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The ISIL caliphate: Crisis or chimera?

14 Jul The ISIL caliphate: Crisis or chimera?

In the infancy of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, alternately known as ISIS), most would have dismissed its influence on Southeast Asian security as tenuous at best. However, ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s recent declaration of a caliphate on June 27 has raised fears that Southeast Asians could heed its call to arms, catalysing a resurgence of pan-Islamic militancy and extremist spillover to the region. The caliphate adds a new explosive ideological dimension to the conflict, as the al-Qaeda splinter group looks beyond its immediate land-grabbing objectives, setting its eyes on Asia and the rest of the world.

Speaking in Parliament on July 9, Singapore’s deputy prime minister Teo Chee Hean cautioned that the Syrian crisis could impact Singapore’s national security, adding to a cacophony of unsettled voices in the Asia-Pacific, which hosts nearly two-thirds of the world’s Muslim population and has seen no shortage of precedents of transnational terrorism. For Southeast Asians, ISIL’s declaration rang eerily similar to Jemaah Islamiyah’s goal of building a Southeast Asian Islamic state in the early 2000s.

Such anxieties are not without basis: ISIL’s announcement coincides with disquieting news that growing numbers of Asian recruits are joining their ranks, with over 200 Malaysians, Australians, Indonesians and Singaporeans forming some of the current figures and another 200 from Mindanao slated to enlist.

Authorities fear a repeat of the 2002 Bali bombings, warning that radicalised returnee fighters might not only pose a terrorist threat, but also cause a rub-off of militant ethos in their home communities. “The presence of former foreign fighters in our region — whether they originate from Southeast Asia or elsewhere — is a security threat to us,” said DPM Teo, adding that ex-fighters could cause communal mistrust and tension.

Beyond recruitment, ISIL’s caliphate provides an overarching ideological injunction under which Islamists of various factions and nationalities can unite. Jailed Indonesian terrorist leader Abu Bakar Bashir has pledged his support and his network is already financing ISIL’s incursion. The group is also proving disarmingly adept at using social media to capture the imagination of Southeast Asian jihadists: one Malaysian ISIL recruiter, Lofti Ariffin, has nearly 25,000 followers on Facebook.

More rhetoric than revolution

Despite the appearance of support, the caliphate has failed to gain widespread traction in Southeast Asia, with pro-ISIL fanatics representing tiny pockets of Muslim populations. Most see ISIL’s unilateral assumption of leadership as deeply polarising and antithetical to the Islamic ideal. Many remain leery of the group’s track record of extreme brutality and regional Muslim groups have spoken out against it, with one Indonesian community even lobbying to remove a high-profile leader that voiced his support.

ISIL’s ambitions may also be less universal than it claims. John Esposito, professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, suggests that ISIL’s “modern, romantic transnational notion of the caliphate” is overblown rhetoric used to legitimise its actions. Rather than creating a pan-Islamic state, Baghdadi’s ambitions may be limited to the short-term future, a grand attempt at mobilising more fighters and funders to augment ISIL’s campaign in its ultimate domain of operation: Iraq.

At its current stage, ISIL’s caliphate does not seem to be an immediate cause of worry for Southeast Asia. However, it is critical that regional leaders continue to keep an eye on its development. A truly comprehensive approach against ISIL will tackle its ideational predominance as well as ensure its financial suffocation.


Muslims across Asia reject ISIL ‘caliphate’ [Khabar South and Southeast Asia, 12 July 2014]

‘Handful’ of Singaporeans went to Syria to join conflict: DPM Teo [TODAY, 9 July 2014]

ISIS: A Threat Well Beyond the Middle East [The Diplomat, 7 July 2014]

How worried should we be about Al-Baghdadi’s new “Islamic State”?
 [European Council on Foreign Relations, 2 July 2014]

ISIS Declaration Of Islamic Caliphate May Fail To Gain Legitimacy [International Business Times, 30 June 2014]

Southeast Asia Fears Militant Fallout as Mideast Conflict Widens [The Irrawaddy, 26 June 2014]