ISIS in South and Southeast Asia

ISIS in South and Southeast Asia

Unmasking the underground version of the terrorist group and its vulnerable regional targets

Dr. Namrata Goswami

The literature on terrorism, insurgency and information warfare indicates that terrorists and insurgent groups that use violence for political ends usually base their movements on popular support, legitimacy, ideology and local grievances.

This is true of terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that highlight Muslim grievances to justify their use of violence. They claim to represent those marginalized groups and fight for their redemption and dignity.

While a majority of Muslims rejects these apocalyptic self-styled groups that claim to represent Muslims, there is a target audience that has proved susceptible. The key is to find out who this minority audience is that supports this kind of violence and work toward limiting their influence by connecting the silent, “usually neutral” majority with this minority audience that visibly opposes these terror groups and their activities, especially in areas where they have established presence.

A Muslim woman releases a dove as a symbol of peace during a rally against ISIS in Jakarta, Indonesia. The banner reads: “ISIS is not Islam’s voice. Stop killing journalist.” THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Usually, this requires security guarantees from counterterrorism forces because people living in conflict areas are motivated by self-preservation and suffer from high stress. The primary goal of terrorist groups such as ISIS is to undermine the legitimacy of the state, promote disorder and establish control over the target population in the short term to meet their long-term goals of establishing their own state structure. ISIS has adopted a strategy to coerce, persuade and intimidate the population to support its political causes. ISIS is operationalized by running parallel governments, visibly broadcasting its presence and threatening the population via its armed presence with dire consequences if support is not enlisted.

ISIS framed its movement within well-known apocalyptic Islamic literature of end times and portrayed the idea of its caliphate as offering the space where the Messiah or Mahdi will emerge. To this end, ISIS captured strategically inconsequential towns, such as Dabiq in Syria, which it cites in apocalyptic literature as the site where “Western crusaders” will be defeated.

The rapid takeover of territory by ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014, its secretive organizational structure and its goal of establishing a Sharia-based state and caliphate, marked the entry of a new type of territorially oriented terror group, one that was heavily influenced by al-Qaida in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in terms of tactics and visible demonstrations of violence, including the beheading of foreigners on video. ISIS went on to develop a propaganda strategy that streamed its videos and speeches to millions.

Unlike al-Qaida, which had a long-term goal of targeting the West, ISIS aimed to take on a more near-term enemy — namely, the Shias and those who did not adhere to ISIS’ interpretation of Islam. Also unlike
al-Qaida, which broadcast its audio and videotapes through networks like Al-Jazeera, ISIS produced its own films, short documentaries and audio narratives of what an Islamic state should look like and then used social media to disseminate its videos and imagery.

ISIS has used its online presence to reach out to Muslims across the world, especially from the West, by calling them a “chosen few from distant lands” and cleverly using British or Canadian Muslims to describe life in the caliphate as normal, prosperous and a religious paradise. In one of the videos, a Canadian ISIS member describes how he enjoyed a normal life in Canada, earning good money and enjoying a good life, when the call of the caliphate, a religious obligation for all true Muslims, landed on his doorstep in the form of a laptop.

Members of Indonesia’s counterterrorism squad Special Detachment 88 escort radical cleric and ISIS recruiter Aman Abdurrahman to his court trial in Jakarta, Indonesia, in May 2018. He was sentenced to death in June 2018 for inciting five deadly attacks in the country. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Using Canadian or British English, such videos are aimed at susceptible Muslim youth in the West. The impact has been felt with several youths, mainly in the
16-to-35 age group, traveling to the caliphate. ISIS locates its discourse in a heady mix of sectarianism, apocalyptic narrative, longing for a caliph, or chief ruler, and an attention to spreading their propaganda beyond Arab-speaking populations. ISIS magazines, videos and audio broadcasts are available in several languages and are easily accessible.

The designs are slick and cater to the millennials’ sense of internet savviness. Significantly, ISIS leadership is mostly drawn from Iraq, the seat of Sunni grievance, to include Saddam Hussein-era military officers at the level of colonel and above. What this implies is that ISIS brings to the table years of military training, survival tactics, local networks and the experience that these officers gained while sustaining Saddam’s authoritarian regime. The fusion of intoxicating religiosity, heavily based on the life and sayings of the prophet, social media campaigns, Quranic recitation, ancestry, ethnicity and military culture all fused together to deliver to ISIS the quick success it enjoyed when it rolled into Syria and Iraq. The civil war in Syria only helped matters for ISIS, especially when coupled with the Bashar al-Assad regime’s own focus on ensuring that it does not become another victim of regime change in the Middle East, as was the fate of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Moreover, while al-Qaida has established subgroups for different territories, it has not established a caliphate. ISIS established a caliphate and then released a map in which it identified territories, including Bangladesh, Burma, India and Indonesia, to which it aimed to expand its presence and domain. Toward this end, ISIS utilized the idea of Khorasan, historically viewed as the golden age of Islam. This belief is based on the hadith in Sunan at-Tirmidhi that black banners will rise from Khorasan and spread to Mecca and Jerusalem, cities with deep-seated religious significance in Islam. ISIS envisions an end-times battle in India (Ghazwa-e-Hind) between true believers and unbelievers.

