Pushing back the black flag: The critical importance of southeast Asian security in the fight against ISIL

By: Lai Ki Cheng*

Source: The Malaysian Insider

On January 14th 2016, Indonesia experienced its most hard-felt kinetic strike by the Islamic State and the Levant (ISIL, also known as the Daesh militancy) in its capital of Jakarta. The city first experienced explosions from Indonesian ISIL militants followed by a series of firearm engagements. Attacks were coordinated to target both dense civilian populations and police posts in the business district of the city and within close vicinity to a United Nations Office, according to a timeline constructed by the Guardian.[1] At the May-2015 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed the growing importance of monitoring ISIL activities in the region as ‘the threat is no longer over there, it is over here.”[2] He could not be more right. A majority of the region’s population is comprised with those of the Islamic faith and therefore represents a large untapped resource to those supporting and fighting ISIL. Over the last decade, the entire world has witnessed large populations of sympathisers travelling to Syria and Iraq. Since, multiple European and American governments have established countermeasures aimed at interdicting the flow of radicalised Islamists migrating to the Middle East and the exploitation of cyberspace for recruitment and propaganda. Hence, Southeast Asian governments have begun to follow suit, establishing programs to monitor social media, immigration and general counterterrorism activities against ISIL supporters in their own states. Southeast Asia is in the crosshairs, making its national and regional security of paramount importance in the fight against ISIL.

Setting the Stage

The importance of Southeast Asia in deterring ISIL efforts of expansion must be understood. To accomplish this, ISIL-related activity in the region must be identified, namely the countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, who possess high levels of ISIL activity; in comparison to Singapore and the Philippines, who possess lower levels of ISIL activity. Collectively, they form part of the Southeast Asian community that ISIL has recently targeted to gain support for their activities in the Middle East. The following explores each country and examines the varying levels of ISIL activity and the potential causalities.


Over the last decade and since the end of the Second Iraq War, ISIL has been gradually establishing a state – a caliphate – in the Middle East. It has since set its sights on South East Asia, a region full of Muslims and local militias with resentment towards their governments. This was a perceived untapped resource for sympathetic and potentially devote supporters to be recruited to the ISIL cause. Estimated figures of Malaysians who have journeyed to Syria and Iraq to join the jihadist struggle with the Daesh militancy varies from 30 to 150. Those that have returned are spreading and encouraging more Malaysian Muslims to join the group, heightening the level of domestic militancy – 122 people have been detained for possessing a connection to ISIL by 2013.[3] After the attacks in Indonesia, arrests of ISIL suspects have illuminated the intentions to stage an attack in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.[4]

Over the past ten years, Malaysia has experienced varying levels of civil instability with corruption scandals and large scale protests in Kuala Lumpur – potentially degrading the trust of the Malaysian population in their government. Their actions are also made easier due to roughly 60.4% of the population being of the Islamic faith.[5] There might be additional factors involved, but the argument can be made that the civil strife generated through corruption coupled with the majority Islamic population fundamentally provides ISIL with an easy target for radicalisation through manipulation of information and resentment of authority. This is further evident in the identification of Malaysian uniformed personnel who assisted the transporting of Malaysian citizens overseas to train and fight in the Middle East.[6]


Looking further South and home to the largest Muslim population in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has witnessed a varying rate of ISIL supporters travelling overseas while those on the homeland are imprisoned. The two key areas of ISIL or ISIL-related activities in Indonesia can be identified within prisons and through open campaigning. Prisons, often criticised as ‘schools of crime’, have supplied ISIL activists with an entire populace of militants and other communities with resentment against the government who are also ripe for radicalisation through dissemination of propaganda or direct recruiting.[7] Even within maximum-security penitentiaries, inmates have surprisingly large degrees of communication and access to ISIL literature and translations in addition to being able to announce allegiances that would have gained audience from other detainees and the public.

