Islamic State fighters heading home: Is Southeast Asia ready?

(CNA) – Roughly 1,000 Southeast Asians joined the conflict in Iraq and Syria. With the terrorist group’s military collapse, Insight examines whether they will rise again in their home countries.

It was the largest migration of foreign fighters seen in history.

Today, with the defeat of the Islamic State group, some experts believe that one of the biggest threats the world is facing is the return of the fighters.

Of the 41,000 people believed to have travelled to join the self-declared caliphate, an estimated 1,000 people were from Southeast Asia, some of whom have already returned to plot attacks in their home countries.

“If you see the fall of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and say that we’re going to enter a peacetime period, (you’d be) wrong,” warned Ahmad El-Muhammady, a counter-terrorism analyst at the International Islamic University Malaysia.

People often make the mistake of thinking that once a terrorist organisation has been crushed, “it’s dead”. But its members would spread globally and could remain “hidden from the government radar”.

“We’re going through the hibernation period. We’re going to see another rise,” he told the programme Insight. (Watch the episode here.)

So is the region ready to deal with these returning militants? Will Southeast Asia be a fertile ground for this terror group’s resurrection?


The Islamic State was officially declared defeated in Syria in March, following years of military pressure from a 79-member coalition.

But with the terrorists’ failure in the Middle East, “they’ll come here” — a region with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world — said Mohd Farid Mohd Shahran from the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia.

That the region is emerging as a terrorism hotspot is evidenced in the rise of terror attacks in several countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and also Sri Lanka.

Last year, coordinated bombings in Surabaya killed 28 people (the perpetrators included), in the deadliest Islamic State-linked attacks in Indonesia so far. There were another 12 terrorist attacks last year, and 13 terrorist plots foiled by the Indonesian authorities.

In 2017, an Indonesian returnee killed a policeman in Medan, while in Malaysia, authorities foiled returnees plotting in 2015 to attack police stations and army camps.

Malaysian authorities were reported to have also disrupted four terrorist plots and arrested more than 80 militants last year.

“While the region hasn’t yet seen a tide of ISIS fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, this threat could grow,” highlighted the Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report 2019 by the Home Affairs Ministry.


To deal with possible acts of terror following the rise of the Islamic State, Malaysia has adopted a no-nonsense approach.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015, for example, enables the authorities to detain terror suspects without trial for a period of two years. This has helped the authorities to prevent a terrorist attack from taking place.

The country’s laws also enable the police to arrest individuals for spreading what are deemed to be extremist beliefs.

Last October, seven foreigners and a local were arrested for their links to a religious centre believed to be promoting Salafi jihadism, an ideology associated with Al-Qaeda.

“If the Salafi jihadi teachings that influence some of the Islamic education centres in Malaysia aren’t controlled and the thinking isn’t corrected, it’ll become a threat in the long run,” said Farid.

Some of those religious schools could become centres for these movements, which would “spread like wildfire”.

So far, at least 11 fighters from the Middle East have returned to Malaysia. Records show, however, that more than 40 Malaysian fighters are scattered across the region, unsure if they can or want to come home.

Such returnees, frustrated with their failure to achieve martyrdom with the collapse of the Islamic State, could attempt to continue their mission by staging suicide attacks in their homeland, Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador warned in an interview last month.

Extremism in Malaysia is on the rise in general, pointed out El-Muhammady, “because of the residual of the post-conflict in Syria, the returning foreign fighters and the changes in political dynamics in the country and the region”.


In Indonesia, close to 100 of its nationals have returned, with 500 still stranded in Syria or on the run. Back home, the former terrorist convicts lead rather normal lives; they can work and mix with the general public.

Deradicalisation expert Noor Huda Ismail helps former Islamic State terrorists and supporters to reintegrate into society under the non-governmental organisation Yayasan Prasasti Perdamaian (Institute for International Peace Building).

“Those released terrorists must be given a second chance so that they can be integrated and won’t (go) back to a violent world any more, or recidivism,” he said.

To this end, he works with Pak Ucup, who runs a restaurant where former terrorists are able to work and spend time together.

Ucup, a former terrorist convict himself, holds gatherings often, believing this a good way to ensure that these former terrorists feel less lonely. It also allows him to keep tabs on them.

“If they don’t (make) new friends, they’d go back to their old friends (who) would still advocate violence … and we’d see recidivism,” said Huda. “And then the whole society would pay the price of not having reformed released terrorists.”


In cyberspace, the battle may be harder to fight. While there are laws in place and reformation of terrorists, it is getting increasingly difficult to govern ideologies.

Throughout the region, Islamic State supporters use chat applications like Telegram to share information and connect with like-minded individuals. There is chatter from hundreds of groups in Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

“They no longer depend on instructions (nor) on plans from ISIS leaders in Syria; instead, they plan independently, and they use ISIS as a group to legitimise their fight,” said Malaysia’s anti-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay.

He warned of a new wave of “easily impressionable Muslims” planning attacks following the reappearance in April of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on video to rally supporters.

In a way, the biggest threat to Southeast Asia is not the returning fighters, but rather the “people who never left, who want recognition from ISIS central”, said Sidney Jones, the director of Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

Many governments have cybersecurity measures in place to stop the spread of Islamic State influence. But the Dark Web — where terrorist organisations, drug cartels and other criminals abound — remains relatively unpoliced.

Cybersecurity consultant Kenneth Shak has even come across military and government intelligence on the Dark Web.

“They have all this intel,” he said. “That’s why you don’t see terrorist attacks every single day — because at the back end, they’re busy planning.”

The reality, admitted Huda, is that “there’ll always be bad apples in any society (and) people whom we can’t rehabilitate”. “I can’t save them all,” he said.

“They believe strongly that this is their core identity. And for this kind of people … we need to lock them up forever or monitor them forever. We have to be suspicious of them forever.”