In mid-March 2019, a U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian fighters announced that ISIS had lost the last section of territory in Syria it controlled, “bringing a formal end to the ‘caliphate’ it proclaimed in 2014,” the BBC reported.

There are concerns, however, that ISIS will aim to expand to Afghanistan, and then through its Khorasan province into South and Southeast Asia. This is based on its “remaining and expanding” goals.

Bangladesh police stand guard in late December 2016 after cordoning off a building where suspected militants are hiding in Dhaka, Bangladesh. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Stated Targets

ISIS wants to spread physically to Bangladesh, Burma, India and Indonesia. In recent years, violent attacks have been registered against secular bloggers and foreigners with ISIS claiming responsibility specifically for those targeting foreigners. ISIS lists Bangladesh in “The Revival of Jihad in Bengal” manifesto and warns that it will use Bangladesh as a base for further expansion into Burma and India. The rising intolerance in the country, including the growing political chasm between the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party over the targeting of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) leaders in a criminal investigation by the AL government, creates a vicious atmosphere of division and hate. Organizations such as Islami Chhatra Shibir, whose goal is to establish Sharia in Bangladesh, have been accused of instigating violence against secular bloggers. The matter gets further complicated by the fact that while the Bangladesh Constitution includes secularism as one of its principles, its state religion is Islam.


Both ISIS and al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent aim to spread to Bangladesh, taking advantage of divisions within the country. The Bangladesh government denies the existence of ISIS within its territory and blames local terror groups for the growing violence. The weak state presence in rural areas of Bangladesh could provide some ground for ISIS’ upstate presence. Areas of vulnerability could be Rohingya refugee camps, as well as the Cox’s Bazar area, infamous for its illegal small-arms factories and as a conduit for the flow of illegal small arms, given its proximity to the Golden Triangle where the borders
of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet.

The U.S. and Bangladesh issued a joint statement in 2016 that identified the shared threat posed by ISIS and al-Qaida. Bangladesh is also a participant in the U.S. Counterterrorism Partnership Fund. U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and Bangladesh could work within that framework to share intelligence. Of special relevance is ISIS’ use of apps such as Viber, WeChat and WhatsApp to share its ideology and recruit volunteers. Bangladesh lacks a skilled regulatory system to monitor these activities efficiently. International partnerships can augment this capacity.

A member of Indonesia’s Special Detachment 88 walks past wreckage after an attack, inspired by ISIS on a church in Surabaya in May 2018. REUTERS


Burma has witnessed growing violence against the Rohingyas, part of its majority Buddhist population. Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship despite living in Burma for generations, and most have fled the violence in recent years to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. In the new democratic structure, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has failed to offer representation to this community, rendering them voiceless. Muslims accuse the NLD of compromising with democratic principles, while anti-Muslim sentiments are raked up by Buddhist monks like Asin Wirathu. Both ISIS and al-Qaida noted the Rohingya crisis and pledged to fight on their behalf. The Rohingya Muslims have armed groups such as Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY) and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization claiming to fight for them. HaY has attacked the Tatmadaw and the Border Guard Police, bringing about a counterinsurgency operation that has been accused of massive human rights violations.

There are concerns that Rohingya Muslims could fall for ISIS propaganda and recruitment. This view is strongly countered by Wakar Uddin, director-general of Arakan Rohingya Union, who believes that linking the Rohingya crisis to ISIS is a deliberate attempt to distract international attention from the humanitarian crisis underway. In addition, Rohingya Muslims follow a moderate Sunni Islam and practice Sufism. Puritanically extreme Islam of ISIS holds little appeal. Furthermore, the areas that ISIS aims to spread in Burma harbor strong ethnic armed insurgencies like the Was and Kachins. This will pose a severe threat to an ISIS presence.


ISIS desires to occupy territory in India via Pakistan and Afghanistan, first by establishing bases in these two countries and then adopting a strategy of attrition regarding India. It wants to collaborate with Indian terror groups such as Indian Mujahideen, Ansar ut-Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind and Junud al Khalifa-e-Hind. ISIS cites the 2002 Gujarat riots, the issue of Kashmir and treatment of Muslims in a Hindu majority India as causes for the terror group’s expansion into India. ISIS mocks Indian Muslims for peacefully co-existing with Hindus (kuffar) and tries to instigate them to carry out terror attacks in India. In a May 2016 video, ISIS pledged to fight for Muslims in Assam, Kashmir and Gujarat. ISIS mocked Indian Muslim clerics for standing up to their extreme tactics and designated them infidels. In March 2017, ISIS launched its first terror strike in India, injuring 10 passengers by setting off a bomb on a train. The chapter on India specifies four factors that have limited ISIS’ appeal in India; its representative political structure: its social fabric of diversity that fuses together several cultures and creates societal harmony; the issuance of fatwas (legal decrees) by influential Indian Muslim ulema (scholars) against ISIS; and a web of counterterrorism agencies and special forces that have worked to limit terrorism. Two key areas of vulnerability in India are regions that have a weak state presence as well as the rising tide of Hindu nationalism.


