Much has been written about the possible destinations of battle-hardened Daesh (ISIS)* fighters and their families now that their self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq has been eliminated. European countries including France, the UK, and Germany, fearful of fighters’ return to Europe, have proposed the creation of an international court in Iraq to try suspected members of the terrorist group. Russia, meanwhile, had made clear at the very outset of its operation in Syria in 2015 that one of its main goals was to destroy the terrorists abroad so that it wouldn’t have to face them at home.
But what of the terrorists’ other potential destinations?
Earlier this week, speaking at a security forum in Beijing, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu warned that amid Ankara’s military operation in northern Syria, which began earlier this month before being halted thanks a Russian-Turkish memorandum, a dozen prisons containing foreign militants had been left unguarded by Kurdish forces, leading to the danger of their escape and what Shoigu said could become “a surge of so-called reverse migration of terrorists back to their homeland.”
The Russian defence minister warned that Daesh has “greatly expanded” its presence in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years, and named the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand as areas where the defeated militants may attempt to rebuild their “caliphate.” According to Shoigu, while terrorism did not pose a threat to Southeast Asia just a few years ago, the situation has now changed.
- Indonesian authorities and media have estimated that as many as “thousands” of Daesh fighters and sympathisers from Indonesia may have traveled to Syria and Iraq starting in 2014, with Jakarta recently debating taking some of its nationals back home before finally deciding that hundreds of captured ex-fighters may be allowed to return, on the condition that they renounce their radical ideology, and following investigations into their activities in the Middle East.
- As the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia is no stranger to Daesh extremism. In January 2016, a terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Jakarta led to the deaths of 8 people, including 4 attackers, with 23 others injured. Since then, the country has faced several more attacks, including a deadly May 2017 attack at a Jakarta bus station which killed three policemen and injured 11 others. In May 2018, three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, were hit in a coordinated gun and bomb attack, leaving 28 people dead (including 13 attackers) and 57 others injured. The attack was carried out by the so-called ‘Jamaah Ansharut Daulah’, Daesh’s local affiliate.
- In the wake of the attacks and the threat of extremism, Jakarta has cracked down on Daesh, arresting hundreds of would-be militants and sympathisers, preventing dozens of terrorist attacks, raiding makeshift depos packed with weapons and ammunition, and waging a media campaign to counter the terrorists' propaganda and recruitment efforts.
- Malaysia, Indonesia’s northern neighbour, has faced its own problems with Daesh. In June 2016, two attackers threw a grenade into a bar in Kuala Lumpur, injuring 8. The attackers fled the scene, but were later apprehended, and confessed their allegiance to Daesh.
- In July 2018, Malaysian authorities cracked down on Daesh in a major dragnet operation spanning across five of the country’s states, arresting four Malaysians and three Indonesians, with the suspects accused of threatening to assassinate senior officials, including the country’s king, Sultan Mahathir Mohamad, and of planning attacks across Southeast Asia, as well as donating money to Daesh. Last month, Malaysia arrested 16 more suspected Daesh militants, some of them again said to have been planning attacks on politicians as well as Malaysia’s non-Muslim community.
- In 2015, it was estimated that up to 200 Malaysian Muslims had joined Daesh, with some of them said to have traveled to the Middle East.
- As in Indonesia, Malaysian authorities have waged an aggressive counterpropaganda war against the terrorist group, focusing on youth in schools and universities, with a special media agency run by the ministry of internal affairs, national security council, police, the anti-extremist Institute of Islamic Understanding and the Institute for Islamic Strategic Studies working to counter Daesh’s recruitment efforts.
- The island city-state of Singapore has waged a fight against Daesh for nearly five years, joining the US-led anti-Daesh coalition in late 2014, and regional media regularly reporting on the detention, jailing or deportation of Daesh sympathisers, with both locals and guest workers among them. Between 2015 and 2019, at least 19 radicalised foreign domestic workers were detected acting in the country, although none of them were convicted of plans to carry out violent attacks.
- Officially, Thai authorities have never recognized that a branch of Daesh was active in the kingdom. However, several other Islamist extremist groups operate in the country, and have waged a decades-long insurgency in the southern part of the country which has claimed the lives of over 6,700 people between 2004 and 2017.
- It’s estimated that several dozen Thai nationals fought for Daesh in Syria and Iraq. In April 2018, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan warned that the terrorist group could try to infiltrate Thailand. In 2015, Russia’s FSB warned Thai authorities that ten fighters from the ‘caliphate’ had been sent to the kingdom and were planning a series of attacks.
- If in most of the above countries the fight against Daesh has been limited to preventing terror attacks and arresting sympathisers, in the Philippines it has included regular military clashes, with over 1,680 fighters, over 240 personnel from the Philippine military, national police and special forces, and over 165 civilians killed in fighting over the past several years. The group’s operations are carried out by local extremist groups who have pledged alliance to Daesh, and in addition to guerilla-style clashes, these groups have conducted major terrorist attacks, most recently the January 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombings in the country’s southwest, during which nearly two dozen people were killed, and 102 injured in attacks targeting the island state’s Christian community.
- In early 2016, militants in the southern Philippines announced the formation of a new Daesh branch on the island of Mindanao, and have a series of major attacks since then. In May 2017, the terrorists actually seized part of the city of Marawi, engaging in an urban campaign with police and the military until October of that year, with over 1.1 million civilians displaced, and during which nearly 1,000 terrorist fighters, over 160 Philippino soldiers, and 87 civilians were killed.
* A terrorist group outlawed in Russia and many other countries.