In addition, Indonesia has seen open recruitment efforts for ISIL in Jakarta, through the organisation of mass gatherings where over 2000 Indonesians have expressed support for the cause. Amongst the multiple pro-ISIL groups in Indonesia, the most vocal campaigns were organised by the Indonesian Islamic entity ‘Forum of Islamic Law Activists (FAKSI)’ founded in 2013.[8] The democratic system and earlier ignorance of the Indonesian governmental services did little to stifle the rise of ISIL in the country. The “Achilles heel” of Indonesia would be its multiple militia groups sympathetic towards ISIL and their influence over the locals amongst its rural populations. Groups like the Abu Sayyaf faction (who possesses close ties with al-Qaeda and the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah) have recently pledged allegiance to ISIL. The Mujahideen Indonesia Timor (MIT) – who has pledged allegiance to Santoso (also known as Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi al-Indonesi) – is one of the most active terrorist organisations in Indonesia. According to Chalk, the group fundamentally has become ‘an umbrella movement for militants based in the simmering conflict zones of Poso, Palu and Bima and has been linked to numerous attacks on the police’.[9] The group has also continued to expand the capabilities of ISIL by searching and recruiting individuals with proficiency in information technology to exploit cyber avenues for propaganda and ‘to wage a domestic jihad’.[10]

When discussing the degree of ISIL supporters from Southeast Asia, Indonesian supports formulates a large percentage of them, with over 2,000 Indonesian supporters pledging support to the Daesh militant group. Although accurate numbers might be difficult to obtain, the existing figures does reveal the scale of influence ISIL has exerted over the Indonesian community – mainly the marginalised militia groups targeted by the government.  However, the most critical problems do not reside with those that travel overseas (although still a problem) but rather with those that return and with the potentially radicalised mentality they bring back with them.

Picture1 (1)
Source:The Wall Street Journal (January 16, 2016).


Singapore, probably one of the most pluralistic (multinational) and small nations in the region, has also recently experienced the effects of ISIL propaganda. In May 2015, ‘[a] Singaporean youth has been detained under the Internal Security Act [and] another youth was arrested…for further investigations into the extent of his radicalisation’.[11] Later, after the Jakarta incident, ‘[t[wenty-seven male Bangladeshis working in Singapore have been arrested under the [ISA]’ – the first foreigner-centric jihadist cell identified in the country.[12] Since the arrests, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, Yaacob Ibrahim, urged Singaporeans to be more vigilant against radicalised teachings of ideologies and suspicious activities but ‘not discriminate against foreign workers’.[13] As Prime Minister Lee has mentioned, ‘the threat is here’ and Singapore has been very aware of the ISIL threat. Academic institutions such as the ‘Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis’ program from the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University have conducted extensive research into ISIL and other extremist activities in the region – later called upon in a televised 3-part documentary on Channel News Asia.[14] What is unique about Singapore is the sheer plurality of its community and its position on the international stage on financial, medical, defence, intelligence matters, and law enforcement. Singapore even has a religious rehabilitation centre to de-radicalise youths allegedly converted by ISIL – this is the Khadijah Mosque. Perhaps due to its relatively small size, dense population, community cohesion spurring on an inherent defiant sense of patriotism and ethnic harmony has created an ‘almost’ incorruptible environment for ISIL influences to take root. The Singapore model of establishing community centric deradicalisation centres is something that could be adopted by all countries tackling the ISIL threat, not just its Southeast Asian neighbours.


ISIL activity in the Philippines has been thought to be as extensive as in Malaysia or Indonesia as there has been clear signs of its intentions to cultivate influence in the country through targeting Muslim majority islands in the south. However, despite evidence about recruitment activities targeting Philippine citizens (even through monetary incentives), there remains limited proof of the successfulness of these efforts. In addition, localised Islamic rebel groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have also rejected ISIL activities due to its aggressive and violent methods.

Nonetheless, there are militia groups that have aligned themselves with ISIL. Namely the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. These two rebel organisations have operated in the Philippines over the last two decades but have been heavily hindered in terms of expansion and operational abilities to the extent where fracturing of its infrastructure is a growing possibility. Under constant engagement with localised military forces, it is unlikely these organisations would be sustainable vehicles for ISIL activities. However, the problem again is not the local people but those overseas – ‘as an estimated 2.5 million Filipino expatriates live and work in the Middle East’.[15] An argument could also be made that the size of those Islamic rebel organisations is small, and even smaller within the context of the nation’s religious diversity – Filipinos are predominantly Christians. This does not allow ISIL to conduct influence gathering operations in the country. However, due to the number of Filipinos working not just in the Middle East but also in other countries, should ISIL decide to target those communities, what can be achieved is much more terrifying.

“Bundle of Sticks” Security

The analysis of the various ISIL activities in each Southeast Asian nation has illuminated their strategy for the region. Domestically, ISIL or radicalised Islamic activity targets the minorities and outliers of local communities within the countries and specifically within penitentiaries. The successfulness of this strategy is only realised due to the inadequacy of the local government’s penal and prison services. In addition, the corruption that plagues multiple states within the region (i.e. Malaysia, Cambodia) further degrades the state’s ability to deter ISIL efforts and increases the potential for exploitation through monetary incentives. It has also been evident that ISIL is targeting the religious understanding of locals through militia and detained sympathisers, a technique similar to al-Qaeda when collating homegrown terrorists in the United States. In Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia, the impacts of such tactics are significantly more extensive given the religion demographics of the two nations. The most important point here is that ISIL is targeting the marginalised Muslim population within Southeast Asia. Therefore, domestic security must be enhanced to contribute towards a larger framework of a cohesive international security network – collectively striving towards influence interdiction.

Security studies have proposed the strengthening of national migration, citizenship, and counterterrorism programs and legislations. However, these strategies often would come at the price of potentially alienating Muslim minorities through legal injunctions or social unrest amongst other members of the population. What can be done is a collative effort of all the Southeast Asian states to form a standardised set of counter-radicalisation objectives and a multinational organisation perhaps under the jurisdiction of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In addition, deradicalisation institutions/mosques such as the one in Singapore could be established in each nation and in smaller scales to assist domestic efforts to stemming the rise of radicalised Muslims. Like a ‘bundle of sticks’, Southeast Asian nations must work together to generate a strong cohesive network of intelligence-sharing and counterterrorism operations to suppress the threat. ISIL is targeting the region for the number of potential sympathisers it can convert to refill its ranks lost in Iraq and Syria. It is hence more important now to rally together and protect the region from the Black Flag, pushing back the radicalisation and interdicting ISIL’s human resources strategy. Only by choking its supply of manpower, not only with force but also with compassion and deradicalisation programs like that in Singapore, can we successfully counter this insurgency from the Islamic State.


Formerly an Officer in the Singapore Armed Forces, Cheng holds a Bachelor’s Honors degree in Criminology. He is currently undertaking his MA in Intelligence and International Security at King’s where his academic interests revolve around proxy warfare strategies in the contemporary security theatre, and more broadly in international security and intelligence sectors. Cheng is currently a Series Editor with Strife.

*The views and opinions represented within this piece does not represent that of the Singapore government or its Ministry of Defence but are only the intellectual analysis of the author.




[1] Safi M. & Weaver, M. ‘Jakarta attacks: Islamic State militants claim responsibility – as it happened’, The Guardian, (January 14, 2016).

[2] Rogin, J. ‘Islamic State is Rapdily Expanding in Southeast Asia’, BloombergView, (May 29, 2015).

[3] Chalk, P. ‘Strategy: ISIL in Southeast Asia and Australia’, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, (December 2015).

[4] Ngui, Y. & Fernandez, C. ‘Malaysian Arrests After Jakarta Attack Fuel Fears of Islamic State’s Reach’, The Wall Street Journal, (January 16, 2016).

[5] ‘Malaysia Religion’, GlobalSecurity.org, Available from: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/malaysia/religion.htm, Accessed January 25, 2016.

[6] Chalk, ‘Black Flag’, pp. 11.

[7] Walker, Nigel, “Nozick’s Revenge”, Philosophy, Vol. 70, pp. 581-586, (1995).

[8] Chalk, P. ‘Islamic State goes Global: ISIL Spread in Indonesia’, The National Interests, December 21, 2015.

[9] Chalk, ‘Black Flag’, pp. 13.

[10] Ibid.

[11] ‘Self-radicalised Singaporean youths – one arrested, one detained under ISA’, Channel News Asia, (May 27, 2015).

[12] Kok, L.M. ’27 radicalised Bangladeshis arrested in Singapore under Internal Security Act: MHA’, The Straits Times, (Jan 21, 2016).

[13] Driscoll, S. ‘ISA arrests: Singaporeans must be more vigilant against radical ideologies: Yaacob Ibrahim’, The Straits Times, (Jan 20, 2016).

[14] RSIS, ‘Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis’, Nanyang Tehcnological University. Available from: http://www.rsis.edu.sg/research/icpvtr/ctta/#.VrCX8jbPyu4, Accessed February 2, 2016.

[15] Chalk, ‘Black Flag’, pp. 16

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