region is more than just the presence of its ISIS leaders or its affiliates. It is the trans-regional and glocal nature of the ISIS, carrying out terrorist activities in the name of promoting “jihad,” which has brought various militant networks in an interconnected web across the world. The sharing of the similar ideological moorings has brought forth the memories of the Afghan-Soviet conflict. Learning from the past, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, militants from South East Asia and other parts of the world went to Pakistan to get training along with other “holy warriors” to wage “jihad” against the Soviets. Thereafter, they fought in Kashmir by supporting Pakistan supported anti-India militant outfit- Lashkar-e-Taiba. Likewise, the likelihood of militants and their established network in Pakistan (state sponsoring terrorism in the next-door region) to collaborate with Islamist militants from South East Asia and ISIS at large cannot be ignored. It is the “ideological affinity” between various militant groups sharing the “true” Islamic cause, which underlines the transnational and cross regional nature of radicalisation and the terror threat posed by the ISIS and often in collaboration with militant groups present both in the South (particularly in Pakistan) and SEA region along with other foreign fighters. Such an existing state of affairs has made the SEA region a theatre of terrorism.