Indonesia views its fight against ISIS in ideological terms, a battle between moderate and radical Islam, with its version of moderate Sunni Islam offering a fitting counter to ISIS. Despite this, ISIS still attempts to spread its presence in Indonesia. ISIS Indonesian leaders such as Bachrumsyah Mennor Usman, Bahrun Naim and Gigih Dewa operated from Iraq and Syria. Bachrumsyah was appointed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as leader of an ISIS Southeast Asia battalion called Katibah Nusantara. However, major Indonesian terror groups, including JI, view ISIS as a rival. Moreover, Indonesian civil society organizations, such as Nahdlatul Ulama and the Brotherhood Forum of Indonesian Council of Religious Scholars, have rejected ISIS ideology and instead preach an Islam based on pluralism, tolerance and socioeconomic development. Indonesian political institutions are based on democratic values, and Muslims are well represented. Former Indonesian presidents such as Abdurrahman Wahid played an instrumental role in accepting the country’s diversity as part of Pancasila principles of peaceful coexistence.

Special counterterrorism units such as Special Detachment 88 have succeeded in thwarting ISIS-inspired plots. The unit has benefited from assistance from the U.S. and Australia for training and intelligence sharing. It is critical to persistently counter ISIS messaging in the cyber domain, given that it is perhaps the most advanced cyber-battlefield messaging adversary. With battlefield losses, especially in its declared caliphate, ISIS is losing its seeming power of invincibility that attracted thousands of foreign recruits. This message should be sent to the target audience by U.S. regional partners in the Middle East through online platforms in regional languages. It is perhaps important to know who are hard-core ISIS fighters and who are fair-weather patriots in order to intelligibly decide direct operational action against the hard-core.

Hacking into accounts of ISIS sympathizers can reveal effective intelligence. Moreover, the role of women in ISIS, mostly depicted based on gender roles within Islam and affected by personal feelings, is highly exaggerated. More often than not, women join ISIS for the same reasons men do: agreement with its ideological doctrines, a shared sense of identity, and in reaction to perceived or real discrimination against fellow Muslims.

Recommended Counter Strategy

Through the cyber domain, ISIS now transcends borders like al-Qaida. Eradicating the ISIS threat requires a five-pronged strategy. First, it requires a ground-based military effort that eradicates its bases, thereby activating an area denial strategy. ISIS’ core appeals are its territory and the caliphate; deny those and ISIS loses much of its appeal. This area denial strategy will have to consist of simultaneous military response and enhanced civilian governance: establishing a state structure where Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, believe they are adequately represented. This aspect is particularly significant, given ISIS’ loss of territory to an international coalition in recent months.

Terror groups that are weakened tend to lie low, merge into the civilian population and then regroup at a later date. Consequently, it is imperative for USSOCOM along with partner nations to help improve partner capacity in governance.

Second, it is critical to publicly question ISIS’ interpretation of Islam by utilizing the Quran. Indonesian and Indian Muslim elders have effectively activated such a strategy and it has had a social impact, especially in countering ISIS social media strategy. This could form part of “countering the messenger” strategy as part of USSOCOM-partner nations collaboration, either bilaterally or through a multilateral forum.

Third, broadcast the internal divisions within ISIS and expose the poor conditions when it governed. It’s critical to expose the so-called paradise for what it is. In this, ISIS defectors play a critical role because their stories have greater credibility than a campaign run by USSOCOM.

Fourth, connect the counterterrorism efforts against ISIS into a single grid. The battle to defeat ISIS took so long due to the mixed purposes and fractious relationships of those who were fighting against it. For example, the Turkish military and the Kurdish peshmerga did not get along, the Russians attacked Syrian rebel forces that fought ISIS, and there were divisions and much misinformation in rebel camps. It’s a complex battlefield and greater effort will help future counterterrorism efforts. Counterterrorism cooperation — including joint training efforts, intelligence assessments and strategic planning, especially with those countries identified by ISIS as future areas of operation — will help thwart any capability ISIS develops in establishing terror networks.

A goal of USSOCOM is to analyze and successfully respond to ISIS’ attempts to spread terror across borders. Within the domain of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, understanding the manner in which ISIS creates networks in countries outside of its caliphate in Iraq and Syria offers useful insights not only to break those networks but also to create awareness in the U.S. of similar ISIS efforts. ISIS utilizes the same strategy in the West, where it aims to motivate Western citizens to join the caliphate and then carry out attacks in its name in their countries of origin, as it does in India. The more ISIS loses territory in Iraq and Syria, the more likely it is that the group will quickly draw upon this sort of nonstate strategy. It is therefore critical to be prepared because that metamorphosis is bound to happen sooner than later. 

FORUM excerpted this article from “ISIS 2.0: South and Southeast Asia Opportunities and Vulnerabilities” by Namrata Goswami with contributions from Robert A. Norton and Greg S. Weaver, originally published in Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) Report 18-6 in 2018 by the JSOU Press and edited to fit FORUM’s format. Please access: