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Why are Southeast Asians lured to fight for the Islamic State?

Bilveer Singh, Dept of Political Science, National University of Singapore; Research Fellow, Dept of International Relations, Australian National University and formerly, Visiting Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), India
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  • June 29, 2015

    The role of Southeast Asians in global jihad is not new. Many from the region joined mujahideen to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, especially in the period 1985 to 1989. Later, when Al Qaeda was established, many of these fighters supported Osama bin Laden’s outfit, with the Jemaah Islamiyyah becoming Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliate. Jemaah Islamiyyah was Southeast Asia’s first terrorist group. Historically too, the magnetic pull of the Middle East – the historical source of Islam and epicentre of the Sunni Islamic religion in Mecca and Madinah – have always attracted Muslim Indonesians and Malaysians to influences from that region. Indonesia is not only the largest Muslim nation in Southeast Asia but in the world, while Malaysia is the second largest Muslim nation in the region.

    The Islamic State and Southeast Asia

    There is no denying that Indonesians and Malaysians form part of the coterie of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq today. While they form a small percentage of the more than 30,000 foreign fighters, their presence is nevertheless significant from the Southeast Asian perspective. It is reminiscent of the participation by Southeast Asians in the Afghan jihad earlier and the region consequently falling within the Al Qaeda terrorist paradigm. For some 25 years between 1985 and 2010, regional security was threatened by a series of terrorist attacks, actual or aborted, in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Singapore. Today, the region seems to have seamlessly progressed into the Islamic State’s paradigm. There are many continuities from the past, partly since the Islamic State itself is the ‘son’ of Al Qaeda.

    Southeast Asians’ Presence in the Islamic State

    Indonesian sources have identified nearly 800 jihadists who are fighting in Iraq and Syria either for the Islamic State or the Jahbat al-Nusra. Officially, in March 2015, the Indonesian National Counter Terrorism Agency announced that more than 500 Indonesians were fighting for the Islamic State. In the same month, Indonesia’s leading recruiter for the Islamic State and the former leader of the Islamic State in Indonesia, Chep Hermawan, admitted that he was aware of a large number of Indonesians, numbering probably around 750, fighting for the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. Malaysian sources have admitted the presence of more than 200 fighters in Iraq and Syria. It is also known that Malaysians formed the largest known contingency from Southeast Asia between 2010 and 2013. But now Indonesians form the largest group of foreign fighters from the region. In addition, there are some Thais, Filipinos, Singaporeans and now, probably, Rohingyas, supporting the Islamic State.

    Even though the Indonesian contingent is relatively small compared to that from the West and Arab countries, its size and experience would still pose a serious threat, especially for Indonesia. There is a sense of déjà vu; Indonesians led the mujahidin struggle from Southeast Asia in Afghanistan and the returnees, forming the leadership of Jemaah Islamiyyah, threatened the security of ASEAN for the next 25 years. Today, many of these pro-Al Qaeda supporters have switched allegiance to the Islamic State, best epitomised by the support extended to the Islamic State by radical ideologues such as Abu Bakar Basyir and Aman Abdurrahman. The question is: has the Islamic State become more dangerous than Al Qaeda for Southeast Asia? More importantly, why are Indonesian and Malaysian jihadists fighting for the Islamic State and the pro-Al Qaeda Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria?

    Triggers for Southeast Asians’ Support for the Islamic State

    There are different triggers for different individuals to travel and fight in Iraq and Syria, depending on whether they are from established extremist groups such as Jemmah Islamiyyah or Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, or from radical Islamic boarding schools such as Al Mukmin in Ngruki, Solo, or those radicalised through the internet and social media. While this is largely true of Indonesia, in the case of Malaysia, similarly many former active radicals with links to the Jemaah Islamiyyah or to local jihadi outfits such as the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia are also engaged in pro-Islamic State activities. Support for the Islamic State has intensified in the Southeast Asian Malay World with the establishment of a Malay-speaking combat unit in Iraq and Syria called the Khatibah Nusantara (Combat Unit for the Malay-speaking Archipelago). Again, this harks back to the Southeast Asians’ experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s when a similar unit called the Al Ghubara was set up to facilitate communications, coordination and recruitment of fighters from the Malay-speaking world of Indonesia, Malaysia, Southern Thailand, Southern Philippines, Brunei and Singapore. In this regard, a number of triggers for Southeast Asians’ support for the Islamic State can be identified.

    Ideology and Religion

    The ideological pull of working for a common cause in furthering Islam’s goal is definitely an important factor. Further, the declaration of an Islamic State, specifically a Caliphate, is a powerful attraction. The prediction of the Prophet in Islamic eschatology, that the ultimate battle of Mankind will take place in Al Shaam, presently encompassing Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, is also a major pull. There are also some who are mesmerised by the idea of living in Darul Islam (Abode of Peace), an Islamic State that has been actualised under Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi. One must also remember that Indonesian jihadists did declare Indonesia as an Islamic State in 1948 under the leadership of Kartosuwiryo and that this was nullified by the Indonesian Army only after a 14-year low-intensity war.

