East Asia Part of IS’s Grand Strategy for Expansion

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
170925-SEA-gunaratna-620.JPG A soldier moves amid debris inside a building taken by Philippine government forces during fighting with Islamic State-linked militants in the southern city of Marawi, Sept. 14, 2017.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

With its battle space in Iraq and Syria shrinking, the Islamic State (IS) is developing a grand strategy of global expansion.

As part of that strategy, IS’s al-Hayat media center released a propaganda video on Sept. 23 that featured Singaporean Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad urging Muslims to immigrate to East Asia for jihad. The three-minute video, the fourth episode in the “Inside the Caliphate” series, identified Shahdan as “Abu Uqayl.” He rallied fighters in East Asia and called on Muslims elsewhere to join them, if not in East Asia, then in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, West Africa or Libya.

In anticipation of their return from Syria and Iraq, IS fighters are calling for creating bridgeheads in their home countries and regions. As IS creates a capability in the Philippines with a view of targeting Southeast and Northeast Asia, the threat cannot be contained without the collaboration of regional governments.

Unless regional military, law enforcement and national security agencies work together, the threat will grow.

With its decline in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State is focusing on building its provinces in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and the Caucasus. With the creation of the East Asia division in the Philippines and its siege of Marawi, IS plans to deepen its ideological and operational influence in Southeast Asia.

To destabilize the region, IS strategy is to radicalize and militarize Southeast Asians, including Singaporeans. Shahdan, 39, was recruited in the Middle East by IS and serves in Syria today.

Video message

“O mujahideen in East Asia, you have raised the structure of the Khilafah, brought joy to the hearts of the believers, and angered the enemies of Allah. Jazakumullahu khayran [May Allah reward you]. Bear in mind that right now you are grasping very hot coals and marching on the path of the prophets,” Shahdan said in the video.

“And likewise the prophets were tested. So continue upon this path, and sacrifice all that is precious. Show Allah what he loves from you, for he has promised you one of the two great outcomes – victory or shahadah [martyrdom]. So glad tidings to you, O muwahhid [monotheist],” he went on to say.

“And to the believers in the four corners of the world, hijrah [immigration] and jihad will not cease until the hour. For those who fear Allah, he will surely provide them a way, so answer the call of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala [Great and Almighty] and march forth, heavy or light.

“Join the ranks of the mujahidin in East Asia, and inflict black days upon the crusaders. Otherwise, make your way to Sham, Khurasan, Yemen, West Africa, or Libya. By Allah, the fighting there is only beginning to intensify.”

The video in English is designed to reach out to Singaporeans and others in the region who speak the language.

Strategy 3.0

Shahdan’s statement is consistent with IS strategy 3.0. Strategy 1.0 was to create a solid base in the IS heartland of Iraq and Syria and strategy 2.0 is to create provinces (wilayat).

IS strategy 3.0 is to empower like-minded threat groups, existing wilayat and support divisions to spread ideology and enhance operations.

In preparation for strategy 3.0, IS harnesses nationals in theater to recruit from their own homelands and regional neighborhoods. These nationals are called to implement IS’s grand strategy of global expansion. They support regional conflicts by empowering groups, standing up divisions and declaring wilayats to fight their enemies worldwide.

First for Singapore

This is the first time a Singaporean has been featured in IS propaganda. The news should be a warning to the region of future IS intentions.

The propaganda video will not alarm Southeast Asians, but will make them vigilant. It will strengthen the resolve of regional governments to work together to secure the region.

Unlike some leaders in the Middle East, Southeast Asian leaders have taken a firm stand against IS. In addition, home affairs and defense ministers are preparing the intelligence and direct action capabilities needed to contain, isolate and eliminate the IS threat.

IS is expanding in regions with significant Muslim populations. Its strategy always has been to use locals to recruit locals and dupe them into joining.

The nationals who have traveled to theater are persuaded to reach out to others in their countries with the intention of facilitating their travel to conflict zones to fight or precipitate attacks at home.

Singapore is a prized target of both IS- and al-Qaeda-centric terrorists. Nonetheless Singaporeans are raised to treasure harmony and are resilient to IS propaganda, so the message has no wide appeal.

Singaporeans value moderation, toleration and coexistence. Having understood the harm IS has caused elsewhere, Singapore’s government and community leaders, especially Muslim leaders, have responded decisively to the threat.

Rohan Gunaratna is professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technology University and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.


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