    While there may be religious and ideological underpinnings, social bonds among youths, where individuals move as a group, have also accounted for the movement of many from Indonesia and Malaysia to the battle fields of Iraq and Syria. Many have also been motivated by short term financial gains, especially so in the case of unemployed youths in Indonesia. For some, the factor of thrill and adventure, especially of bearing arms and even killing the ‘enemies’ of Islam have been an important pull factor.

    Identity Crisis

    For many young people, especially marginalised youths, the quest for a sense of belonging, purpose and identity is a psychological factor that needs to be considered. Under the influence of radical clerics and ideologues such as Aman Abdurrahman, many youths have been inspired by the call to destroy the enemies of the Muslim Ummah. They believe that they are the ‘good’ that is fighting ‘evil’, the enemies of Islam. They are imbued with simplistic Manichean thinking of the enemy, especially Shias, thereby ‘dehumanising’ them, with no moral qualms about killing them. As many of these ideologues have sworn bai’at (allegiance) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, their followers have joined the struggle in Iraq and Syria. Those opposed to the Islamic State have supported Jabhat al-Nusra even though support for the former is much greater. Interestingly, even though the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra are sworn enemies, they share the common goal of unseating President Assad from power in Syria.


    This has been exacerbated by the belief that there is a need to respond to atrocities committed by the Assad regime against Sunnis, something played up by various Indonesian and Malaysian media outlets, radical websites and social media posts, intensifying the Sunni-Shia divide. That Indonesia and Malaysia are essentially Sunni majority states with the radical and hard line narratives gaining dominance and minorities such as Ahmadiyyahs (in Indonesia) and even Shias being targeted have only worsened the anti-Shia sentiments in these two countries. Here, both governments, in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, also share the blame as they have also promoted the anti-Shia rhetoric and policy through their non-recognition of the Shia religion and practices.


    Additional factors motivating Indonesian and Malaysian fighters include the desire to achieve afterlife goals, the power of the social media and the inspiration provided by returnees who had fought in Syria and Iraq. The need to acquire combat experience, weapons’ skills and network internationally is also a powerful factor for the hijrah (strategic migration) to Syria and Iraq. It has been justified on humanitarian grounds as well – to assist the Islamist resistance against the Shia onslaught driven by the governments of Iran, Syria and Iraq. The ease of travel and access to Iraq and Syria, with networks based in the conflict zone, has also enabled many fighters to join the struggle. Competition among radical groups in Indonesia, especially with Jamaah Ansharut Daulah supporting the Islamic State and Jamaah Ansharusy Syariah supporting Jabhat al-Nusra, has only intensified the struggle to gain more recruits for the respective fighting forces in Syria and Iraq.

    ‘Far Enemy’

    The fact that radical ideologues are promoting attacks against the ‘far enemy’ and not the ‘near enemy’ at home is also a factor that has persuaded many Indonesians, and probably Malaysians as well, to partake in what is viewed as a legitimate struggle in Iraq and Syria. This is also in part due to the success of the counter-terrorism policies of Indonesia and Malaysia, which has led many jihadists to prefer to take their struggle abroad rather than engage in a struggle at home. In a March 2015 interview, Chep Hermawan admitted that leading Indonesian radical clerics reached a consensus that undertaking bombings in Indonesia would hurt more innocent Muslims than their enemies and hence it was prudent to channel the jihad abroad in Syria and Iraq (the far enemy), at least for the time being. Presently, it is not illegal for Indonesians (as was in the past for Malaysians) to join foreign militant groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, and until this is criminalised, the jihadi flow is unlikely to cease from Indonesia. For many Indonesian radicals, this struggle is seen as a sacred religious duty of becoming a mujahid and even if one dies, the grand prize is martyrdom.


    The full implication of more than 750 Indonesians, 200 Malaysians and other Southeast Asian jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq remains to be seen. With powerful motivation stemming from religion, ideology and a sense of eternal persecution, this problem is unlikely to disappear soon, even if the Islamic State were to be defeated in the near future. If the experience of the Afghan–trained mujahids is anything to go by, the threat posed by the returnees from Syria and Iraq has the potential to be far more lethal especially since the numbers involved are much higher, they would have been heavily fortified with radical ideology, strongly networked and gained invaluable battle-ground experience as well as handling of sophisticated weapon systems. While the lure to fight in Iraq and Syria has been strong, the consequence for Southeast Asia of the jihadists’ participation, and especially the ideological and combat training they receive, is likely to be very serious.

    Bilveer Singh is currently a Visiting Fellow at the IDSA. He teaches at the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore, is an Adjunct Senior Fellow, Centre of Excellence for National Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and President, Political Science Association, Singapore.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India